by Keith Taylor
Jonathan Lethem's cool. His novels and stories take on everything from detective fiction to comic book heroes. He is very willing to write about big themes the possibilities or impossibilities of individualism in an era of irony and commodity, race in America, and so on and he does it in prose that is lively, often very funny, and frequently impossible
to ignore. A couple of years ago he was even awarded one of the MacArthur "genius" grants. He knows Brooklyn about as well as anyone, and Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, his last two novels, both take place there.
But now he's back with something different. You Don't Love Me Yet is a much thinner and quicker novel about a California rock band just about ready to make it but not quite over the professional divide. The band members still have day jobs as zoo attendants, in marginal avant-garde art studios, or as clerks in porn shops. Their Los Angeles, although it possesses the expected surface glitter, isn't nearly as alive as Lethem's Brooklyn. Perhaps that's an indication of Lethem's real imaginative allegiance, but one could argue that it's a true picture of the place where these characters almost live.
In the best scene in the book, Lethem describes the band's one brilliant performance, at a party staged as a kind of alternative art experience. One of the attendees observes, "You weren't sure what anything had to do with anything else, but cool people were certainly involved." And that's reason enough for just about any of the actions in the book. Cool people are involved.
If that were the extent of it, the book would be easy to dismiss. Luckily, Lethem has written, in the guise of a rock 'n' roll novel, a book that is in many ways a chronicle about the nature of artistic inspiration. The most interesting things in You Don't Love Me Yet are the passages where the
troubled lives and various influences of its characters come together to make one memorable song. The talents of the band's near-catatonic composer combine with words heard on a complaint line and get projected by an anorexic singer who has a thing for kangaroos. The result might be genius. The song is bigger than the band: "It's a fixture in their lives, a given. They can't remember where it came from because the truth is that the song was there all along, waiting to be given the air, allowed to breathe."
Of course, we never really hear the song, and that might be why all rock 'n' roll novels end up leaving us a little cold. We need the music. But Jonathan Lethem has come as close as anyone to getting down the spirit, and making it available to those of us who might not be quite so cool.
Jonathan Lethem reads from You Don't Love Me Yet at the Ann Arbor District Library (downtown) on Thursday, April 5.
[Review published April 2007]