‘The Happy Man’ by Jonathan Lethem

Lethem follows in the footsteps of Dante and consigns his narrator to Hell. In this case the character is dead but re-animated to allow him to support his family. Occasionally, he is transformed into a small boy and returned to his personal hell, a zone populated by archetypes such as the witch, the robot maker, the wolfman and a terrifying sexual predator called The Happy Man. During his periodic recalls to hell, his family must deal with his presence as a zombie. His guilt over this is increased by his 12-year-old son treating his father’s hell as if it were a computer game and sedulously drafting a map. The story has a metafictional aspect: the unfolding of the narrative leads to a redefinition of hell for the narrator. I won’t reveal whether this proves to be a blessing or a curse. It’s a deeply unsettling story, leavened with strands of sparkling wit: the narrator is informed that his posthumous detachment from human engagement will not be a problem at his workplace because “Most people won’t know the difference.”

First published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, February 1991 and collected in The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye, Faber and Faber, 2002 and Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine: 30th Anniversary Anthology, Tachyon, 2007

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