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.