Neo-fantasist Jonathan Lethemlike fellow writers Michael Chabon and George Saunders and pop artists M. Night Shyamalan and The Flaming Lipshas been at the forefront of a movement that strives to understand contemporary culture, and the human condition, by taking cues from B-movies and comic books. Lethem's stories and novels slide effortlessly between genre conventions and probing naturalism, sometimes using the language of science fiction to describe everyday events, sometimes looking for the everyday truth in fevered pulp concepts. The goal: to explain the point of view of a TV-addicted generation raised by Jim Henson and Norman Lear.
Lethem's second short-story collection, Men And Cartoons, contains a little of the earnest urban angst of his recent bestseller The Fortress Of Solitude and a little of the flipped-over fantasy of his earlier work. Some of the pieces are little more than sketches, like "The Spray," in which a fine mist reveals what's been taken from a couple, including their former lovers. Others are much fuller, like the collection's two mirror-image best stories. In "Super Goat Man," a retired hippie-era superhero keeps popping up in the life of a young academic, stirring up his Generation X resentment of Baby Boomer failures. In "The Vision," a boy who used to pretend to be an obscure Marvel Comics character grows up and moves next door to an old elementary-school acquaintance, rattling his nerves.
The latter two stories share a theme with "Vivian Relf" (in which a man keeps running into the same woman at parties) and "The Dystopianist, Thinking Of His Rival, Is Interrupted By A Knock On The Door," (in which a would-be supervillain laments the subtler evil of a boyhood chum). Lethem's heroes pore over the minutiae of their pasts, trying to connect who they've been with who they've become. The process gets its purest explication in "Planet Big Zero," which reunites a cartoonist with a high-school friend who influenced the cartoonist's absurdist humor. As it turns out, the old friend might simply have been striving for a kind of Zen purity that he expressed as bone-dry comedy. The cartoonist, like most of Lethem's protagonists, is driven to consider the boy he once knew and to look hard at himself, trying to figure out what they both lost, and when.