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Letham's work. I found "Fortress of Solitude" oppressive. "You Don't Love Me Yet" is a great deal of fun. It's a look at a part of today's youth culture I have no contact with so I cannot vouch for its accuracy but it is fun. The "blue noses" won't like it. It's full of sex, drugs and rock & roll with no apologies what so ever. I thoroughly enjoyed the listen.
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For most of the last 15 years or so, I have been one of Jonathan Lethem’s biggest fans. I think Chronic City has a claim on being the best novel of its decade, and I think Motherless Brooklyn is an almost perfect ironic tribute to the noir tradition. Add in the flawed but gorgeous Fortress of Solitude, the quietly beautiful Dissident Gardens, and the sci-fi comedy of Gun with Occasional Music, and he has as varied, funny, and brilliant a bibliography as anybody going.
My assessment of him as arguably the best writer of his generation has taken a couple hits in the last year, though. For one, his A Gambler’s Anatomy struck me as the first work I’d read of his that wasn’t deeply inspired. Part of the joy of reading him is that anything seems possible, that he’s always restraining one flight of fancy or another to give us the choicest pieces of his imagination. A Gambler’s Anatomy felt heavy, even contrived at times. It left me sad.
In addition, as I reflected on the disappointment of that novel and thought more about my students’ reactions to Chronic City a couple years ago, I started to understand what some of the Lethem-haters have been saying for a while: that the major chink in his armor is that he focuses too much on hipsters, on characters who live in the surface of things rather than in any substantial way. I understood – mind you, I did not agree with – that claim and began to glimpse how it might annoy some readers to hear so much about such self-satisfied characters. There was, maybe, a little bit of the supermodel complaining about how hard it is for to feel thin in the way these often-wealthy taste-making young people grasped after some meaning to their lives.
All that said, I am happy to report that I loved this novel. It doesn’t crack my top four all-time Lethems, maybe not even the top five, but that still leaves plenty of room for this to be really good. Yes, it concerns hipsters and beautiful artist types. Yes, it assumes a familiarity with pop culture that can make you feel a little like an aging Midwesterner. And, yes, it’s simply less ambitious than Chronic City or even Dissident Gardens in the way it tries to make sense of the way art defines and then confines us.
Instead, this is a novel that works from the premise that, as a number of characters repeatedly say, you can’t be deep without a surface. Lucinda seems to have it all. She’s the bass player for a band about to break. She’s got that heroin chic look. She goes from dating the band’s lead singer to falling for a strangely compelling “complainer,” and she has a network of interesting (though odd) and talented people willing to give her light employment or free housing.
But the complainer sets something off inside her with his capacity for articulating his own – and the zeitgeist’s – dissatisfaction. When she recycles his complaints into lyrics for the band, there’s real power. The premise is sound, but it would fall flat without Lethem’s deep skill. You really need someone with the power to manipulate language and to see others with “monster eyes” – someone like Lethem himself – to make it all work.
Part of the joy of the novel is that the music seems really to come through. I can hear these songs, and I like them. They do what the best rock does, which is a privileged and white version of what the blues do: take frustration (or, as Jagger and Richards said it so memorably, “no satisfaction”) and make it something you can dance to.
That would be enough, but Lethem takes it even farther. The complainer, Carl(ton), is not a real rocker. When he joins the band, he’s both a lousy musician and a lousy exemplar of what it means to rock. He simply can’t let go of his complaints, as witnessed in the band’s big break live radio performance where he wants to recast their most popular song as a dirge. If hipsters define themselves against convention, then he defines himself against hipsterdom, never accepting his good fortune, never allowing himself to dance. It’s great that [SPOILER] he winds up in love with the all-business middle-aged zoo administrator who has also foiled Matthew in his wonderfully demented effort to rescue, and perhaps fall in love with, a kangaroo. He deserves an ending where he’s held in check, where someone directs him toward what he has to do.
In the middle of all that, Lethem retains his skill at sketching characters quickly and effectively. It still seems to me that he can make a character come alive more fully in 270 pages than Jonathan Franzen can in 600 and that, as he does so, he brings into play the same “postmodern” reflections of how we can understand ourselves outside a contemporary culture that consistently tries to shape us in its own image.
I can see this feels a little dated – I’m sorry I didn’t get to it when it first came out – but it serves for me as evidence that Lethem remains one of the most distinctive and entertaining voices we have. I’ve just learned that he has another one due out in the fall, and I’m already excited for it.
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