Jonathan Lethem Tackles
the Great Rock Novel

by Ted Gioia

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.

Now Lethem has published
You Don’t Love Me Yet, his long awaited follow-up
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
. 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?

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.

This article originally appeared on Blogcritics --
click here.  
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
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.

Jonathan Lethem

Lethem is the master
of fallen heroes,
but in his case they
often wear a cape
and fly through the
air.  He finds
inspiration in comic
books and science
fiction, but always
rises above the
limitations of genre
formulas.   (For
another example, see
his marvelous
short story "Super
Goat Man" available
online at The New
narratives are always
tightly woven,
but there is always
room for
experimental twists.  
As a frequent
writer of music
criticism, I was
delighted by his
cleverness in inserting
detailed liner notes
from a CD box set
of 70's soul music --
very artfully done
-- in the midst of the
novel, without
losing the thread of
the story.