Novel November

The Shrinking Man

by Richard Matheson


Reading Review by Michael Channing

The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson

At first, Scott thinks he's losing weight. His wife compliments him, and he feels great. His pants no longer fit, but then neither does his hat. Turns out he's actually shrinking 1/7 of an inch a day. An inch a week. The reason for his transformation is not important. Matheson didn't really want to explain his hero's condition, but his publisher made him tack on a science-fictiony reason. His doctors can't cure him, and he keeps on getting smaller. He cashes in on his oddity and does interviews, supporting his family though he can no longer do his usual job, and hoping to bank enough money to so his wife and daughter won't starve after he's gone. When he's just seven inches tall, he gets locked in the cellar. He watches out the window as movers empty his house box by box. Now he has to survive in a world he was once the master of. The basement where he used to store odds and ends is now a looming wasteland of endless danger. He finds food in a mousetrap, water in a garden hose. The greatest threat of all is a black widow spider that hunts him relentlessly. Will he survive? Will he dwindle to nothing? Does it even matter when literally no one in the world can relate to him or even hear a sound he makes?

It's a rousing survival story. Scott makes clever use of his alien yet familiar surroundings but then has to constantly adjust his actions as the world around him grows ever larger. But there are deeper levels to this novel. As he wrote it, Matheson was going through a divorce, and Scott's shrinking makes for a wonderful mirror to the breakup of a marriage. He's no longer welcome in his home, but he's trapped in a house where his authority is now constantly diminishing. His wife and daughter see him alternately as a monster to be feared or a freak to be pitied. As his wife loses interest in him, he lusts after other women—the baby sitter at one point—and even has an affair with his wife's permission. It's possible she does this out of pity, or as a last effort to help her husband find some comfort. She drives him to a carnival freak show were he meets a woman of tiny stature. The physical connection is welcome, but what really helps sooth his soul is being in the woman's trailer. It was created to fit her. The chairs and the counters and the stove all perfectly match her small size, and Cary very briefly feels at home in a world he no longer fits into. It's an amazing scene. When his wife picks him up after his weekend away, he doesn't feel shamed for having cheated but rather angry at having been cheated out of a pleasant life.

Scott's condition is also similar to any wasting disease. You're not taken at once from your loved ones. They watch helplessly as you die by degrees. Maybe they feel hatred at you for something you can't control. Maybe they turn away and close off their hearts before you're truly gone because to keep hoping for recovery hurts more than letting go. Terminal illness affects family as much as it does the one actually stricken by sickness.

On all levels the novel is a fantastic read. I've read other stories that utilize the shrinking trope, but they mostly focus on the protagonists' attempt to return to normal size. By making the simple decision to remove the possibility of recovery, Matheson delivers a story far more terrifying and personal than anything that came before. At its most basic, this is the story of a man for whom all is perfect until the universe at random ruins every aspect of his life. Far scarier than any monster or madman is a world in which we can do nothing to shift or slow the oncoming tide of failure, and our cries for help go unheard.

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