Friday, March 30, 2007

You Don't Love Me Yet, by Jonathan Lethem--a review

I loved Jonathan Lethem’s earlier novel, The Fortress of Solitude, so I had to pick up his new one, You Don't Love Me Yet: A Novel. The Fortress of Solitude is a complex novel on a grand scale, so I was surprised at the slimness of this volume—and it turns out this is a simpler, quieter book.

It’s the story of the almost rise and fall of an indie band in the artsy Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake. I have to stop right here and admit that I probably liked this book more than I would have if it wasn’t set in L.A. I spent my 20’s in L.A., not in a band, but living almost as marginal a life as these characters, doing similarly stupid jobs. Lethem’s descriptions of this life are spot on.

The novel’s main character is Lucinda, a 29-year-old underemployed, self-taught bassist. The band also includes her newly ex-boyfriend, the gorgeous singer, Matthew, the band’s “genius” songwriter and pathologically shy guitar player Bedwin, and the straight-talking drummer Denise. They practice desultorily but have never played a gig.

Lucinda also works for her artist friend Falmouth, who has put together a theatrical piece where he’s set up a fake complaint hotline, and hired Lucinda and other women to listen to the callers’ complaints.

Lucinda falls in love, or maybe just lust, with one of the complainers, middle-aged Carl, who seduces her by talking about his difficulties in love. The complainer’s clever phrases stick with her, and she passes them along without attribution to Bedwin, the band’s songwriter, when he is stuck for lyrics.

The complainer’s words and Bedwin’s music create what could be the band’s first hit, if the band members didn’t get in their own way.

And when the complainer recognizes his words in the band’s songs, complications, as they say, ensue. At this point, there is an ominous feel to the story, since the complainer, Carl, is a wild card. Is he going to explode in some way? Is the story going to end in bloodshed? I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that Lethem’s light tone never fails.

I probably would have liked this more as a first novel; as a stand-alone piece rather than compared to Lethem’s earlier work. But I did like the book. Lethem’s writing can be lyrical, and he often made me laugh. I liked the goodnatured slackerhood of the characters, though I never felt I knew them deeply. (I find them much more appealing, however, than the characters in Claire Messud’s The Emperor's Children(see my review), who are the same generation, but whiny and frenetic in their ambition instead). I also like the absurdities in the story. When characters with names like Falmouth Strand, Fancher Autumnbreast and Jules Harvey do things like staging art happenings or steal a kangaroo from the zoo, Lethem presents it with such a sly sense of humor that it all works.

Also interesting is the intellectual property aspect of the story, in light of the author’s interest in sharing his work for others to adapt. Through his Promiscuous Materials Project, Lethem is making stories and song lyrics available for other artists to use, to adapt to film or stage, or put to music. It’s a generous and fascinating idea—his website explains it more fully. And read with this in mind, You Don’t Love Me Yet becomes more interesting. Carl the complainer’s complaints provide material for Lucinda and Bedwin’s songs, but while he complained, Carl didn’t know he was creating anything, much less art. Is this appropriation, or is it the way we all create? It’s food for thought…


julie said...

Just finshed reading "You Don't Love Me Yet". Now I feel like going to check out a band a Spaceland!

Gentle Reader said...

I'll go with you, Julie!

Susan said...

Gentle Reader, do you look at comments written for old posts? I hope so.

1) Jonathan Lethem is Dr. Lucky Gardner's favorite author, and Fortress of Solitude is his favorite book. Ever.

2) In a recent New Yorker article about luggage, the author reports that JL told her whenever he arrives somewhere to give a talk the people who meet him are "disappointed by my luggage." Perhaps his baggage too...

3) I loved the first 3/4 of Fortress of Solitude but was very disappointed by the ending, though can't quite make Dr. Gardner understand that.

happy blogging! --Sue

Gentle Reader said...

Sue--Somehow it doesn't surprise me that Lawrence likes Lethem, and I didn't love the ending to Fortress of Solitude either. So take that, Dr. Gardner!