The salient aspect of Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet, is that by the end each character has found his and her level. It’s quite something: of the seven or so characters there are no winners and no losers. The author’s conscientious diplomacy imbues a basically playful book with a certain airy dignity.
Hard to deny that Lethem is a virtuoso prose writer. He is a prize fighter sparring with plot lines in a ring of words. Like the best boxers, Lethem masters the ring – makes it his home – and approaches his craft without fear of getting hurt. Language is for him a sweet science. But just as interesting as the stick and move of the words in You Don’t Love Me Yet is the nature of the story. I was impressed with the way in which Lethem approached the complexities and complications inherent to crafting a female lead character, one who comes across as rather emotionally ambiguous – as opposed to Good. Or maybe Lucinda, 29, is simply young.
Lucinda is the bass player in the band, Monster Eyes, a position she relishes for good reason: she’s good at it, self-taught and attuned to the varied musical voices that comprise the group. But she is impulsive, indulgent, and easily taken in by The Complainer, a man she meets over what is meant to be an anonymous call-line for which she is an operator. The implication is that Lucinda is both the creative catalyst of the band and also its Yoko Ono. Although her bass playing is the glue that ties the band’s songs together, and The Complainer’s words the inspiration for the lyrics in the band’s most popular number, her lusty infatuation with the seductive older man corrupts the band’s artistic integrity. But along the way Monster Eyes does get a moment in the sun.
I “read” this book by listening to it on 5 CDs, performed by the author, unabridged. I use the word performed for good reason. Lethem has innate ability in this area too. He is able to read his work without self-consciousness and with a satisfying definitiveness, a pitch-perfect and distinct voice for each character. Bedwin, the band’s guitar player and musical soul, phrases everything he says as a question. It’s funny, but it also adds depth to the character, who is shy and introverted. Meanwhile The Complainer speaks in lugubrious platitudes. Because we hear The Complainer’s words through Lucinda’s ear, one trained for catchiness and not so much profundity, they initially come across as penetrating. But as the book goes on, insights such as “You can’t be deep without a surface,” in some ways the tart and tangy center of the book’s social wisdom, seem trite and tedious. The act of listening to Lethem read his book seemed appropriate because the book is based around sound, the sound of people making music, both literally and, yes, figuratively. I highly recommend the audio version of You Don’t Love Me Yet, while wondering if I would have gotten as much out of it if I had merely read it off the page.
The book contains one or two very fine descriptions of ensemble music-making (and a not-inconsiderable dose of sexual steaminess, mm). And yet, one provocative suggestion in Lethem’s construct is that rock and roll lyrics are often shallow, transparent. The implication is that the resonance of rock lyrics depends not so much on objective quality – complexity, poetic feeling – so much as indelibility, the rhythmic imprint of the words on the mind, a pattern, a universally recognizable hook. And indeed, Lethem isolates and describes exactly that quality of good rock and roll lyrics that appeals to individuals: a song you connect with is “about you.” The irony is that those lyrics actually capture a colloquial value that is meant to appeal to many. Rock lyrics are rarely lyrical, but when they’re good, you know it. Twist and Shout; Fake Plastic Trees – same principle.
My resolution, the turnaround if you will, is that Jon Lethem has written another very readable (and perfectly listenable) book. I could expound on the L.A.-ness of it all, but will instead assume that this setting is an aberrant and tangential element of the story. It really could be New York. And I think no matter where your heart is, it is an appealing kind of tale, made for you, me, the cool kids in Silverlake who play in the band, and everybody else.