It may seem odd for a site dedicated to audio drama to review an audiobook?after all, audiobooks are the enemy, right? Not really. I must confess, my biggest critique with audiobooks is due to my own dwindling attention span, and with most of my listening occuring in my 40 minutes each way commute, tackling a 13+ hour audiobook can be a listening venture of epic proportions. This is from the same guy who?ll have a 400 page book on his bedside stand. I can?t explain it, but I like my audio in small doses.
That?s why it was with great enthusiasm that I picked up Jonathan Lethem?s ?Men and Cartoons,? an unabridged audiobook with 9 of Lethem?s stories published by Random House. I first ran across Lethem when I found out he?d be a faculty member at a writing conference up here in Maine, and voraciously starting reading any of his work I could get my hands on. I found his work (Mother Brooklyn, especially) almost painfully clever, delightfully bizarre, and thoroughly intelligent. He weaves unexpected language, hapless characters, and basic human situations together in a way that almost looks easy. And the stories in ?Men and Cartoons? don?t disappoint.
9 stories over four CDs averages to about 2 stories a CD, meaning I could listen to an entire story in one commute and let it sink in as I first sat down at my desk to begin (or end) the day. The stories are all read by different voices from a capable cast, and sprinkled with little bits of production magic that make the listening experience that much nicer. The highlights of this collection for me were ?Access Fantasy? and ?Super Goat Man.?
The former is about a city where the privileged and the underclass are separated by a forcefield, a division enforced by robots. Those in the underclass yearn to be on the other side, and one man sets out to get there. Twisted social commentary and a murder mystery keep the suspense going in this tale (though it takes a few minutes to figure out what the hell?s going on). This is also probably the production highlight of the collection. Sandra Bernhard has great wryness and inflection, and when the robots come to talk business with the protagonist a voice filter delivers great life to the piece. Though it?s far from out-and-out drama, a captivating reader and good use of the reverberating effect delivers a more interesting listening experience.
?Super Goat Man? is the tale of a retired comic book hero and his influence on a young man?s life. This is a surprisingly epic tale, spanning the main character?s boyhood to middle age. While it might seem bizarre to have an impact character with pointed horns and hooves, Lethem is quite adept at suspending your disbelief, and paints Super Goat Man as tragic a character as any, a super hero that fails at saving anyone, embodying an entire generation of failed ideals. Read by the author, ?Super Goat Man? exemplifies Lethem?s ability to weave the hypernatural into the traditional short story.
I?m impressed with Random House?s effort with this collection, as it?s little details that make the listening experience delightful. The filter effects I mentioned, plus there is triumphant music bridging the stories that wraps the stories up into digestible doses and makes everything feel like a finished product. Kudos to Random House and Jonathan Lethem for a great example of how a little production value goes a long way in an audio work, and let?s cross our fingers that they?ll seek dramatization one day as the logical next step.