The Shrinking Man, by Richard Matheson


It’s rare that the title of a book so exactly describes the book—all too often, authors (or rather their publicists) feel they have to come up with an intriguingly catchy title—but here the book is exactly as the title describes: a man, shrinking by 1/7″ per day, has to deal with the psychological and then physical effects of shrinking away to nothing.

It’s a simple enough plot to describe: Scott Carey is exposed to pesticides, and shortly thereafter, radioactive spray. The combination causes him to start shrinking; he gets shorter at a rate of 1/7″ per day, being reduced proportionately in his other dimensions at the same time. At first, he and his wife are no more than normally concerned, but as medical science fails to find any way to stop the process, the Careys become increasingly concerned. How are they going to support themselves after he becomes first too notorious, then simply too small to work? How will he manage to get about in a world designed for…well…human-sized humans? And in the end, when he shrinks below the size at which he can attract his family’s attention by calling to them, then what?

Structurally, the book is not a literary straight line following Scott Carey’s diminution. The framing story is his last week, when at less than an inch, he’s faced with purely pragmatic problems. Being pursued by a spider now larger than he, breaking off crumbs from a forgotten cracker under the stairs, trying (and eventually failing) to overcome the surface tension of water absorbed by a sponge for something to drink…and of course wondering what happens when the last day comes and he loses that last seventh of an inch? These chapters alternate with the weeks leading up to this predicament, during which he and the family realize what is wrong, try (and fail) to stop the shrinking and come to terms with his growing inability to deal physically (and psychologically) with the world around him. The chapter in which his wife buys him a dollhouse in which he may stay, as a structure now more suited to his stature, makes me shudder; the practical issues of dealing with a house that actually isn’t meant to be lived in–no fourth wall, the appliances do not work, and the furniture isn’t meant to be sat or slept on, is, for me, worse than trying to understand his fretting about his wife working.

At 57 years old or thereabouts, the book’s showing its age a bit stylistically–writing styles have changed a bit since then–and it never was terribly complicated or introspective to begin with. Indeed, now the concerns the Careys have date the book to the point of setting many modern readers’ teeth on edge; Scott Carey—he finds his inability to work among the hardest things to deal with, at least in the intermediate stages of his shrinking. He feels unmanned by the fact that his wife is supporting the family and he’s forced to stay home and care for their daughter. I’m glad I found a copy of it though, as it’s still one of the Titles in science fiction. I think.

If you like simpler plots, and older science fiction, you’ll probably like this one. If you want long introspective interior monologues from a psychologically tormented character, keep looking.

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