Tuesday, January 15, 2013

You Don't Love Me Yet

You Don't Love Me Yet
by Jonathan Lethem
(Doubleday, 2007, 224 pages)

I'm a big fan of Jonathan Lethem's writing, both fiction and non-fiction. We like similar things (Marvel comics, John Ford Westerns, Philip K. Dick, indie rock) and in a perfect world would probably be friends on Facebook. Though most acclaimed for his 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel Motherless Brooklyn (his take on the detective mystery, which featured a sleuth afflicted with Tourette's syndrome and reflected his love of stretching genres "to their limits and beyond") and the semi-autobiographical coming-of-age bestseller The Fortress of Solitude - which according to Wikipedia helped seal his rep among critics as "a master craftsmen of language" and led to the MacArthur Foundation awarding him a coveted "genius grant" in 2005 - I've so far only taken the back way into his books (I guess I'm working up the courage to tackle the "heavy stuff"); thus, I've read only his shorter, smaller, peripheral works like personal fave Chronic City, the short story collection Men and Cartoons, his non-fiction essays in The Disappointment Artist, and (with co-author Karl Rusnuk and artists Paul Hornschemeir, Farel Dalrymple, and Gary Panter) his revival of the Marvel comic series Omega the Unknown.

Lethem's sixth novel, You Don't Love Me Yet - a slim, 224-page light-hearted romantic comedy-style story of struggling rock bands (struggling even to come up with a name for themselves) and conceptual artists living in L.A. - continues my strategy of tackling the shorter works before attempting to scale Lethem's literary mountains. You Don't Love Me Yet received mixed reviews at the time of its release in 2007, which Lethem attributed to his novel's intentionally "silly and light tone."

Cover girl Lucinda Hoekke
The story follows the fortunes of Lucinda Hoekke, a hard-drinking 29-year-old former coffee shop wage slave who now divides her time between answering the "Complaint Line" at her pretentious ex-boyfriend Falmouth's "performance art gallery" and playing bass in an indie rock group so unfocused they can't even decide on a name. The other members of the band include skinny vegan lead singer Matthew (yet another former beau of Lucinda's who kidnaps a depressed kangaroo from the zoo where he works in order to save it from boredom); Denise, the dedicated drummer who works at the "No Shame" sex shop (which makes me think of Audrey Tattou's elusive boy-toy in Amelie);  and Bedwin, the feckless foursome's shy genius composer and lead guitarist, who is obsessed with Alex Chilton's cult '70s band Big Star and Fritz Lang's film Human Desire (1952), which he watches repeatedly. (I most related to Bedwin, not due to the genius angle - far from it! - but because of our similar reclusive social lives; I too find nothing better than staying home listening to Big Star and watching old movies. What else is there? Especially now with Me TV and This TV as home viewing options!)

Lucinda falls for a regular caller she names "The Complainer," whose reflections about love, sex and life amuse her. She eventually hooks up with the anonymous caller, whose name is Carl Voglesong (though Lucinda re-christians him Carl Birdkiller) and incorporates his catchphrases and stories as song lyrics for her band. His musings about having "Monster eyes" becomes, in turn, both the band's signature song and, inevitably, the band's short-lived name. And Lucinda soon becomes obsessed with Carl the Complainer, to the point where she moves in with him, while Carl soon invades her space, forcing his way into the band as its proverbial "fifth Beatle" by right of his Lucinda-lifted lyrics. Carl the Complainer has become Carl the Copyright Claimer.

Monster Eyes's successful performance at Falmouth's loft party (christened "Aparty") leads Fancher Autumnbreast (a legendary John Peel-ish alternative DJ) to book the band to perform live on his popular music radio program. But Carl disrupts their radio broadcast,with unforeseen romantic and musical consequences.

This leads into the touchy area of when imitation moves beyond flattery into the murky realm of plagiarism, which Lethem apparently believes is always a fine line for artists. (Rod Serling famously said that as a young writer, he was always subconsciously parroting Hemingway, claiming all his early stories seemed to open with variations of "It was hot.")

According to National Public Radio's Linda Kulper, this gray area that surrounds "intellectual property rights" and the artist's creative process is keeping with the focus of Lethem's February 2007 Harper's essay, "The Ecstasy of Influence" (subtitled "A Plagiarism" and later to provide the title of his 2011 non-fiction essay collection), in which he posits that imitation is not just the greatest form of flattery but "lies at the core of the creative process." So much so that Lethem announced he would "give away" the movie rights to any parties interested in You Don't Love Me Yet. (And, hey, this would make quite a good film; I can see a number of cast members of Lena Dunham's HBO series Girls fitting the bill - perhaps Christopher Abbott as the sexy Matthew and Adam Driver as the arty-farty Falmouth - and Zach Galifianakis as chubby Carl the Complainer.)

To illustrate his point, Lethem even cleverly "repurposed" John Donne's famous "No man is an island" lines from "Meditation XVII" in his essay:
All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. . . .
 —John Donne
Another case in point, Lethem adds:
In a courtroom scene from The Simpsons that has since entered into the television canon, an argument over the ownership of the animated characters Itchy and Scratchy rapidly escalates into an existential debate on the very nature of cartoons. “Animation is built on plagiarism!” declares the show’s hot-tempered cartoon-producer-within-a-cartoon, Roger Meyers Jr. “You take away our right to steal ideas, where are they going to come from?” If nostalgic cartoonists had never borrowed from Fritz the Cat, there would be no Ren & Stimpy Show; without the Rankin/Bass and Charlie Brown Christmas specials, there would be no South Park; and without The Flintstones — more or less The Honeymooners in cartoon loincloths — The Simpsons would cease to exist. 
He goes on to name-check a Who's Who of Pop Cultural Appropriators, from William Burroughs (inventor of the cut-up text technique) to Bob "Love and Theft" Dylan. His own influences for "genre poaching" include everyone from Angela Carter, Robert Altman, and Raymond Chandler to and Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, and H. P. Lovecraft (to name but a few).

Lethem's web site (www.jonathanlethem.com) further champions the principle of "fair use," the author stating that all artists should look for ways "to make material free and available for reuse."

As Hannah Gerber observed (appropriately enough in the New York Observer), "For better and for worse, Mr. Lethem is part of a vanguard of Gen-X writers whose M.O. is to put a literary gloss on their pop culture enthusiasms."

Works for me! I truly enjoyed You Don't Love Me Yet. In fact, I loved it!

See also:
"Men and Cartoons" (Media Maxi-Pad)

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