Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Book #17: The Disappointment Artist by Jonathan Lethem

I feel more kinship with Lethem than I should. It's awkward. I wrote that article about his books for the High Hat with the jokey call-out that in retrospect embarrasses me as much as any statement of unabashed fanboyishness should and will eventually embarrass the progenitor (assuming that we're not talking about Harry Knowles here, of course).

In this collection, which eventually begins to cohere into a memoir of sorts, Lethem talks about his obsessions -- obsessions I tend to share or at least recognize as similar to my own, current or past, (and would I please shut up because this isn't about me) -- as a way of talking about his coming-of-age: The Searchers, the Talking Heads, the subway station near his childhood home, the mentors he adopted after his mother died, his father's art, Star Wars, Cassavetes, Godard, Chuck Berry, Marvel comics, Fripp & Eno's No Pussyfooting album, and other weird little bits of pop culture detritus.

This focus of the self as mediated (in De Zengotita's terms, which I intend to use until a better model comes along) infuriated John Leonard, who wrote about how little he cares for Lethem's obsessions in the NYTRoB several months back. Leonard should know better (although everything I've read by the guy indicates that he clearly doesn't). Lethem isn't merely cataloguing his preferences. He's pushing through the mediation to examine how he became the man he is. What does it mean that he's watched The Searchers twelve times, trying to understand his reactions to it? The Searchers is a complicated, ugly, beautiful, confusing, corny, profound movie: a landmine of contradictions, like history itself. Would Leonard prefer a world where people didn't examine their reactions to movies like The Searchers? From his essay, I suspect he would prefer that people don't think about The Searchers at all, so long as movies he believes more intellectual exist. Or, I don't know, maybe Leonard thinks movies are beneath concern. His point seemed to be that Lethem is wasting his talent thinking about junk pop culture, but it's apparent that Lethem, although he acknowledges that his obsessions are outside of high cultural concerns, finds junk culture infinitely fascinating. As do I. As does anyone born after WWII and the advent of pop culture and the mediated life. The divisions between high, low, and in-between are crumbling.

This is not to say that all aesthetic reactions are relatively equal (just being clear here). I am, however, saying that Leonard's aesthetic revulsion to Lethem's subject matter is nonsense without sufficient support, which Leonard never really musters in his article.

Anyway, the book. I loved it, which I knew I would before even opening the cover. My head is filled with the same pop culture detritus marking my emotional development as Lethem's, and he truly speaks for those like me who think of pop songs or movies when thinking of important events.

Which is good for me (I know, I know, this is everyone's main concern -- but how is the book for you specifically, Hayden?), because I lack the discipline to ever get around to writing any of the fiction rattling around in my head. I long to be a writer, but I hate to actually write, and I never do it. At least, I never do anymore (and are you surprised that this paragraph is about me again? Get used to it, 'cause I appear to have a compulsion to write about me me me on my stupid blog), unlike when I had a writing class forcing me to sit down and craft stories.

OK, the book. Not me, the book, the book. Lethem is still carrying the weight of his adolescence, as I suspect everyone does, although since his emotional maturity is measured by the music, movies, and books he loved, he relives it when he encounters those things. Well, ok, maybe this isn't so new: so did Proust, albeit not with pop culture but things more subtle. Lethem is remembering things past with forceful intensity, partially because he still loves the stimula that drive these memories.

Lethem's prose is as welcoming as always and the book is much shorter than it should be (and why didn't they include Lethem's lovely essay on the unknowability of the Go-Betweens?), which makes it an unfortunately fast read. Not that I enjoyed wallowing in sympathy for Lethem, who had some horrible pain in losing his mother as a teenager, but I do enjoy listening to Lethem yap on about stupid things I love, as much as I love hearing any of my smart friends do so. Maybe more, because unlike when I bullshit with friends, Lethem's pearls of wisdom and understanding are captured in a book and thus not transitory. Shit. I need to acquire the discipline to write if it's permanence I'm so worried about. Don't I?


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