Friday, May 01, 2009

Super Goat Man by Jonathan Lethem, etc

Barnes & Noble offers 9 free audiobooks here. One of the offerings is Super Goat Man by Jonathan Lethem, which I recently listened to. I've read Lethem's Fortress of Solitude and his essay collection, oh, and some while ago I also read another Lethem novel. Problematic.

There is something alluring about Lethem's work, and something disappointing. In saying disappointing, I mean that he fails to satisfy some expectation that I have. My expectation is not something that an author must fulfill, but I think Lethem gives evidence of what I should expect.

Super Goat Man is probably a novella (I always loved the distinctions: short story, novel, novella, novelette), about 40 minutes long. Lethem reads the story and does so excellently: clear and patient.

Like in FOS, there is a comics undercurrent (or overcurrent). The title character is indeed presented as a comic book hero, albeit one with no evident power or accomplishment. The narrator, as a boy, meets SGM, who lives in a hippie commune near to the narrator in Brooklyn (whence comes Lethem). SGM is a fallen hero, fallen mainly because he just wasn't interesting. He is also presented as an actual comic book character. The narrator's father collects comics and tries to interest the narrator in the genre.

SGM is just a mysterious connection for the narrator. The narrator evinces some dull fascination towards SGM, as likewise the narrator's father. There is intimation that there may have been dalliance between SGM and the narrator's mother. Tempus fugit.

The narrator goes to college and finds that SGM is a professor there. No strong tie occurs but the vague sense of connection and fascination remains. Then occurs the dramatic apex, in which some drunk students climb the clock tower and call out SGM, disgraced superhero, who attempts to save one of them who teetered on the brink, but fails. SGM seems superpowered, tho this remains unclear.

As a lengthy act 5 we are given the facts of the still young narrator's marriage to a student, then meeting SGM in SGM's decrepitude. In this presumably last meeting, it becomes clear that the narrator's wife, before they were married, had had an affair with SGM. And there we are.

I apologize for recounting the narrative, it sounds so plangent. On a sentence level, a level that I think is important, Lethem writes well. His words flow with generative connection. The plot, tho, seems too contrived, loaded.

What gets me, and this came thru when I read FOS, is how the essays reveal Lethem's interests, the seeds of his fiction. The straightforward essays offer a much more compelling sensibility than the contrivance of his novels. SGM raced to a conclusion that was, in iffy fashion, a surprise. The narrator's issues with parents and wife are jarringly turned towards the failed superhero. The end.

I am bothered by how narrative overwhelms the living parts of fiction. One notes that Lethem resides in the narrator, in the interests presented, not to delve into this as autobiographical resource. Okay. Yet reading on, one wants the superheroes to live within the context of the narrative world, instead of being daydreamy adjuncts.

Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann intrigued me simply by the title and whiff of plot. It is about a special world that intersects 'this' one. The story is more mundane than that, finally, tho not fully removed from that initial impression. Lethem's work has that same feeling of reality intersected by fantasy. Lethem's essays, in their straightforward acceptance of the importance of Jack Kirby and comics, etc, betray a greater sense of imaginative marvel than do the novels. Guess what: plot gets in the way.

The novels that I admire are willing to minimize plot. Plot compulsion becomes a muddling agent as the author feels required to stick to the inherited mathematics. I say let the magic begin.