The Disappointing Artist
d. boon of the Minutemen once wrote/sung the line, “Our band could be your life.” In the case of Jonathan Lethem, you could change “our band” to “a book” when it comes to yours truly. Lethem’s 1996 short-story collection The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye was one of those earth-shattering anthologies that simply didn’t just change the way I thought books were written; it practically leveled the playing field altogether. Devouring Wall, which had been my first exposure to Lethem, was like watching serial killer get away with murder, then watching the guy show you the tools, the nuts and bolts of the craft, as to how he did it. All Lethem did was take two different genres—horror and science fiction, say—then graft them together and put a slightly literary spin on things as frosting. In the end, some of the results were rather lumpy or just didn’t make a whole lot of sense upon first reading, but Lethem’s concoctions were about as fascinating as watching rainbows form inside of parking lot oil slicks. You couldn’t look away despite yourself; it made me want to know what the hell was going on inside this guy’s head.
As it happens, though, somewhere in between the publication of Girl In Landscape (arguably his best book) and Motherless Brooklyn—roughly around the same time I discovered him—Lethem sort of started turning his back on tweaking science fiction. No longer content to be placed near the works of Isaac Asimov on the shelves, let alone be published in the magazine that bears Asimov’s surname, Lethem started to alternately court the McSweeney’s and New Yorker crowds. He also turned his hand towards writing voluminous essays, some of which will be collected into a non-fiction book early next year called The Disappointment Artist, and seemingly began appearing in the gossip columns thanks to his visibility at various literary or art world functions.
Lethem has moved from writing comic book-like narratives to, well, writing intellectual po-mo essays about comics. (One only needs to look as far as his essay in the recently-published Give Our Regards To The Atomsmashers! for proof.) In fact, Lethem is now to be taken as a Serious Artist. Picking up a new Lethem book in 2004 is a different experience than picking one up back in 1998 or 1999. Instead of anticipating Hugo-nominated fiction, you know you’re going to be in for Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction, instead.
However, if you start reading Men and Cartoons, Lethem’s second short story collection, it becomes clear that his latter-day writing hasn’t entirely suffered because of his abandonment of pulp fiction for literary pastures, which would be the usual carp of long-time fans watch their favourite authors explore new stylistic avenues. Men and Cartoons instead marks the continuation of a shift in his writing of late to veer into autobiographical or semi-autobiographical writing, a tendency which culminated in last year’s 500-page, much-hyped but ultimately mushy Fortress of Solitude.
For longtime fans like me, Fortress seemed to read at times like a would-be apology over his mistreatment of certain ex-wives and girlfriends, friends he grew up with in the ‘hood and his own family members—and vice-versa. It was hard to read Fortress without wondering if you already know way too much you really wanted to know about Jonathan Lethem, even though you, as the reader, had been curious as to what make this particular genius tick in the first place. It’s like that old adage, alas: Be careful what you wish for.
This trend towards naval gazing continues in Men and Cartoons, and it’s unfortunate. (I should also point out that the very title is a bit of a misnomer, as only a handful of the stories actually deal with cartoons or comics in a literal way, though men are at the focus of every story here.) Things very quickly take a sour turn beginning right away with the first story, “The Vision”, which might easily rank as the worst thing Lethem has written. It’s a story that sets the tone of what follows—usually (and ironically) stories about people growing up, changing. People who realize their best friends are no long their friends or even lovers anymore. I think.
Like some of Lethem’s shorter and more experimental work, it’s hard to make heads or tales of what’s going on in “The Vision”—which appears to have been an embryonic version of Fortress. The story seems to make something out of the natures of time passing, lost innocence and bad male/female relationships (a Lethem trademark), but gets rather confusing with seemingly tacked-on conjecture about superheroes. Who knows what lurks in the depths of Lethem’s mind? Maybe he’s got something in there about the state of his marriages. After all, his last two ended rather quickly in divorce, and it is rumored that, as of September, he had married Wife No. 3. Completely idle speculation, of course, but its as though Lethem started out trying to confront his relationship demons head-on in “The Vision,” but veered aside at the last minute so nobody could read too heavily into his personal affairs.
“The Vision” only seems to clarify that Lethem’s repressive side is now taking over his writing, as though the things he really wanted to write about relationships that were still so fresh and painful and hurtful that he can’t bear to put it out there under the watchful eyes of the public. Even Lethem has admitted he’s a paranoid writer, but it seems his paranoia is almost now getting the best of him. What’s worse is that Lethem has been mining the bad sex angle for, gosh, six novels now? When he works the angle well, he works it very, very well. But when he doesn’t, as limply and without direction as he does in “The Vision,” it’s, well, a bit like walking in on your favorite uncle masturbating to freaky art-porn.
Thankfully, things take a turn for the better in the collection with the back-to-back publication of two older stories, probably dating from the mid-to-late ‘90s: “Access Fantasy” and “The Spray.” It’s odd to see these stories in this collection, considering that they are an irritating reminder of just how good Lethem really was when he was channeling his neurosis through speculative fiction. “The Spray,” for instance, is about an aerosol spray that policemen use to temporarily recover stolen objects in a home. When left behind at one crime scene, the can is used by a couple who discovers it can be used to bring back their ex-significant others for a day. In eight pages, Lethem captures a snapshot of a relationship built solely on the foundation of two people longing for what’s already lost. In his weirdest moments, Lethem seems to be at his most communicative.
From the great heights of “Access Fantasy” and “The Spray,” the collection veers into hit-and-miss territory. “Vivian Relf” is an entertaining story, but seems like a thematic rewrite of an earlier piece called “Five Fucks.” “Super Goat Man” is interesting, but seems like another outtake from Fortress.
Perhaps Men and Cartoons—and, to an even greater extent, Fortress of Solitude —ultimately illustrates how the more Lethem tries (and fails) to solve the mysteries and riddles surround his own life and upbringing, the more ordinary and transparent his writing appears to become. Not that I, for a second, would implore Lethem to start writing entirely marginal, fantastic fiction all over again for the sake of reliving past glories. It’s just absolutely mind-boggling to watch one of the best living authors in the world seemingly offering up half-assed apologies or would-be explanations about his past, as he does so pervasively in his most recent work. Instead of destroying worlds, as Lethem was wont to do in many of his earlier short stories, he now seems to be saying sorry for even creating them in the first place. What the ____?!
Therein lies the trouble with the relationship between an artist and his reader, I guess. Sometimes, you realize that the artist who once changed your life is no longer speaking about you in the way you thought they once did. Maybe it’s because other literary suitors come along and sweep you off your feet. (Paul Auster, I hear you calling in the distance.) Maybe it’s because people just grow apart for no reason at all. Not to invoke the name Howard Jones in this argument—though I guess I just did—maybe no one ever is to blame. Maybe, just maybe, Men and Cartoons is simply a point of departure, the place where Jonathan Lethem finally fails to beat up his greatest archrival. And to think it was something ripped from the screenplay of Superman III—that telling scene where a bad Superman and good Clark Kent duke it out in a battle of alter egos. Who knew the nerd wouldn’t have it in him yet again, though?