Jonathan Lethem's fiction has never been the type to conform to genre restrictions. If anything, Lethem has become the master of exploiting the trappings and clichés of genre to great effect, and given his track record so far, he's not afraid to use these clichés as an artful indictment of our consumer society. Subsequently, Lethem also shows that literature and art thrive on mimicry, and that the best artists borrow from the past.
In his critically acclaimed novel Motherless Brooklyn, for example, the great tradition of the detective novel is thoroughly deconstructed through Lionel Essrog, a bumbling former orphan with Tourette's Syndrome. Equally, in The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem uses the mysticism of the comic book superhero to give his young protagonist Dylan Edbus some of his own super powers, and in the process revealing why comics have had such a profound effect on young Americans, especially those who struggle socially.
So it's not all that surprising that Lethem's most recent novel You Don't Love Me Yet exposes another literary phenomenon: the love story. At the same time, You Don't Love Me Yet is full of all of the pop culture references and obscurely artful situations that have made Lethem unique, and Lethem's love for music is put front and center in a way we haven't seen from him in a long time.
Recently released on paperback, You Don't Love Me Yet follows the impressionable Lucinda Hoekke, a bass player who plays in a band struggling to find their sound. After quitting her job at a coffee house and breaking up with her boyfriend Matthew (the band's guitarist), Lucinda takes a job at a faux call center set up by her artist friend Falmouth as part of an art experiment. While the band is struggling to find a unique sound amidst the glamor of Los Angeles, Lucinda beomes enamored by "the complainer," a man who dials the call center frequently and gives Lucinda a fresh batch of original material for her songwriting. The band goes through a musical renaissance, Lucinda meets and begins a romantic affair with Carl (the complainer), and the band finally gets exposed to the masses at their first gig.
Although there's much more to the story than that, You Don't Love Me Yet is less about the plot and more about the underlying message, and that underlying message isn't easily accessible. At the surface, Lethem has exposed how genre can shape our expectations, and just like he has done from the beginning of his writing career, he successfully uses those genre motifs to create a brilliant work of satire.
But this book is also about the meaning of ownership, an indictment of the corporate copyrighting of everything (and everyone) that's marketable. As the band's new songs (inspired by Lucinda and Carl's phone conversations) take shape and warrant interest among fans and promoters, Carl weasels his way into the band as the fifth member, a "fifth Beatle" in an already crowded band. From there, the band loses its artistic way, and Lucinda's love for Carl wavers. Carl's belief is that he essentially "made" the band because his catch phrases helped form their songs, but the truth is that the band's musical ownership was a collaborative effort. Of course, Lethem is targeting the very idea of corporate ownership, especially in a time where music and art are stymied by what is easily marketed and palatable to the masses.
While Carl may represent the old school thinking of corporate ownership, Lucinda and Matthew seem to represent the burgeoning underground, where art becomes a do-it-yourself experience that thrives on community interaction and trust. Just as people see through the insanity of copyright lawsuits and the infighting between artists and their record labels over artistic control, Matthew and Lucinda learn that a lucrative record deal and band promotion are for nothing. At the same time, artists like Falmouth and the band's songwriting guitarist Bedwin try and make sense of all of the absurdity. Through these three opposing viewpoints of the band, You Don't Love Me Yet effectively summarizes how Lethem views the world of art, literature, and pop culture.
You Don't Love Me Yet is an interesting story that works well as a social critique, but it's not flawless. At times, the plot itself becomes trite and difficult to follow; the dialogue throughout seems rushed and hollow, and the sex scenes between Lucinda and Carl are god awful. Although it seems that these bad clichés are part of the point, it's not done as effectively as some of Lethem's past fiction, blunting the effect and message he is after. At the same time, You Don't Love Me Yet speaks a truth about modern society, one that is often missed in the maze of clever marketing and confusing copyright laws.