Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude faded to the sound of
Another Green World, Brian Eno’s haunting, monochromatic set piece. Dylan Ebdus, Solitude‘s semi-autobiographical main character and his father, Abraham, disappear on the last page of Lethem’s sprawling book into a Massachusetts blizzard: “We were in a middle space then, in a cone of white, father and son moving forward at a certain speed. Side by side, not truly quiet but quiescent, two gnarls of human scribble, human cipher, human dream.”
Is there a more beautiful invocation of pop music in literature than Lethem’s? A better transubstantiation of rock ‘n’ roll records—”the middle space they conjured and dwelled in, a bohemian demimonde, a hippie dream”—into something so transcendently valuable?
Now Lethem—who once spoke of music as “the art that other art flatters itself by bending towards”—has come finally, with You Don’t Love Me Yet, to the thing itself. Reviewers’ galleys of his new novel arrived affixed with a letter, inscribed on Doubleday stationery and penned by Falmouth Strand, fictional conceptual artist and gallery owner. “Here, minor characters have been given undue prominence, while major characters have been relegated to the margins,” goes the author’s wink-and-nod. “Real art has been willfully confused with fake art.”
To wit: In an unnamed Los Angeles museum, we are introduced to Lucinda Hoekke and Matthew Plangent, a pair of lovers and bandmates who quickly put Strand’s prophecy about art to the test. There to end their affair, they instead dip into one of Strand’s sculptures for one last mutual appreciation. When next they meet, it will be at band practice.
Lucinda has a gift for appropriating other people’s work. Answering phones at a complaint line—another Strand art project—she begins a hotline romance with professional slogan-coiner Carlton Vogelsong, whose initial telephone complaints and later, repetitive utterances during innumerable sex acts with Lucinda, become the lyrics to the songs that will make the as-yet-unnamed band locally famous.
Matthew, lead-singer and about-to-be-former Los Angeles zoo employee, is in the midst of stealing something as well: a kangaroo (reminiscent of the gun-toting marsupial of Lethem’s first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music) named Shelf. Shelf is undergoing a crisis due to “a certain lack of realistic perspective,” a problem Matthew understands because he shares it.
Theft and plagiarism, identification and misidentification—not coincidentally, the subjects of a February Harper’s essay by Lethem titled “The Ecstasy of Influence”—are at the heart of
You Don’t Love Me Yet. When the band’s stunted genius, Bedwin Greenish, becomes blocked—”My problem is I don’t believe in the place where the sentences come from anymore,” he tells his band—Lucinda rescues him (and jumpstarts the book) by secretly supplying Carlton Vogelsong’s words, expropriated without notice from her new lover. As one character notes toward the end, “theirs was a band whose secret genius had a secret genius.”
Genius, as a noun, figures large in the novel, and it becomes a kind of burden for Lethem—what does a song written by a pack of geniuses sound like on the page? The band’s signature achievement, a song called “Monster Eyes,” begins with “a bass thrum and a chiming guitar figure” (the former played by Lucinda, who, on bass, “possessed all anyone needed: she swung” ) and comes sometime after “Astronaut Food” and sometime before “Canary In A Coke Machine” in the band’s set list. Their “lead-singer handsome” (1) lead-singer brings out the words: “Get you/out of range/of my/monster/eyes” ; Carlton Vogelsong, whose eventual disastrous price for the phrases that make up the band’s lyrics is a place with them onstage, plays “his wonky organ fills in the manner of free jazz.” Call it bohemian demimonde by way of a high school talent show: “Monster Eyes,” as Lethem writes it, is tough to imagine as a song written by adults, let alone enjoyed by hundreds of fans.
The odd deafness to nuance when it comes to the band is even more apparent in contrast with Lethem’s gift for setting. Plangent’s zoo is “an abrasion, Los Angeles’ arid skeleton poking into evidence.” The city itself is a place where “the freeway was like a saddle on the splayed city, a means both of mastering it and of shrinking from intimate contact with its surfaces.”
Surfaces, in the novel, always matter: The book’s big idea is that what’s out there is as valuable as anything intrinsically within. Vogelsong, the book’s gnomic center of wisdom, even mints a slogan saying so—”You can’t be deep without a surface.” When the inevitable battle over ownership eventually tears the band apart, this bit of advice returns, via Lucinda, as a final reproach to those less free with art, or more hung up on the real thing, than she.
By the time Lucinda enacts her last plagiarism, the gap between Lethem’s love-and-theft and the absurd superficiality of what the novel deems worthy of repurposing becomes disorientingly wide. Lethem is as lucid about art here as he is anywhere else. But
You Don’t Love Me Yet asks us to delight in the borrowing of that which doesn’t always seem worth taking.