Saturday, May 5, 2012

Men & Cartoons

    Jonathan Lethem's work is hit or miss. When he hits, it's a home run; Fortress of Solitude, Motherless Brooklyn, and back to Gun, With Occasional Music. When he misses, it tends to be a mixed back of admirable effort (As She Climbed Across The Table), half-hearted attempt (Chronic City) and better if he'd sat the bench (You Don't Love Me Yet). So, it's no surprise that a collection of Lethem's short stories would feature the entire spectrum. Which means that I loved it, I liked it, and I hated it.
    For those keeping score at home or trying to decide if it's worth picking up, I'll break down the numbers. Out of 11 stories, including the novella This Shape We're In, I loved 5 (including the novella This Shape We're In), liked 2, thought 2 were ok, and hated 2. For my money, the 5 I loved were worth the price of admission.
    When Lethem hits, it's because he takes a quirky concept (a school chum who used to dress up like Marvel superhero Vision, a tier-two hero turned activist turned professor named Super Goat Man, and some sort of gathering of some sort of somethings that I still don't understand, but still very much enjoyed) and uses it to get to the heart of what makes us human; hopes, fears, triumphs, defeats, headiness and pettiness. The deeper story is a richer story than the quirkier story on the surface, but the latter makes the former possible. Deftly weaving myth and metaphor, Lethem creates the unreal and then makes it real.
    When he misses, it's because he thinks quirky is enough and he is almost always wrong. Occasionally, if the story is short enough, quirky is good for a laugh, that's cute, move on. But after more than a couple of pages, the joke wears thin, the rant grows tired. At least twice, I wished I had just trusted my instincts and skipped ahead.
    Still, if the only parts you read are The Vision, Super Goat Man, and This Shape We're In, it will be well worth your time and well worth the trip to the library or the local bookstore. I recommend the bookstore. I can already tell that I'm going to want to visit these stories again.

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