In The Fortress of Solitude, his great white whale of a novel, Jonathan Lethem chases after childhood, neighborhood, and the American leviathan of race relations. In Men and Cartoons, a grab bag of his stories, he paddles a kayak downstream over waters not exactly rapid. Old friends from elementary school reappear in order to deplore the compromises and corruptions of their former classmates. Bygone parents are revealed to have been capable of secret, sexual exultations. Young lovers in a burgled house go to bed with the ghosts of past relationships made visible by a magic spray. Artists, agents, editors, opticians, and a talking sheep named Sylvia Plath negotiate dystopias of gridlock. In “Access Fantasy,” one character lives in his car in a city-wide traffic jam on the wrong side of a One-Way Permeable Barrier.
But the joke’s on Hemingway. According to Lethem, men without women employ comic books to compensate for their absence. When his characters aren’t listening to Frank Zappa and the Talking Heads, or dreaming up scenarios for interactive video games, or hiring out as “advertising robots” at the local Undermall, or destroying the world with air bags made of cabbages, they are thinking about Stan Lee and R. Crumb, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Dr. Doom, and Captain America. If Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, Walt Whitman, and Carl Jung show up in “Super Goat Man,” the most ambitious of these stories, they are really only red herrings or highbrow beards in an epic tale of an Electric Comics superhero from the Sixties who is reduced in the Eighties to teaching a college seminar on “Dissidence and Desire: Marginal Heroics in American Life 1955–1975.”
Mostly, though, the comics mentioned in Men and Cartoons aren’t published by Electric. Or DC, Raw, or Fantagraphic. They bear the brand of Marvel Comics, “which anyone who read them understood weren’t comic at all but deadly, breathtakingly serious. Marvel constructed worlds of splendid complexity, full of chilling, ancient villains and tormented heroes, in richly unfinished story lines.” Lethem’s nerds entered into those complex worlds back in grammar school and junior high, between the ritual humiliations of pubescence. In years to come of pink slips, eviction notices, and deleted icons, of fax machines and vibrators, these Marvel worlds are the vistas in their mediated heads. They see in panels, talk in balloons, and feel in lurid colors. But how can a Columbia professor who plays party games (in “The Vision”), a museum director for acquisitions of drawings and prints (in “Vivian Relf”), or a cartoonist for a free music magazine published by a record store chain (in “Planet Big Zero”) ever be expected to compete with the likes of Vision, the android in the Avengers series who could vary the density of his body from bullet-stopping diamond-hard to blue-smoke phantom fuzzy? Or Black Bolt, the noblest member of a band of outcast mutants known as the Inhumans, whose superpower was speech itself:
The sound of his voice was cataclysmic, an unusable weapon, like an atomic bomb. If Black Bolt ever uttered a syllable the world would crack in two.
In other words: once there were giants, with magical powers, secret identities, Technicolored underwear, and swishy capes. Male adulthood proved to be much less fun than the masked dreams of pop culture had led little boys to believe. Growing up stunted us. The primary emotions and psychic wounds of the Marvel superhero are as drums and trumpets to the disappointed marimba tinkle and sneezy regrets of the fortysomething salaryman. “Perhaps,” says Lethem, “superheroism was a sort of toxin, like a steroid, one with a punitive cost to the body”—but we can’t help feeling that, for him, we traded in the experience of living large (James Dean, Godzilla) for the poignant (a wild pitch, a broken shoe lace) and the ignoble (cowardice, envy: “Bite my crank, Super Goat Man!”—the taunt of two college boys trying to provoke the aging comic book hero to use his superpowers as he climbs a clock tower toward them and the giant paper clip they wave down at him as if it were an “enormous phallus”).
Sad-making. Pop nostalgia clings like a kudzu weed to everyone who ever grew up feeling alien-freaky—i.e., all of us who somehow knew we were born to die uncool. Having posted my sugarbomb boxtop to Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1947, I was the first little boy on my block to own a Lone Ranger atomic bomb ring. I examined the color photo of a mushroom cloud while listening, on the radio, to “Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons.” Such a perfect dorky pathos and this was long before marijuana made everything seem more interesting than it really is.
Even so, from a young writer as clever as they come and as crafty as they get, who skinwalked and shape-changed from Kurt Vonnegut into Saul Bellow before our starry eyes, whose Huckleberry Brooklyn novel brought municipal fiction back from the dead, the whimsies in Men and Cartoons look like arrested development. And The Disappointment Artist, a collection of Lethem’s journalism and reminiscences, seems at first to be more of the same. Whole chapters are devoted to John Ford’s westerns, Philip K. Dick’s science fiction, Star Wars, John Cassavetes, and Stanley Kubrick. Page after page celebrates recording artists such as Chuck Berry, David Bowie, the Beatles, Elvis Costello, Brian Eno, Pink Floyd, and Cheap Trick, and such science fiction writers as Frank Herbert and Jules Verne. And when the loftier likes of Kafka, Borges, and Lem, or Faulkner, Beckett, and Joyce, or Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley, and William Gass are mentioned at all, they will be fingered in brusque passing as “professional Bartlebys.” It’s not as if he’s never met them; they show up in his novels, wearing turtlenecks and trench coats; they hang in his closet. Yet not one is worthy here even of a paragraph.
Do we care that Lethem saw John Ford’s The Searchers twelve times and Star Wars twenty-one, or that his “fever for authenticity” led him to Anthony Newley, or that he still believes the Fantastic Four superheroes were the Rubber Soul and the White Album of comics? (Do you care how many times I have seen The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or what’s going on in my head while I watch Sara Evans sing “Suds in the Bucket” on the country music cable channel?) Is it so unreasonable to want to know more of what he thinks about Julio Cortázar and less of how he feels about Obi-Wan Kenobi? To wish for a few words explaining why he stopped reading Don DeLillo, rather than thousands more on Red Sonja, Howard the Duck, and Marvel’s “existential loners”? And then this, as if Jean Genet instead of Jonathan Lethem were Marveling in the Seventies:
I’m breaking down here. The royal we and the presumptive you aren’t going to cut it. This is a closed circuit, me and the comics which I read and which read me, and the reading of which by one another, me and the comics, I am now attempting to read, or reread. The fact is I’m dealing with a realm of masturbation, of personal arcana. Stan Lee’s rhetoric of community [i.e., of comic book readers] was a weird vibrant lie: every single true believer, every single member of the Make Mine Marvel society or whatever the fuck we were meant to be called, received the comics as a private communion with our own obscure and shameful yearnings, and it was miraculous and pornographic to so much as breathe of it to another boy, let alone be initiated by one more knowing. We and you don’t know a thing about what I felt back then, anymore than I know a thing about what you felt.
The fact is that we do know what he felt back then, and he knows what we felt, and so do you. It’s obvious, blatant, standardized, like the generic reality experienced by the futuristic Oakland detective in his first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music—which is what pop culture does to our obscure and shameful yearnings, which is why it’s helpful to feather your nest and prime your pump by branching out into Bible stories, Greek myths, Grimm fairy tales, Romantic poetry, grand opera, anthropology, psychoanalysis, and maybe even what Lethem calls “the violently solitary and elitist necessities of High Art.” But because he has been at it for a while, because The Disappointment Artist is already his tenth book, he has a surprise sleight-of-mind in store. In an essay on Edward Dahlberg, prince of churls, he tips his hand. Dahlberg’s memoir of his Kansas City childhood, Because I Was Flesh, is “a great book” in “the saddest and simplest way, for Dahlberg has arrayed an armor of rhetoric to fend off his pain, and everywhere the armor proves inadequate.”
And what, exactly, was Flesh saying? It was saying, Lethem explains, “I want my mama.” So does Lethem want his mama, the one who called him “kiddo,” sent him to public school in Brooklyn, steered him toward Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, took him to Star Wars screenings, and worried maybe he was gay; the young woman who, before she gave birth to Lethem, was a Queens College dropout, a barefoot Jewish folksinger, an ear-piercing Greenwich Village beatnik, a draft-counseling campus wife of an avant-garde artist/SDS professor, a pot-smoking hippie matron in favor of open marriage and day care centers, opposed to war, grapes, nuclear power, and Robert Moses. She died at age thirty-six from a brain tumor in 1978, after giving her son a typewriter for his fourteenth birthday, on which the next summer he wrote his first book. He was confined by her counterculture assumptions, which “I both bloomed within, like the windows of a greenhouse, and rattled against, like the jaws of a trap.” Canvassing his own pop culture enthusiasms and obsessions, his furious fandom, he finds evasions, surrogates, anodynes, screens, beards, and a parental figure in the carpet bombing. On the one hand, as a motherless boy,
Growing up in an artist’s family, I seized on comic books and science fiction as a solution to the need to disappoint my father’s expectation that I become an artist like himself. These tastes encompassed my real passions: for art that embraced the vernacular vibrancy of pop music and film, and for fusions of imaginative material with the mundane. But they also served as a beard on my own ambition, a cloak on my reverence for the esteemed artifacts of my parents’ universe.
On the other, he asked too much:
Attempting to burrow and disappear into the admiration of certain works of art, I tried to make such deep and pure identification that my integrity as a human self would become optional, a vestige of my relationship to the art.