Consider this a Lethem primer. In the story collection Men and Cartoons, the Brooklyn writer retraces his steps through shared histories, crimes committed and solved, superheroes, weird science, weirder romance. This is familiar territory, the Empire State Building and Carnegie Deli of Jonathan Lethem’s Gotham. In the most engaging piece, “Vivian Relf,” twentysomething bore Doran Close corners a woman at a party, convinced he knows her. She shares the inclination, but the two can’t establish a common past. After a few more encounters over a few more years, Doran says, “Of course, how could I forget? You’re that girl I don’t know.” He comes to pine for her, he misses her: feelings irreconcilable with the fact that their acquaintance is predicated on literally nothing. She’s the girl who got away who keeps coming back. Though there’s no overt fantasy here, the sense of mysterious design and chaos-theory coincidence evokes as much a sense of otherworldliness as the Marx-by-way-of–Popular Mechanics social philosophy of “Access Fantasy” or the suicidal talking sheep of “The Dystopianist, Thinking of His Rival, Is Interrupted by a Knock on the Door.”
“The Spray” finds a burglarized couple unable to name all of their stolen things. They allow the cops to treat their home with a liquid that reveals salmon-colored specters of what was taken: the television, his cuff links, her vibrator “glowing like a fuel rod.” When the spray is accidentally left behind, she gives him a playful shot of the stuff, revealing the translucent effigy of an ex-girlfriend draped across his front. Here, the book’s sense of loss comes to the fore. The characters of Men and Cartoons need their stories to be told so they can be sure that what they thought happened happened, that who they thought they were, they are.