I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Jonathan Lethem so far–Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude, Men and Cartoons, and his essay collection, The Disappointment Artist. So, while perusing the library’s excellent collection of audiobooks for the perfect aural accompaniment for the longish drive from/to Jacksonville to/from St. Pete Beach, I was excited to discover a copy of Lethem’s new novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet, read by Lethem himself. The six and a half hour unabridged recording was just the right length to get there and back. The prospect of hearing an author read his own work is always encouraging, and I didn’t imagine I’d have a chance to read the book any time soon.
So. Well. Anyway.
About halfway through You Don’t Love Me Yet, my darling lovely wife turned to me with the most charming of smiles and said: “This isn’t a very good book.” I agreed with her sheepishly. After all, I’d been toting Lethem as a pop genius. Unfortunately, she was right. I’d been secretly waiting for the book to get good: for the characters to charm me, for the plot to intrigue me, for the writing to wow me. Instead, I was repeatedly disappointed.
The dull plot of You Don’t Love Me Yet centers around Lucinda, bassist for an “alternative” band (Lethem’s words) in LA, trying to get their shit together. Improbably, Lucinda answers phones for a living as part of an art installation complaint line. A mysterious complainer intrigues Lucinda; she ends up falling in love. She also uses the complainer’s complaints (which she recorded as part of her job) as the basis for song lyrics that somehow magically transform the band from rank amateurs to rank amateurs with something. Unfortunately, that something, that kinetic potential, is never quite explained to the novel’s audience. Additionally, the band’s music is never really adequately described (I think that some of the generic “transition music” that precedes each new chapter is supposed to inform the reader that the band is kinda Pixiesish, maybe even a little White Stripesish). Most glaringly, the complainer’s lyrics that somehow stun the band and their audience–built around phrases like “Monster Eyes” and “Astronaut Food”–are really nothing special.
Other elements of the plot that only sound interesting include: kangaroo theft, a dance party where everyone listens to their own playlists on headphones, and lots of sweaty ugly sex (Lethem seems to want You Don’t Love Me Yet to be something of a sex novel). Lethem’s characters have a tendency to prattle about ephemera, often of the pop culture stripe; this was one of my favorite elements of The Fortress of Solitude, but it’s almost unbearably cloying in You Don’t Love Me Yet, with the single exception of the guitarist Bedwin’s fascinating analysis of obscured signs (like, literal signs, posted signs, advertisements, y’know) in the background of Fritz Lang’s Human Desire.
Plot has always been a secondary consideration to rhetoric in my critique of books, and Lethem here allows a number of awful lines–pure groaners–to infiltrate his text (the worst offender: a description of the complainer attesting to his “penisy glamor”). Lethem’s writing is in no way aided by his clipped, earnest delivery. The right reader can often imbue an audiobook with the perfect cadence, delivering the story with added dimension and depth. Lethem delivers each line in one of two different and exact rhythms; by the book’s end the effect is somewhere between numbing and grating.
So yes and well yes this is something of a negative review. But. My love for Lethem is still strong. So instead of ending with a “Not recommended” (and of course I can’t recommend that you spend your precious time on You Don’t Love Me Yet), I implore you to pick up Motherless Brooklyn or The Fortress of Solitude, or, if you’re pressed for time, The Disappointment Artist. And to prove that there are no hard feelings, I vow to read Lethem’s debut novel, Gun, with Occasional Music over the Christmas break. So there.
I dare you to watch Lethem talk about his new novel (in which he calls it a “deliberately silly book,” incidentally) for fifty minutes on Youtube. I dare you!