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“Real art has been willfully confused with fake art.”
~Jonathan Lethem

Let’s say you’re a novel, and you want to get in a sex scene without breaking the flow of the narrative. What do you do? Well, if you’re Jonathan Lethem’s new novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet, you have characters exchange weighty, plot-moving dialogue while they’re having orgasms. And you do it twice. Did I mention you’re only 224 pages long?

Nobody doesn’t like Jonathan Lethem. Who doesn’t like Jonathan Lethem? He’s an underdog comer of a novelist, the best we’ve got at bridging the increasingly antiquated (if still apt) gap between high and low culture. I hopped on Lethem’s bandwagon at Motherless Brooklyn, so I haven’t read his early science-fiction inflected work, but I know enough to know that nothing feels out of place in a Jonathan Lethem novel. He’s a paragon of omnivorous consumerism, a guy who knows all about art and music and loves to tell you that he knows what he knows. He pays homage to filmmakers, soul singers, grunge rockers, installation artists, painters, comic book creators, cartoonists, physicists, sociologists, chess prodigies, and semi-professional masturbators. They all crash together in a dayglo confluence of class and trash. It’s no surprise that the names of the main characters of his best book, The Fortress of Solitude, Dylan and Mingus, are shared by musicians who toiled away in marginal, populist traditions – folk and jazz – until they were eventually canonized and lionized as Great American Artists.

So Lethem tends to write about scrappy underdog types, and this novel is no different. The characters don’t have a lot going for them in the classic sense of climbing the corporate ladder – one of the only character with a day-job works at a masturbation boutique called No Shame – so to fill the time, they kidnap kangaroos. They do high-concept installation art. They play in a rock band. And they fuck a lot. Sometimes they orgasm before they’re able to start. When they’re not in the presence of another character, they masturbate. More than once, the protagonist Lucinda tries to masturbate and fails.

Failed masturbation, in a way, is the novel’s best metaphor for itself. In one sense, the book is an eloquently spun manifesto on the complexities of authorship that asks, who really deserves credit for a work of art? In another sense, it’s an out-and-out vanity project, to such a degree that Lethem isn’t content to adorn the dust-jacket with one picture of himself. He’s also the subject of the front cover’s intimate boudoir shot, lounging with hipster-hero effortlessness next to an electric guitar.

Lethem has appropriated two of the hardest genres to write, and two of the most obviously escapist: the rock band yarn and the sex romp. His last book, The Fortress of Solitude, proved him capable of both (the former in his portrayal of a Marvin Gaye-esque soul singer, the latter especially in a gripping love scene between two teenage boys that is treated with exquisite empathy and a dollop of Vaseline). But in Love, he doesn’t bring either genre off. On top of meditating about the problem of authorship, the novel reads as a flight of fancy based on two of the immortal questions that geeks throughout history have asked themselves: “What if my shitty band took off?” and “What if I got laid all the time?”

Lethem is an undisputed talent, but this brief book is written with occasionally obvious haste. The word “gobble,” for example, is employed as a verb (at least) four times in the first 123 pages to describe eating and drinking – twice within three pages of each other. The tropes, too, occasionally show their threads. Carlton, the “Complainer” and the novel’s antagonist, is described as having a face that resembles “in its totality the male organ itself.” Sixty pages later, he still possesses a “slightly penisy glamour.” At least Lethem is consistent. At one point, the band is so excited that their upcoming “performance fizze[s] inside them like carbonation.” Sadly, they are not so excited that they jump like Mexican beans. There’s even an unbelievably tacky Deus Ex Machina character, Marian the zookeeper, who drifts into the book as the plot requires, does what it requires of her, and then drifts back out. (This includes riding a bicycle-built-for-two, in the interest of providing the novel with closure. Uh huh.)

Most of the happenings in You Don’t Love Me Yet exist in the realm of high implausibility. There’s nothing precisely infuriating about it as such – a group of friends form a band, appropriate lyrics from an unwitting sloganeer, and then almost make good, but then don’t. But from the ground up, it is littered with unlikelihood, and the “yeah right” moments start to add up fast.

The characters’ names, for one. If Fortress’s Dylan and Mingus seemed like an affectionate-if-precious tribute to Bob and Charles, Love’s characters come off as self-parodies. The band’s lead singer is named Matthew Plangent; the local, over-the-top radio personality is Fancher Autumnbreast; the complainer/lyricist/sloganeer is Carlton Vogelsong (“Vocalsong?” one character asks incredulously, before Carlton explains, in ponderously symbolic terms, that it means “bird hunter”).

But the most frustrating implausibilities of the novel pertain specifically to sex and rock ‘n’ roll (the drugs are actually pulled off with some aplomb). Lethem has set himself up with a problem that’s akin to writing a book about a fictional Pulitzer-winning poet’s poetry without being, yourself, a Pulitzer-winning poet. Every poem on the page is, barring a miracle of prosody, going to look a little silly. So how do you write a believable story about a nonexistent song that everybody likes? Lethem’s hero Kafka made men into mice-folk who couldn’t sing themselves, and who admired the beautiful Josephine’s unlikely piping. Lethem just tells you, over and over, how awesome the song is.

Lethem has a history of including questionable, self-penned lyrics in his fiction. In his earlier novels it wasn’t a big deal, because those lyrics didn’t need to be good. But Love is a different animal insofar as Lethem endeavors to write about a band called Monster Eyes, whose song “Monster Eyes,” based on a rant about the concept of “Monster Eyes” by an old, crotchety, irresistible complainer, becomes an instant scenester smash-hit, catapulting the band to buzz-bin status. Its lyrics run:

Get you
Out of range
Of my
Monster
Eyes—

At the band’s first gig, Lethem announces it to the reader, tries to make it thud with the impact of hearing a really great song for the first time. “The song is ‘Monster Eyes,’ and it comes set to make an impression.” Then, he shifts POV to encapsulate the response of the audience. This song is “the one [the crowd will] go out humming, the one that causes everyone, during its third chorus or through the howl of cheers that erupt in its wake, to lean into someone’s ear and bark through cupped hands, ‘These guys are good!’ or “I love this song!’” Apparently everyone – without fail – leans into someone’s ear to bark. Finally, when Lethem shifts into second person after his own encomium to the song he’s written, it almost sounds a little pleading, and certainly cloying. “You weren’t wrong to come out tonight. You had to be there, the night they first played ‘Monster Eyes,’ and you were.”

That, apparently, is how good “Monster Eyes” is. How much the lyrics of a song really matter is up for grabs, of course, and varies from song to song, listener to listener. So part of the novel’s ridiculousness is in trying to convince the reader that ridiculous pop lyrics – no more or less full of trite turns and hacky bromides than any garage band’s catalogue – pass for excellent, in the interest of making the (Lethem’s) band seem special. The book simultaneously tells its story and argues for its own passability. It reminded me a bit of a peer’s story I had to read for Creative Writing class in which the narrator observes a skateboarding kid do a “totally awesome ollie over the curb.”

Lethem goes so far as to offer evidence of the goodness of “Monster Eyes” in the form of groupthink exegesis. When the band plays “Monster Eyes” as an encore, having already played it once, Lethem writes, “The second time, the listeners have begun to parse the lyrics, take them to heart—hey, this song’s about you and me and the dangerous way we feel sometimes! It’s about all of us! But it’s about me most of all, each listener thinks. It’s most particularly about dangerous me.” Again, Lethem reaches out to the reader and tries to summon him to the gig in a questionable manner, shifting this time to first person to give mob mentality a voice of its own and emphasize how much I-the-reader would have loved Monster Eyes’ song if only I could have heard it.

Even more egregiously, one of the band’s other standout tracks, “The Houseguest,” goes:

I’m the house GUEST
I can’t get no REST
In your guest BED
I’ll sleep when I’m DEAD

The narrator weighs in again, saying, “…the song is an unquestioned favorite. Tonight the band’s audience feels it too.”

I’m just going to let that one speak for itself.

The lyrics have largely been stolen by Lucinda from Carlton Vogelsong, who makes a comfortable living coming up with slogans for bumper stickers and t-shirts (another Pulitzer Prize-type problematic). Among Carlton Vogelsong’s credentials as a sloganeer are “You can’t be deep without a surface,” and “All thinking is wishful.”

Lucinda appropriates other lines from Carl and gives them to Bedwin, the group’s stupidly named songwriter, to flesh out. It is in this spirit that “songs… so fine that Bedwin himself seemed astonished” are effortlessly written. Songs like “Astronaut Food,” “Secret from Yourself,” “Dirty Yellow Chair,” “Nostalgia Vu,” and “Bomb-shelter Provisions.”

It’s curious that a novel that is philosophically about the artistically-inherent problem of coming up with anything new, of inventing conceits out of thin air for art, should be so full of bad ideas. Lethem begins the novel with an epigraph that quotes lyrics from two different songs called “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” both by low-key heroes of college rock: The Vulgar Boatmen and Roky Erickson. Surely it didn’t escape Lethem, pop omnivore that he is, that Erickson’s version would eventually be covered by another group of misfit heroes – Bongwater. And if Lethem’s career has been a stunning, dizzying high, it only makes sense that it should come with an off-color discharge. You Don’t Love Me Yet is a bongwater stain on Lethem’s literary carpet. We can only hope he’s got something left in his stash.

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5 Comments

  1. I’ll admit it. I was judging ‘Love’ by the cover. I questioned the cover choice of ‘Fortress of Solitude,’ eventually going with the British version over the more garish American one. ‘Fortress’ was worth it, being one of the most tender but also, oddly, harsh, novels I have read. But ‘Love’….I mean….Lethem’s on the cover. The cover. Who puts themselves on the cover? It’s just as obnoxious as visual artists who sign their work in a sprawling brightly colored signature along the entire last quarter of the piece’s surface.

  2. Aha, apparently derivation and this romantic concept of originality are on the man’s mind recently – here’s his article from Harper’s a couple months ago, The Ecstasy of Influence.

    If the book questions the credit-ability of a work’s author, is the ego-beating cover photo some stab at irony? Or is Jonathan just all about the Lethem?

  3. I’ve been thinking about this. It seems at least worth considering that Lethem’s “Ecstasy of Influence” is a play on Harold Bloom’s “Anxiety of Influence,” and the denial that there is anxiety for a writer being influenced by his predecessors, the idea that Lethem doesn’t even WANT to be original or singular or captivating in a way that is more than just a gestalt sum-of-his-parts seems a bit thin to me. If we can all agree there is ecstasy in influence, I think we can all agree that there’s anxiety there, too.

    You know how when you’re in a writing class, there’s always one kid who fills his stories with cliches, and then, when it comes round to discussing the story, he defends it by saying that it was all trite in a knowing way? Bullshit with a wink? The argument being, in effect, that it’s ok not to try that hard if the point is not to try. That’s what this whole thing strikes me as, cover included.

    I’m psychologizing here, but if you asked Lethem why he put himself on the front and back cover of his book, he would probably say something deflectionary, maybe even self-deprecating, about how funny it was to him to cast himself in a rockstar light, and how ridiculous and over-the-top in its preening the vanity shot is. But it seems to me that it works on about the same level as asking a question and claiming to know the answer — you just want to see if everybody else knows the answer, too. It’s flexing in the mirror and telling yourself you’re ripped, even though you’re not and you’d tell everybody else that you’re not. It’s buying a Mercedes and telling everyone you know that you got it because it’s such a safe car, before they even ask why you bought it.

    It’s one of those half-truths that’s kind of a double-lie.

    Or whatever. Who knows.

  4. Sorry if this is repetitive. My collegiate reading of Bloom’s book was pretty cursory, though the ideas seemed fairly interesting, even with the literary handjob he’s always giving Shakespeare.

    Could be wrong, but isn’t Bloom’s thing that “strong poets” feel the anxiety of influence most acutely, spurring them to their strong misreadings of their predecessors? If so, is Lethem then just a weak poet trumpeting himself in an ironic, self-deprecating to underhandedly discount the whole idea of the strong poet? Like, he’s really pissed he’s not Great, so he goes about discrediting Greatness as a concept, saying that no one really escapes Influence, and for that matter Influence is actually super-groovy?

  5. Basically, exactly — as long as you buy Bloom’s theory. If you don’t, as Lethem doesn’t, then you’re trying to discredit the whole notion of influence anxiety by saying, the world is full of ideas, and they’re free. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s just pissed he’s not great. Lethem has said, for example, that he doesn’t understand the idea of great literature, because any time he read a book growing up, it was more important to him, while he was reading it, than any other book, no matter how great. He took his finger out of the knot of context and just let that one book do its work on him. The most important thing that literature can be, in other words, is not great — the most important thing it can be is read.

    As far as strong poets goes — you’re right, they misread their “masters,” as Bloom calls them. But the point is basically that, for Bloom, the Redactor, Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, and Cervantes, et al., did pretty much everything anyone could ever want to do with literature, as far as making a Truly Original Statement. So it’s not as much about Great, although it is very much about Great. It’s more about Major. Bloom says, for instance, that the last truly innovative novelist was Beckett, and that there are only four living authors of any real merit (Pynchon, DeLillo, Roth, McCarthy, and fuck you Miss Morrison). So Bloom’s idea of literature, given his obsession with the canon, is incredibly insular and telescoped, whereas Lethem’s literature, with his obsession with culture, booms out into an infinitude of “play” or whatever the postmodernists are calling it these days. So it’s not that he’s pissed he’s not great. It’s just that, he doesn’t buy the whole notion of greatness as an individualistic merit badge to begin with. I tend to be on Lethem’s side here. Bloom is a little too top-5 list. And who says greatness is in any way a binary? Especially since even Bloom concedes that aesthetic judgments are a matter of individual taste.

    That doesn’t justify, on the other hand, Lethem’s use of other people’s shitty ideas. He flies so far into “influence” that he lands in “I don’t give a shit, I’m just fucking around.”


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