As a teenager, Jonathan Lethem wrote a short novel called Heroes. The high school student’s 125 -page literary effort was never published, but the theme lived on in his later works. Indeed, no writer of our time has explored the complicated nature of heroism with more persistence or comic insight than Lethem. But the protagonists of his works are always odd ducks and their derring-do often collapses into derring-don’t.
In Motherless Brooklyn (soon to be a motion picture starring Edward Norton), Lethem introduced us to Lionel Essrog, a private investigator with Tourette's Syndrome. The story wreaked havoc with all the clichés of the detective genre to comic effect, and earned the author a National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.
In Lethem’s 2003 novel The Fortress of Solitude we meet two youngsters, Dylan and Mingus, who are outcasts and graffiti artists with occasional superhero powers. This work was widely celebrated, translated into 15 languages, and contributed in no small part to Lethem winning a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.” In his brilliant New Yorker short story “Super Goat Man,” reprinted in his 2004 collection Men and Cartoons, a failed comic book protagonist ekes out a living as a bohemian academic but is lured back into one last quest at heroism. These works are quirky and profound, taking familiar elements from various pop culture genres and twisting them into surprising new forms.
Now Lethem has published You Don’t Love Me Yet, his long awaited follow-up to The Fortress of Solitude, and for the first time has stepped outside of the storybook heroics that have given such distinctive flavor to his earlier work. You Don’t Love Me Yet is a Generation Y novel about conceptual art and rock music in Southern California. If previously Lethem came across as a post-modern Raymond Chandler or Philip K. Dick, he now seems to be channeling Lester Bangs.
The novel follows the exploits of four young Los Angelenos who dream of stardom in a rock band, while pursuing strange day gigs. Bassist Lucinda Hoekke works in a “gallery” where she takes complaints over the phone from strangers as part of a peculiar conceptual art project. Singer Matthew Plangent struggles in his constant battle with a supervisor at the zoo where he works, and develops a deep attachment for a kangaroo. (What is Lethem’s obsession with kangaroos? A marsupial also serves as a major character in his first published novel, Gun with Occasional Music.) Drummer Denise Urban earns her money working in a sex toys boutique called No Shame. Guitarist Bedwin Greenish is the most talented member of the band, but his days are largely devoted to watching the same Fritz Lang movie over and over.
As even this brief sketch indicates, the characters are fresh and original. Even the minor players – a glib monomaniac on the complaint line, a trend-setting local deejay, an impresario who likes to sniff ladies’ underarms – are ingeniously crafted with Lethem’s predilection for implausible details and spicy dialogue. These engaging figures spout off aphorisms such as “all thinking is wishful” or “you can’t be deep without a surface.” In short, all the clever things you wish you could come up with on a first date, spring spontaneously to the lips of Lethem’s characters.
Music has figured prominently in Lethem’s fiction since Gun with Occasional Music. In one of its zanier moments, The Fortress of Solitude included a lengthy essay on '70s soul music – stylishly written in the manner of an accompanying essay to a CD box set –which only tangentially related to the plot, but artfully developed several of the themes of the novel. And just last year, Lethem published a lengthy interview with Bob Dylan in Rolling Stone. If anyone is destined to write the Great Rock Novel, why not Jonathan Lethem?
But You Don’t Love Me Yet is not that masterpiece, and fails to reach the heights Lethem achieved in his two previous novels. The plot never coheres, and the individual band members each seem lost in their own private fantasy world. They make for a fascinating police line-up, but we never get a sufficient read on the motivations and aspirations that bring a story to life. Who would have thought it possible, but Lethem, who made his name with his compelling protagonists, has written a novel without a plausible hero.