The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson

Toby Frost

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Scott Carey is 6 feet 2 inches tall. He is a father, husband and provider for his family. One day, purely by chance, he is hit by a spray of radioactive insecticide, and he begins to shrink. He simply scales down, a little bit each day. As his height goes, so does his power – although the experience perhaps makes him more of a man than ever.

There is very little science fiction in this science fiction novel, and virtually no science. If it had been written by a different person, in different circumstances, it could be called fantasy, surrealism, magic realism or even just “literature”. But that doesn’t matter. Whatever you call it, The Shrinking Man is very good. The plot switches between Scott’s ongoing battle against a spider, when he is just an inch tall, to significant events in his gradual reduction of size. It’s very well constructed, and the writing is clear and strong.

As Stephen King points out in Danse Macabre, The Shrinking Man is ultimately a book about power and the loss of it: Scott’s predicament is a metaphor for illness and growing old. (Its themes of loneliness and survival in a distorted world remind me of Matheson’s other classic novel, I Am Legend.) Matheson is perceptive and surprisingly frank for an author writing in the 1950s. He realises just how much of being a man and a parent comes from being physically bigger than the people around you. As Scott becomes smaller and smaller, he has to fight bullies, perverts and finally small animals, who all come to see him as prey.

It’s a very humane book, and Matheson shows how the shrinking affects not just Scott but his wife and daughter, and the people around him. He treats every character with pity, even the Alien-like spider that hunts Scott when he is tiny, or the wretched old drunk who lusts after Scott when he’s the size of a twelve-year-old. Perhaps the saddest moment (and the only one that really dates the book) comes when Scott stumbles into a travelling freak show and meets a woman who is the same height as him – for now. A cruder or more callous writer might see Scott’s shrinking as just punishment for being a cog in the patriarchal hierarchy of etcetera, but he is ultimately blameless: someone who wants to be good at the role he has been given, and to help the people he is meant to be helping. His frustration at having that opportunity taken from him is moving, as is his determination to survive in a world that has suddenly become extremely hostile.

Like The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Shrinking Man packs a lot into its short length. At points, it is a bleak novel, but it is also the story of someone finding strength while losing power. Strongly recommended.
 
Great review, Toby. I didn't realise that Matheson wrote this book.

I remember seeing the Incredible Shrinking Man as a child. I enjoyed it well enough, but perhaps i need to read the original.
 

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