Monday, April 05, 2010

You Don't Love Me Yet

This is not an easy thing to write.  I am an unabashed fan of Jonathan Lethem’s writing, but after achronologically reading the later work Chronic City and now the novel You Don’t Love Me Yet, I cannot deny that he is in a Neil-Young-in-the-80s period of his career.  On paper You Don’t Love Me Yet should be my favorite of his novels: it is (1) about a young Superchunkish rock band, (2) dedicated to Eliot Duhan, a friend of mine and mutual friend of Lethem’s, who is also a guy I think the world of, (3) trying to capture the mostly unwritable feeling of being an individual subsuming your identity to the larger purpose of creating something as a group.

But You Don’t Love Me Yet is a disaster instead.  As with Chronic City, the protagonist--a person the novel doesn’t step away from--is quite blank and unlikeable.  There are interesting secondary characters, but they prove unknowable to this protagonist.  And the fundamental conflict that drives the story is a nonstarter.  Both of these novels seem like they should work, but neither has the passion to engage me as a reader.  As someone who wants to enjoy Lethem’s writing no matter what, a fan as I am a fan of Neil Young’s, I cannot help but be disappointed.

I’m willing to grant that my expectations might put me at fault for my failure to enjoy these books, but that’s really a backhanded slap at the man when I’d rather approach this directly.  Lethem built an increasingly solid body of work in the 90s through the masterful Motherless Brooklyn and the jaggedly brilliant The Fortress Of Solitude.  Then he won a MacArthur genius grant, which isn’t just confirmation of his brilliance but, unfortunately, a gift that bestows extra weight on the man’s work afterwards.  And it’s possible that after The Fortress of Solitude, an intensely personal examination of his own sense of identity and loss, his obsessive intellect hasn’t found another subject painful enough to lend to his writing the necessary catharsis.  Perhaps - and I feel like a cad for suggesting this, but this is my uninformed conclusion nevertheless - Lethem is simply too happy to write a good novel right now.

Or, at least, under the model that his prior novels were written.  There’s always the rip-up-the-rule-book-and-start-over option.

As a fan, do I want more of Lethem’s great work?  Yes, certainly.  But as a human being, would I rather read Lethem being great or would I rather he be a happy man?  The latter, definitely.  But what I don’t want is this middle ground of novels that feel unengaged and half-written.  Lethem, don’t make David Geffen sue your ass to get your muse working again.  Neil Young had a handful of great albums left in him after the 80s before he settled for turning out elder statesman-style mediocrities.  So either bring the pain or write essays, but don't settle for Are You Passionate?-type crap. 


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