Stylish illusion of depth
JONATHAN Lethem’s new novel opens in the cool and sterile confines of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Wandering through its galleries are Lucinda Hoekke and Matthew Plangent, two attractive, self- aware, twentysomething hipsters who have met to end their relationship, a ticklish manoeuvre as they happen to be members of the same band.
Reluctantly settling on parting terms, they slip inside one of the oversize installations for a farewell shag.
Two feeling souls, grasping at intimacy in the depthless environs of a postmodern world, is what You Don’t Love Me Yet , Lethem’s first fiction since his brilliantly ambitious The Fortress of Solitude , is all about. Or would be if Lethem’s characters were not so wedded to the realm from which he would have them escape. For an author who has spent his career gambling that pop culture virtues would win out over old school literary ones ( and who, in The Fortress of Solitude , almost convinced us), this latest work is a halfhearted bluff.
The band to which Lucinda and Matthew belong is a marginal affair. It remains nameless for most of the novel and its first gig ( provided by a conceptual artist) comes with the stipulation that they play in silence as window- dressing for a crowd of people dancing to their individual iPods. What they do have going for them is Matthew, a lead singer with rock star looks, some fine songs by the band’s shy genius, Bedwin, and a stubborn determination to escape their day jobs.
But by the time we meet them, inertia rules. Matthew is distracted — he has been sacked from his work at the zoo for making off with one of its kangaroos, an animal he believes to be suffering from ennui and which he keeps hidden in the bathroom of his apartment — while Bedwin is creatively blocked, spending his days watching old Fritz Lang movies.
Lucinda works the phones at a complaints hotline, where she is drawn to the voice of a man she dubs the complainer. They meet and almost immediately jump into bed. The complainer ( real name Carl) turns out to be a master of pomo drollery; he makes a living thinking up tags for bumper stickers. Lucinda gives his transcribed phone conversations, tales of erotic woe, to Bedwin, who adapts their words for a fresh batch of songs, material so good that it draws the attention of a legendary DJ, who invites the band to perform on his radio show. At the last moment Carl demands recompense in the form of a place in the band. It all ends badly.
There is humour here and some gorgeous prose — Lethem is an expert on west coast weirdness — but the result is frail. The narrative flares up and dies down, inexplicably. It makes desultory excursions down all manner of alleys, all of which prove to be dead ends. While it is relatively brief, less an expanded novella than a novel too hip to be bothered, it feels long, its light, melancholy tone marred by portentous asides and passages destined for the short list of the Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction award.
Its last line reads: ‘‘ You can’t be deep without a surface.’’ Maybe. But on the evidence of You Don’t Love Me Yet , neither can the fashionably superficial offer more than the illusion of depth.
Geordie Williamson is a Sydney literary critic.