Tuesday, August 23, 2005

preoccupied with superheroes ... again

But first, a smaller entry in the chain of library haul reports: Fodder for linguistic glee with Kate Burridge's Blooming English (whaddya know? Yesterday was National Punctuation Day in the USA). Two chips off the old Bloch with Last Rites, Volume III in the trilogy called The Selected Stories of Robert Bloch (the publishers Underwood-Miller were also responsible for the 5-pack The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick) and Midnight Pleasures.

And now, dear reader, we come to Jonathan Lethem's new collection of stories Men and Cartoons [more elsewhere here-wise]. The book features some of the motifs I've seen in Lethem's other books (some directly as a reader, some vicariously while browsing articles and reviews). Super Goat Man makes no bones about Lethem's taste for comic books and comic book lore. It's an interesting bent to have for story-telling, and I hope to see more examples of such influenced work (perhaps less overt the next time?). The collection opens with a Carver/Hempel-esque (there might be more direct influences, but these notes are based on what I've read) story called The Vision. The story exploits both a mundane setting and the adoration of comic books in a better way than the more overt Super Goat Man. Access Fantasy mixes social satire (complete with a dystopian view of the future) and an amateur detective to good measure. What stayed with me were the parameters that defined the society: a combination of trailer parks, barriers, and in-your-face advertising with a vengeance. Then there's the O Henry-esque-but-not-quite domestic tale called The Spray, which mixes another element of fantasy into a slice-of-life tale of love and past infidelities. Vivian Relf is a story with an interesting premise: a man meets a woman at a party and both of them are sure that they have met before. Yet they haven't. Repeated encounters only serve to punctuate the man's life. Planet Big Zero tells the tale of two childhood friends who seem to have drifted apart as time went by: one of them is now a writer of a comic strip and the other doesn't seem to have done much with his life. It marks an ebb in the collection, but The Glasses (which begins with the delicious Rows of frames sat on glass shelves, clear lenses reflecting gray light from the Brooklyn avenue. Outside, rain fell. At the door a cardboard box waited for umbrellas.), a delightfully strange tale of a black customer who complains about smudges on his glasses to two duelling arguing opticians. The last story The National Anthem didn't do much for me. A disappointing coda to an otherwise interesting collection.

But wait, the most rewarding story is this oddball nugget called The Dystopianist, Thinking of his Rival, is Interrupted by a Knock on the Door. A very Borges-ian opening The Dystopianist destroyed the world again that morning, before making any phone calls or checking his mail, before even breakfast. He destroyed it by cabbages introduces us to the tale of the Dystopianist, who, in true comic book fashion, finds a rival in a childhood acquaintance, who is now the Dire Utopianist, who has rendered him and his work ineffectual; and then his visions begin to come true. It's a delight that should have closed the book; or perhaps move closer to the end. Such quibbles aside, this is another display of an intriguing imagination fuelled by science fiction, fantasy, and comics.

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