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April 10, 2007

Latest Lethem funny but shallow

You Don’t Love Me Yet may not be the most important novel that Jonathan Lethem has ever attempted, or the most complex. It is a sarcastic, comic drift through the hipster clichés of an unnamed, unsuccessful rock band in Los Angeles. The band has its share of issues—bandcest, unrequited love, excessive angst, and most importantly, a lack of good songs. Though the hipster drift may be on the surface a romantic one (and that theme will come up again and again throughout the novel), these people are exactly the type your parents do not want you to become.

The band members spend their time breaking up in contemporary art museums with installations conveniently designed by ex-boyfriends that are perfect for having goodbye sex. They also steal a kangaroo who “is dying of ennui and nobody will admit it” from the zoo and keep it in the bathtub. They drink beer, make sandwiches, and take Polaroids of one another. If this sounds like people you know, beware: You Don’t Love Me Yet may cause severe anxiety through its bizarre proximity to your future worst nightmare.

The heroine of the story, if she can really be called such, is the bassist Lucinda. Really. Her path through the novel is more one of circular incompetence than any kind of trajectory.

As the novel begins, Lucinda assumes a role in her ex-boyfriend’s new conceptual art project, a complaint line in Los Angeles. She and various interns answer a phone in a storefront office where the only requirement is to “be more dispassionate.” They register the complaints on a yellow legal pad and hand over the results to the artist, who specializes in others’ displeasure.

His other brainchild is a bash called “A party” where everyone dances to their own music and can’t eat at the lavish buffet. This, with some obvious irony, is where the band gets their big break.

The plot of the novel carries some weight—Lucinda falls in love with the Complainer, a particularly articulate caller to the complaint hotline. He is a slogan-maker, a coiner of interesting phrases (and Lethem harps on the “coiner” aspect). Aside from cribbing from his stories for the band’s new songs, Lucinda begins a torrid and alcohol-driven affair with Carlton Vogelsong, who both inspires and corrupts the group.

The idea of seduction by idea controls the movement of the book, yet Lethem fails to carry through on many of the concepts presented, and the form of the novel drifts off into comic conflict.

Perhaps the book itself is a strange metaphor for Lethem’s own skills. Though his works are wonderful and often dense, You Don’t Love Me Yet is interesting, but somewhat superficial. Lethem is a superior title-giver, and his books of essays, novels, and collections of short stories all bear interesting titles—Motherless Brooklyn, Gun, With Occasional Music, and The Disappointment Artist are excellent examples.

In You Don’t Love Me Yet, Lethem offers a variety of excellent titles for the songs that his fictional band performs. The book says very little about the content of the majority of these songs—they are about unrequited love or break-ups, kinks or conquests.

Lethem, however, has offered these song titles up for use on the pro-copyright-reform portion of his website (for his biography section he provides primarily a link to his Wikipedia entry)—he wants artists to use them for whatever they wish, to substantiate them in any meaningful way.

He has suggested a similar deal with the movie rights to You Don’t Love Me Yet, offering the project to any filmmaker he finds qualified but asking that the rights return to the public sphere two years after the project is finished.

The ideas of others play a central role in You Don’t Love Me Yet—Lethem is an author who has dealt with the complexities of gentrification, prejudice, and death (in a sort of ascending hierarchy of importance).

To see his attention to detail and personality reduced to groove and surface with a tinge of argument for public domain is somewhat disappointing, though this novel is still entertaining and a fun read.

Lethem asserts that the relation of surface to depth is sort of the point of the entire composition, and his romp through the angsty and image-obsessed crowd of contemporary L.A. carries some weight, but the novel seems to find its groove in the moments outside of its usually comic intentions.

Predictably, the characters come to life when they begin to live outside of their clichés, but sometimes they also fail to make sense after embarking on excessive tragicomic tangents. You Don’t Love Me Yet is a quick read—and though it is not necessarily a quick study, the surface is too glittery and shallow to encourage looking far underneath it.