Monday, July 31, 2017

The Shrinking Man

Here's another science fiction classic I've missed over the years and recently caught up with. I'd avoided it because of the 1950s film version (which added the word "incredible" to the title), because, as a child, I thought it was dated and silly. Truth is, the film isn't that bad, and the book is much better. Where the author, Richard Matheson (who also wrote I am Legend, which has been filmed three times), could have delved into a semi-comic tale akin to an adult version of The Littles, he instead gave us a dark, psychological masterpiece, a terrifying and often sad glimpse into the mind of a man who is literally shrinking down to nothing at the rate of a seventh of an inch per day. We start with action, as the tiny hero, already an inch tall and trapped in his basement (no one upstairs knows he is at home), struggles to navigate his huge environment, find food, make clothing, and do something about the "giant" spider that stalks him each day. As he deals with these challenges, we get flashback sections that show our hero discovering his condition, his mental unraveling in the face of it, and the decline of his relationship with his wife and daughter. His wife attempts to be supportive, but his little girl doesn't understand. Little by little, his life falls apart until he manages to support the family by selling his story. This gives his wife some financial stability, which eases our hero somewhat. Nevertheless, their marriage unravels, and our hero has to come to terms with his new reality. The book jumps back and forth in time rather seamlessly, with chapter-titles indicating the height of the hero in a given section. Like The Odyssey or Star Wars, The Shrinking Man wisely starts off with the punchline and then goes back to show its development. In the end, obviously, our hero can only shrink so much. Or can he? On the brink of thinking he'd shrink out of existence, he realizes there is a vast inner space - both physical and psychological - that has never been explored. Without giving it away, the ending is satisfying, if not exactly a fairy tale wrap-up. What makes this book great isn't the gimmick - a shrinking man - but the spellbinding exploration of just how a man might handle such an experience, and what it might teach him about courage and about his sense of self-worth. Definitely a page-turner.

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