"Hoping is what kept most men from living"
The Shrinking Man tells the story of Scott Carey who was one day sprayed with a radioactive chemical by accident, and found himself physically shrinking since. The novel perfectly opens with a very terrifying description of Scott being chased down by a spider. At first glance, this book seems to be a very simplistic survivalist story about one man's struggle to endure a hopeless circumstance--but the existential horror that is the overall thematic scope of the plot is definitely its most intriguing aspect. This could almost be an episode in Twilight Zone and that's probably the strength of Matheson's work as a horror writer.
In The Shrinking Man, he gives us a chilling glimpse at the visceral terror of physical helplessness. Scott Carey's anxiety is not just about being erased from existence entirely but it's also about the gradual loss of his relevance as a person of flesh and blood. A man who used to be six-foot tall, he now has to deal with the emasculation of his role both as a husband and father. Scott may be shrinking into a size that's even below his kid daughter, but he still has the same needs and entitlement as any grown man does--and the harrowing and pitiful ways he tries to hold onto these things but fail are almost hard to read for me.
Matheson needs to be commended for his clear-cut prowess as he delicately approached the writing of this story with such an earnest tone even though it has an absurd premise. What Matheson and the readers end up with is a massively heartfelt tale about the importance of spiritual optimism and the ways that a man can still see a point in living despite the uncertainty and despair he faces. The book can also be seen as a deconstruction of masculine roles in society and what happens when those very rigid notions are inspected and essentially stripped away which is the case with Scott Carey's character as we put ourselves in his position of estrangement from the tangible reality including his family.
The Shrinking Man ended with a sincere resolution that is bittersweet and unexpected; Scott Carey has feared about non-existence because he had only defined it in terms of the human context, neglecting the reality that the nature of the universe is not as black-and-white as our own limited perspectives as mortals. Scott Carey, now in his microscopic size, is fortunate enough to witness the everyday miracles of life especially now that he's removed from human bias and that for me is by far the most uplifting kind of pay-off in a science fiction novel that explored such an existential journey. This is a great book filled with engrossing psychological reflections about primal survival instincts and resignation to an inevitable outcome.
* A tedious build-up that was able to find its perfect prose rhythm once the protagonist continues to grow and thrive himself in spite of his physical shrinkage.