When Jonathan Lethem was born, in 1964, his mother had dropped out of college and was piercing ears with a pin and ice-cube in Greenwich Village, where she ran with a crowd of folksingers including Tuli Kupferberg, Dave Van Ronk and Phil Ochs. His father, in an early phase of his career as an artist, was painting basketball hoops, vices and stereopticons. After a time the family settled in a neighbourhood to the south of downtown Brooklyn, where young whites were buying brownstones on the cheap.
As a child, Lethem was devoted to Marvel comics, science fiction, The Twilight Zone and Star Wars. His first four novels, which explored and extended the bounds of sci-fi, owe a large debt to Philip K. Dick. Lethem even sold the author’s estate ‘a few dozen’ paperback copies of out-of-print titles they didn’t have, so that the executor could seek their republication. ‘Vulcan’s Hammer, in other words, is sort of my fault,’ Lethem once wrote.
Motherless Brooklyn (1999) owes far less to Dick but, like its predecessor Girl in Landscape (1998), it suggests the long shadow of Lethem’s mother’s death from cancer when he was 14. The narrator grew up in an orphanage in downtown Brooklyn that doesn’t exercise much supervision, much less a psychological hold, over its teenage charges. That’s left to Frank Minna, a low-level dealer in stolen goods who later sets up a detective agency disguised as a taxi service. Four of the five white boys in the home are hired by Minna for $20 and a beer a day to move cargo around without asking questions.
‘Yeah, well, you’re all freaks, if you don’t mind me pointing it out,’ Minna tells the kids. ‘No parents – or am I mixed up?’ But their affection for him is palpable. When he is knifed in the stomach years later, two of the boys, now in their late twenties, find him in a dumpster before he dies: ‘“Wanna get me out of here?” He coughed, burbled, rolled his eyes at me. “Wanna give me a hand? I mean, no sooner than the muse strikes.”’
Lethem has played with wiseguy talk throughout his career, most notably in his first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music (1994). In a dystopian Oakland of the near future, Conrad Metcalf, a private eye and narrator descended from Philip Marlowe, goes to see the estranged wife of a client who’s been killed: ‘I think you’re in a little deeper than you say … Now you want very much for me to leave with the impression that you co-operated. Which makes two of us. Only problem is, I’m wearing a bullshit-proof vest.’
The orphan narrator of Motherless Brooklyn is a more unusual kind of wiseguy: Lionel Essrog has Tourette’s syndrome. Language assaults him. Coming across a business called Yorkville Zendo sends him on a riff: ‘Don’t know from Zendo, Ken-like Zung Fu, Feng Shui master, Fungo bastard, Zen masturbation, Eat me!’ The wordplay is often wildly witty, but there is an undertone that is less exuberant. Through Lionel, Lethem dramatises, sometimes ostentatiously, the profound obstacles to communication – the wall between self and other, the rattle of consciousness – that confront everyone: ‘I remembered mishearing Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus as a child. Barnamum Bailey. Like Osmium, Cardamom, Brainium, Barnamum, Where’smymom … Not now, I begged my Tourette’s self. Think about it later.’
Mom is mostly missing from The Fortress of Solitude (2003), too. We are back in the author’s old stomping grounds. Dylan Ebdus’s mother is a radical lefty who insists on sending her only child to a school where he is one of three white students. She leaves Brooklyn and her husband and son in 1974, when Dylan is about ten. His father is mostly holed up on the top floor, painting frame after frame of an abstract film, and, to his everlasting self-disgust, designing the jackets for sci-fi paperbacks.
But the streets are where real life plays out, in Dylan’s eyes, and they are lovingly and beautifully portrayed; and they are far from safe. Subject to a bike theft, headlocks and lunch-money heists, he’s ‘a bug on a grid of slate, white boy walking’. The family brownstone is in a part of Gowanus that was beginning to be called Boerum Hill in the late 1960s and 1970s. ‘If someone asks you say you live in Gowanus,’ his mother tells him before she runs off. ‘Don’t be ashamed.’ Around this time Mingus Rude moves in next door. He’s ‘a million-dollar kid’ whose father has recently quit singing soul in a chart-topping group called The Subtle Distinctions. Mingus’s mother is another one who is out of the picture; she walked out on her husband’s drug habit.
In the first two-thirds of the novel – before it loses some of its vibrancy when Dylan grows up and moves away – their friendship makes possible a masterly portrait of a city in change. Their relationship is intimate and important, for Dylan in particular, but also constrained. They bring themselves up, their lives coloured, as boys’ often are, by shared hobbies obsessively pursued: comic books, graffiti, popular music, chasing girls. Lethem dips back into fantasy, regrettably, by having a vagrant give Dylan a ring that enables the two boys to fly. But this mixing of genres does no great harm to a book about the perils and promise of mixing. As in Motherless Brooklyn, the language is unhinged, jazzy and buffeted by cultural crosswinds, and a central concern is what cannot be passed between one person and another. And what can:
Then, just when you thought you were alone, Dean Street came back to life, Mingus Rude knowing everyone, saying Yo to a million different kids coming out of Ramirez’s store with a Yoo-Hoo or a Pixy-Stix, to Alberto fetching Schlitz and Marlboros for his older brother and his older brother’s girlfriend. The block an island of time, school a million miles away, mothers calling kids inside, the bus lit inside now, fat ladies coming home from offices at the Board of Education on Livingston Street, their weary shapes like black teeth inside the glowing mouth of the bus, Marilla strolling by a million times singing It’s true, hah, sometimes you rilly do abuse me, you get me in a crowd of high-class pee-pul, then you act real rude to me, the light fading anxiously, street lights buzzing as they lit, their arched poles decorated with boomeranged-up sneakers, and Mingus Rude saying, one dying afternoon, eyes never ungluing from a panel in Marvel’s Greatest Comics … ‘Your moms is still gone?’
‘Dang, man. That’s fucked up.’
Lethem’s new novel bears some similarity to The Fortress of Solitude’s final section. There the story skipped forward to 1999 to find Dylan working as a music journalist in Berkeley, leading a life ‘overwhelmed by my childhood’. In You Don’t Love Me Yet, also set in more or less the present day, a still nameless Los Angeles rock band is trying to assemble enough material for a first gig that has yet to materialise. The group has four members, and they’re stuck in child mode too.
They’re all approaching thirty and none of them has what is sometimes referred to as a ‘real job’. Matthew Plangent, the vocalist, is a skinny guy with lead-singer looks and a sensitive soul. He works at a zoo, where he can’t bear to watch a kangaroo called Shelf ‘dying of ennui’. Denise, a brusque drummer, sells sex toys and videos at a shop called No Shame. Bedwin is a shy and awkward guitarist with a gift for songwriting. No one is clear on how he pays the rent, but then he barely eats or leaves the house. The protagonist is Lucinda, the bassist. She has sex with Matthew inside a cubical sculpture at a museum in the opening chapter, before they split up for what they swear will be the last time. Her peculiar new day job is the engine that drives the plot.
Lucinda answers the telephone at a contemporary art gallery owned by Falmouth, a friend she briefly dated in college and the creator of the cube. But she isn’t giving out information or selling tickets. Hired for a larky conceptual art project, she is one of a few young women who field calls from anyone who has a grievance. About anything. On payphones across the city, Falmouth’s interns have posted stickers with a phone number beneath the word ‘Complaints?’ The lines at the gallery are blinking red. One frequent caller, who wants to talk only to Lucinda, is an intelligent and enigmatic older man who interests her ‘entirely too much’, his words ‘like a pulse detected in a vast dead carcass’.
The set-up is a gimmick, on both Falmouth’s part and Lethem’s, though it’s clever enough to make the reader want to see what Lethem is up to. Despite Falmouth’s appeals to Lucinda and the others to keep their distance, her conversations with the man she calls ‘the complainer’ grow increasingly personal. The suspense is occasioned less by the question of whether they will meet (it seems inevitable) than by the larger uncertainty of whether this marvellously strange guy on the other end of the line can be for real. Lucinda and the complainer are ‘occult to each other’.
The complainer tells her about his tendency to ‘erode and degrade’ women in his mind with his ‘monster eyes’; he suffers from a ‘longing for longing, instead of for the thing in question’, a condition he calls ‘nostalgia vu’; and he describes at some length a bizarre sexual liaison he had with a ‘beautiful catastrophe’, a lonely woman with a ‘gawky elegance that made it difficult for her to get properly defiled’. But they were only ‘astronaut food’ to each other, he says, people you keep around on the shelf knowing they will never provide any real nourishment. With his verbal dexterity and delight in metaphor, his coarse and witty rejoinders, the complainer has more than a little Conrad Metcalf and Frank Minna in him, and like them he is a complicated and memorable figure.
The limits placed on his relationship with Lucinda allow her to carry out a surreptitious plan. Falmouth’s obscure sociological purposes require his functionaries to take notes on each call. Lucinda scribbles down bits of the complainer’s cryptic musings and then hands them, without explanation or attribution, to the song-writing Bedwin, who says he has been ‘having a sort of problem with language’.
When he and the band turn fragments of the complainer’s reflections into song lyrics, ‘the mystery of authorship’ comes to the fore. Who owns the complainer’s words, if anyone? Lethem has argued that collage, pastiche and even appropriation are elements of a healthy aesthetic and cultural discourse, and that copyright laws and accusations of plagiarism are too readily invoked. (In keeping with this endorsement of so-called open source culture, he has invited artists to record their own versions of the songs in You Don’t Love Me Yet and has awarded the film option on the story without an upfront fee.) In the novel, however, Lethem doesn’t really engage with this issue; the book remains essentially a romantic comedy.
Lucinda eventually goes on a date with the complainer, Carl, a long-haired large man she finds ‘beautiful in a puffy, slightly decrepit way’. They head straight to bed for lots of mutually satisfying sex. Although he’s not invited by Lucinda, Carl attends the band’s first gig, which is meant to be part of another absurdist stunt by Falmouth that involves having them play at inaudible levels. But it turns into their breakout moment.
Lethem excels at describing a rock audience finding itself in the presence of something special, each listener gripped by the wonderful illusion that the performers are singing ‘about me most of all’. He writes well about the aftermath too: ‘Someone … locates the light switches again and kills the purple spots, so the band is left represented by the connect-the-dot glows of their equipment’s power indicators, while the vibrating crowd is illuminated only by the answering glow of their cigarette tips and the oceanic moonlit blue leaking through the windows.’
Clues about the group’s sound, however, come largely from allusions to actual artists (an eclectic range); the entertainingly cutesy song titles (‘Canary in a Coke Machine’, ‘Hell Is for Buildings’, ‘Actually Quite Funny’); and their fashion sense (Matthew is always in a black turtleneck and jeans, and Bedwin, who cuts his own hair with children’s scissors, wears ‘sneakers, plaid shirt buttoned to his Adam’s apple, analog wristwatch, glasses’). In The Fortress of Solitude, such points of reference spoke to the way a child or adolescent experiences the world and formed a part of a densely textured realism. Here, however, the allusions seem more like shortcuts.
After the show, record executives and a big-shot LA radio host swoop in. As does Carl, who predictably stakes a claim on the band’s material, including the instant hit ‘Monster Eyes’. But his bid is friendlier than we might have expected. He pays a visit to Lucinda and Denise, revealing the secret to the drummer, and tells them he wants to join the act. ‘I want what we all want,’ he says. ‘To move certain parts of the interior of myself into the external world, to see if they can be embraced.’ Denise doesn’t take kindly to the idea and Lucinda is embarrassed to be caught out, but they all let one another off the hook a bit too easily.
In the dénouement that follows this scene, an array of romantic permutations are begun, revealed, aborted or renewed, with echoes of a French bedroom farce. Carl’s encroachment puts the band’s chance for fame in jeopardy, but the consequences don’t seem as dire to the reader as they do to Lucinda. Part of what Lethem is sending up here is a young person’s narcissistic belief that no one has ever felt quite this way before. And the characters’ fumbling attempts to understand what got them into this mess are sometimes very funny, but they would be funnier if we knew more about where the musicians came from, or who they were before the band existed. Solipsism may be a theme that plays against Lethem’s considerable strengths. In Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, the personal had a social and artistic context. The backdrop of You Don’t Love Me Yet is flimsy by comparison; the wider world is missing.