I hadn't intended to review this book - Men and Cartoons: Stories by Jonathan Lethem - but then, like with so many other things, I got thinking. This was the first thing I'd ever read by Lethem - surely there must be something unique about a person's first introduction to an author? Surely there must be something unique about my introduction to Lethem?
But then, let's not overstate things. Lethem does not redefine me. He is no titan threatening the world with his words.
I am reminded of Pierre Menard who rewrote whole sections of Don Quixote from scratch in the twentieth century. I am not proposing to rewrite Men and Cartoons (after all, I do not believe that I could ever know if I had succeeded or if, rather, all I had completed was a facsimile). My train of thought here is no doubt oblique, but to me at least it makes sense: if Menard can become the sole author, can I not become the sole reader? What follows is a review of Lethem who is defined by his writings. What follows is a review of Men and Cartoons as an explication of its author. What follows doesn't achieve any of these aims, but the aims remain nonetheless as intentions. And so:
Walking on the beach I find a book without a cover and missing its first pages. The title is Men and Cartoons, or at least that is what it reads on the top of every even numbered page. I cannot say whether it is the work of a single author or many writers since the title page is missing, and I cannot find any names outside the stories. I believe with all my heart that it is the work of a single author. It is the easiest solution. I have also considered the possibility that the author's name appears in one of the stories, perhaps as a character, as the anagram of a fictional city, or as the solution to an equation hidden in the title.
To date I have discovered over a dozen riddles hidden between the stories, but I am yet to find any solutions. I expect that there is one answer that solves them all. The stories are listed below. (I find it preferable not to divide them by line breaks or full stops in the hope that when seen in combination a pattern may emerge):
Planet Big Zero
Super Goat Man
The National Anthem
The stories all contain some sense of loss. I expect that to somehow be the key. I have tried to summarize the stories below. Perhaps there is still something that can be found.
Only two stories involve cartoons, or at least, cartoon super-heroes: The Vision and Super Goat Man. In the first of these a boyhood associate who in his school days had claimed to be the (comic) superhero The Vision is re-acquainted when he moves back to the old neighbourhood. There is some nagging need here that remains unmet. The protagonist wishes to know how such a boy can grow up. How does he meet his partner and get a job and make friends and appear normal? There is something voyeuristic about this that makes me sorry I cannot help him. The other story is about a strange hippy-esque Super Goat Man who is again met by a person first as a child, then as a young adult, and then finally as a mature adult. Here too there is something cold and lonely.
If the lesson is in fact loss, then it is a lesson felt most acutely in Vivian Relf and most literally in The Spray. A man meets the eponymous Vivian at a party, and while both recognize each other, neither can recall from where. They say their awkward good-byes and go off to live their lives, bumping into each other at random. The tragedy is not the poignancy of the story. The tragedy is the self-awareness of the hero who can see his life to be poignant and yet finds himself helpless. The Spray sees this lesson actualized as police officers use a spray that reveals (only temporarily) the existence of missing items following a house robbery.
Most of the other the stories fit quite easily into the mold suggested by the above stories: a man grows up and is no longer a child and something unnamed has been lost. An old friend comes to visit in Planet Big Zero, The Dystopianist is a story about a writer who cannot live up to the imagined expectations of an old associate who also writes dystopian stories, and the final story - The National Anthem - is a letter to a friend with whom one has written for years without meeting in person.
Some of the other stories put me at a loss: Access Fantasy is a cyberpunk derivative with human beings that act as advertisers in exchange for access to society and The Glasses tells of two optometrists dealing without prejudice with an obsessive compulsive customer. I have of course wondered whether these outliers could serve as clues for the rest of the stories. I have wondered whether the point of these two stories is the very fact that their characters act without any grand purpose, quagmired instead in their own myopic plots.
If that is truly relevant - if the entire book is an exercise in illustrating our obsessions with defining our own plots and themes and motifs - then this right here is an unintended exercise in irony. I live my life picking up imaginary books off imaginary beaches because I am looking for something I think I have lost.
Those promises we make to ourselves when we are younger, about how we mean to conduct our adult lives, can it be true we break every last one of them? All except for one, I suppose: the promise to judge ourselves by those standards, the promise to remember the child who would be so appalled by compromise, the child who would find jadedness wicked. The National Anthem p158
That final quote it is strange isn't it? It appears in the book Men and Cartoons: Stories by Jonathan Lethem. I know that for a fact. I have read that book and compared it carefully multiple times to the lines quoted above. I am convinced that they are the same. Still, a doubt remains: how can I be sure it is the same sentence?