The Shrinking Man
By Richard Matheson
We don’t often think of the mid-1950s as marking the beginning of the decline of the American male, but if writers are the antennae of the race then maybe Richard Matheson was ahead of the game.
Clearly Scott Carey represents a man who is shrinking in more ways than one: unable to provide for his family, the fallout from an unfortunate accident involving a radioactive mist only makes his diminishment more obvious. Becoming another of literature’s underground men, his humiliation and suffering (he is infantilized, feminized, and effectively emasculated despite feeling abiding, if not amplified, sexual desire) is exquisitely, almost sadistically rendered in not just one of the best SF novels of the golden age but one of the masterworks of American storytelling.
It’s also one of the more depressing novels I’ve read, being a kind of allegorical essay on the ultimate loneliness and alienation of the human condition. Nevertheless, Matheson can’t resist giving Carey a kind of (mock) epic heroism, and the final note is one of American optimism as the tiny hero looks out upon a new, sub-atomic frontier to conquer. Paradoxically, being a shrinking man has enlarged his horizons. A solitary Adam can still be master of his domain.