Saturday, February 20, 2010

You Don't Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem

You Don't Love Me Yet
by Jonathan Lethem


It’s not too often that a novelist uses a kangaroo as a minor character, but Jonathan Lethem manages it twice in the books of his I’ve read. First in Gun, With Occasional Music, and now with You Don’t Love Me Yet, I’m starting to wonder if this is just one of his funny little signatures, in the same way Aaron Sorkin uses “I hate your bleeding guts.”

Was a kangaroo mentioned in Fortress of Solitude? Someone remind me.

Shelf the Kangaroo lives at the Los Angeles Zoo, where Lucinda Hoekke’s ex-boyfriend, Matthew, works. He sings in the band for which she’s the bassist, playing alongside their friends, drummer Denise and guitarist/songwriter Bedwin. They are perpetually nameless, working around Bedwin’s fragile, awkward temperament and his periodic writer’s block.

After quitting her job at a coffee shop, Lucinda begins work at the Strand Gallery, run by another ex-boyfriend, Falmouth. Falmouth’s one of those “concept art” guys, someone who is always using other people as his materials. This time, he’s set up a complaint line and has his interns plastering flyers all over the city, inviting people to call in with their general complaints about the world. Lucinda is supposed to listen to the complaints, write them down, and “When you take a complaint you ought to sound like a beautiful nurse. Patient but slightly bored. As if you’re wearing a uniform that you’ll remove only after the conversation, not during. As if your real life is elsewhere.”

Soon Lucinda starts receiving calls from a man who only wants to speak to her, and she finds herself entranced by his words. Against the rules, she meets The Complainer face-to-face, and the two fall right into a relationship. The spend the weekend holed up in two different hotels, drinking and ordering room service when they’re not pawing at each other.

The Complainer, Carl, is a strange guy. He makes a living selling slogans like, “Pour Love on All the Broken Places.” He offers very little information about himself, and when he speaks about sex or love, it’s in a monotone, philosophical way. He’s much older than Lucinda, overweight, and seems to operate in his own universe. Lucinda finds this all endearing; she’s absolutely enamored with him.

When Lucinda offers Bedwin some of The Complainer’s words, without revealing their source, Bedwin writes a handful of new songs that get the band excited about playing again, and soon they score their first gig performing at an event Falmouth has organized.

In the time all this has happened, Matthew has kidnaped Shelf the Kangaroo from the zoo to save her from “ennui.” He’s hiding her in his bathroom, and driving himself even more crazy with the clean-up, produce-buying and possible job loss. Meanwhile, Bedwin keeps watching the same movie over and over (Human Desire by Fritz Lang), studying it for meaning. Denise, the only apparent grown-up in the band, keeps making him baloney sandwiches and offering ginger ale, since he often forgets to eat.

Yes, it’s all as ridiculous as it sounds. Everyone has a ridiculous name (there’s a DJ named Fancher Autumnbreast, with an assistant named Morsel) and they’re all nuts in their own special way. Everyone, except maybe Denise, is desperate to find something, anything that will make them feel like they matter and are important to somebody. And despite the story occurring sometime in the early to mid-90s (walkmans and early email are mentioned), a lot of the characters are so painfully L.A.-hipster that my cranky receptors went on high alert. “What the hell is these people’s problem?” I kept thinking while reading. “And, God, no wonder you don’t have a name yet if you’re only practicing once a week. Come on, get it together!”

However, I had no problem with the writing itself. I really enjoy Jonathan Lethem’s work, and I believe that this novel is meant to be satire on love and fledgling rock bands. He has a way with describing things that paint a clear picture, and I do appreciate that he takes an unflinching approach to relationships of all kinds. Still, this didn’t make me like the characters any more. While I certainly know people like those in this book, providing some amusement, those people tend to annoy me. The clothes, the self-inflicted haircuts, grand conversations about the meaning of art... Please. Satire or not, I didn’t necessarily enjoy disliking everyone for 220 pages.

It’s disappointing because when I read the book jacket, I laughed. It seemed like a story just crazy enough to work, especially since I’d enjoyed his other books. In the acknowledgments, Lethem thanks somebody named Amy Greenstadt, “for help inventing this story.” Should I blame her? I don’t know.

Perhaps I better stick to the novels where Lethem does not stray too far from New York. With Motherless Brooklyn sitting here and waiting to be read, perhaps it’s best that I first picked up You Don’t Love Me Yet. I’d hate to end on a down note. We shall see.

Book #15/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

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