Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Storyville : The Vision

The Vision by Jonathan Lethem
from Men and Cartoons

This is how Lethem begins The Vision:
"I first met the kid known as the Vision at second base, during a kickball game in the P.S. 29 gymnasium, fifth grade."
Straight in, with a vivid and specific sense of time and place established instantly. The easy recollection of a youngish American in a plain, recognisably American idiom.
The story is told in the first person by an intelligent, presumably educated Hipster. Lethem makes references - to comic books, obviously (more on that later) but also to music, which give us the impression that his narrator knows his stuff culturally. When new neighbours move in next door to him, he immediately notices the records in the removals boxes with a geek's judgemental eye: "I spotted Captain Beefheart, Sonny Sharrock, Eugene Chadbourne."

But as the story progresses, we become aware that this narrator is not necessarily all that sympathetic. That he might even be a bit of an asshole. Its there in his responses in conversation and his thoughts, in his sharp decisions and mockery of others - he carries through his life a hint of bitterness that edges every experience and every interaction and makes his wit and taste - for all their careful refinement - a little pitiful, even pathetic. Lethem even drops in a possible explanation with the information that he has recently split with a girlfriend and is likely lonely and hoping to meet another, though we can see that his personality may stand in the way of this (indeed, the story's outcome supports that view). He comments on her "phantom-limb absence" and almost unconsciously sizes up every woman he encounters. This narrator has similarities to other Lethem heroes - the narrator of his semi-autobiographical epic Novel The Fortress of Solitude (2003) sounds not too different in the concluding part of that novel, as a bruised and cynical adult. Only there we have witnessed the difficulties of his childhood and youth; we understand and sympathise with him. Here, we may only be irritated by the Narrator's personality even if we recognise the insecurity beneath the facade.

The plot is recounted by this narrator, who recalls one of his contemporaries from School as a boy who dressed as and claimed to be the Marvel Comics Superhero The Vision. The Vision is an android (or "synthezoid"), originally created as villain, but who has turned his powers to the forces of good and joined the Avengers Superteam, also featuring a revolving cast of most of Marvel's big characters including Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and Hawkeye. He can fly, change the molecular density of his form, and fire radiation from his eyes. But the key to the success of his character is his mournful personality - for an android with little real human emotion, he is afflicted by near-constant angst over his origin (as the tool of a Supervillain) and his status as not quite human. But mainly over his relationship with his wife, Super Heroine the Scarlet Witch. Lethem discusses the appeal of the Vision for him here and unsurprisingly he focuses on the Vision's emotional instability. In the story, the kid-Vision uses red food dye to look like his hero and speaks in a flat, inhuman tone about his maker, the Archvillain Ultron. He is simultaneously funny and heartbreaking in what he suggests about a little boy and his understanding of reality and fantasy, an idea central to Lethem's work.

In the story, the Vision reappears in the narrators life when he and his girlfriend (or "paramour" as the narrator sneers he calls her) move in next door and he is invited - casually, because they need a head for a certain game they intend to play - to a party they are having. At that party he meets a girl he is attracted to and they all play "Mafia", a game of deception and social exclusion. The narrator works out that the girl he likes may have once had an affair with the Vision, and takes a dislike to him. So he suggests a drinking game of "I've never..." where you say something you have never done (for example "I've never had sex on an airplane.") and anybody who has had that experience has to drink. He introduces this game so he can humiliate the Vision by exposing his Superheroic past, but instead he is left humiliated when the Vision's girlfriend tells a story of her own that reveals how well she knows her boyfriend and how much she loves him.

Lethem has become one of the leading American writers of his generation in the last few years. Having begun as a writer of literary genre fiction - his early work is all, to a greater or lesser extent, science fiction - he has established himself as a more broadly literary writer over the past decade or so. His 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn was key to this shift. A literary novel with traces of the crime genre, it focused brilliantly on a protagonist afflicted with tourettes syndrome, and was original, funny and with a sure sense of character and place (it was the first book Lethem wrote upon his return to Brooklyn after a decade in California). The Fortress of Solitude, his next book, is not as focused or original, but it is full of pain and poetry and the truth of a damaged adolescence. It is also full of pop culture, one of Lethem's great themes. In his sci-fi work, the references to old movies, books and pop music are buried within the narrative (1996's Girl In Landscape is effectively a reworking of the Searchers) but with Motherless Brooklyn and especially The Fortress of Solitude they burst free and surface within the story. Lethem's narrators identify them for us - sometimes even choosing to find them as metaphors or to search for meaning within them, just as people do in life - and reveal their centrality.

The Fortress of Solitude takes it's title from the name of Superman's arctic retreat. It is a book positively brimming with a love for popular culture - music (the narrator winds up as a music critic and his childhood friend's father is a legendary but presently drug-addicted Soul Singer), fiction (the narrator's father, an experimental artist, gains his true fame and success as
the cover artist for sci-fi paperbacks of the type obsessively collected by Lethem) and comic books (the two characters - named Dylan and Mingus, by the way- bond over their love of super Hero comics and the novel takes a magic realist turn with some super-powered activity). Lethem works as a cultural commentator and essayist, writing pieces for Music magazines and websites, essays for the Criterion Collection DVDs and book introductions, but his non-fiction seems generally more focused upon comics. He has written several pieces about the importance of particular characters and artists in his life and recently wrote a mini-series revival of Omega The Unknown for Marvel (which he transformed into a moving if baffling treatment of Asbergers). His conversation with the comic books which dominated the imaginative life of his childhood has provided his fiction and non-fiction with much of its substance.

Which is what makes The Vision work so well. Freed from the generic constraints of his early work Lethem can deal more directly with how our childhoods relate to our adult selves. What importance does a childhood love of Marvel comics have in an adult life? Lethem has spent thousands of words on that question. His excellent collection of essays, The Disappointment Artist, contains a few pieces devoted to it in one way or another. The Fortress of Solitude is almost derailed by its sudden discovery of a magic ring which grants its heroes the ability to fly - it barely works as a metaphor, but the first half of the novel is so lyrical and understanding of the strains of childhood and adolescence that this new element feels like a sort of defeat. But in The Vision he has found a way to gracefully integrate the subject matter with the story. Any metaphorical layers are effortless and can be ignored, the story working on its own terms, the writing nicely judged and precise. He combines that with a really well-observed party scene, with tension and unspoken truths all rippling under the surface of the dialogue and tenuous relationships teetering. Lethem, for all that his heroes are often obnoxious, has always understood the cruelty and sensitivity on display in interactions between men and women, and here he touches upon both fleetingly but with great impact.

Since then, Lethem has moved on and his fiction seems more realist, less wedded to his old obsessions. You Don't Love Me Yet, a slight, comedic tale of an LA rock band, and his new book, Chronic City, both seem more fully engaged with the world around the author, and less with his nostalgia and difficulties with his own past. But perhaps his work on Omega The Unknown just reveals an artist who has grown more adept keeping his interests separate from much of his work.

For me, The Vision might just be the peak of Lethem's work. I share many of his obsessions and I love to see his intelligent, serious take on them. It is especially thrilling to see him referencing something I get within the context of a clever, gripping story of social tension and romantic misadventure, written with his usual skill and insight, but without the uneven sprawl of even his best work as a novelist.

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Blogger Beezer B said...

Mmm. Sounds good. Did you just give away the ending or is that just a small part? :-)

1:22 am  
Blogger David N said...

I sorta did, but I tried not to give details, and the details are key.
I can't be doing with all that "SPOILER ALERT" nonsense..

2:33 am  
Blogger Will Shyne said...

Jonathan Letham's the Omega the unknown guy, right?
I'll give it a look.

8:30 am  

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