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.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Compulsive Chronicles #13: Heartbreakers

Compulsive Chronicles is an ongoing music column with SPOKE(a)N(e) Magazine. This month, I talked about Ryan Adams’ brand of heartache. Here are some of my favorite heartbreakers by other artists:

1. “Two Little Girls” by Ani DiFranco
So I guess I’ll just stand here with my back against the wall
while you distill your whole life into one 911 call

Here, Ani sings about the heartbreak of addiction and watching the ones we love waste away. She wants to be supportive, but it has come to the point where she no longer knows how. Even if you’ve never had a friend or loved one with a drug addiction, most of us know someone with self-destructive tendencies. They ask for advice, for attention, yet they never want to hear your authentic response.

2. “Don’t Change Your Plans” by Ben Folds Five
All I know is I’ve gotta be
where my heart says I oughta be
It often makes no sense, in fact
I never understand these things, I feel

This is a big swell of a song that comes at a crossroads, a couple who may love each other, but their lives are taking different directions. She’s moving to L.A., and he knows he won’t be happy if he follows. Sometimes relationships don’t end because one person has wronged another — they just run their course, and while the end is difficult, it’s ultimately the most healthy decision.

3. “For No One” by The Beatles
And in her eyes, you see nothing
No sign of love behind the tears
Cry for no one
A love that should have lasted years

A perfect example of the one-sided breakup — One person desperately loves the other, wants to hang on, but the other no longer feels the same way. She says he’s not the same person anymore, that she no longer needs him, and he has trouble believing it. This is one of my favorite songs on Revolver, and one of my favorite Beatles songs overall.

4. “Flowers and Football Tops” by Glasvegas
Police on my left and right
My son’s not coming home tonight
Baby, they don’t need to show
It’s over, I know

This is perhaps one of the most honest, least cloying examples of the heartache that comes from losing a child. The flowers and football tops of course refer to the funeral, all the son’s mates gathered round to pay their tributes. Whatever trouble he got himself into caught up with him, and one gets the impression that while his mother is devastated, his death is not completely unexpected.

5. “Rocking Chair” by Oasis
It’s hard enough being alone,
sitting here by the phone,
waiting for my memories to come and play

Noel Gallagher doesn’t spend much time wallowing in sadness, but he is prone to fits of nostalgia. This B-side from “Roll With It” is one of the most heartbreaking, lovely songs in their catalogue, and Liam’s raspy voice is absolutely perfect here. I wish they had played it live more often, as Liam has mentioned it’s one of his favorites as well. It’s such a shame we won’t hear these two paired together in such a brilliant way again.

Illustration by Grace Habein

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

by Vladimir Nabokov

So allergic to ‘classics’ was I as a younger reader, that my main introduction to the name Lolita came from Beavis and Butthead, with the big-haired bar-chicks who would introduce themselves by saying, “Hi, I’m Lolita, and this here’s Tanka Rae.”

By high school and the years after, if I wasn’t required to read them for some class, classics fell to the ‘Should Read’ list, in the same way a person ‘should’ eat fish for the Omega-3s. I’d get around to them at some point, after I finished going through the entire back catalogue of my favorites. So when Pajiba decided on Lolita as the first official Book Club selection, I chose to join in as though it were a class assignment. Deadlines have a wonderful way of getting items off the ‘someday’ list.

For those unfamiliar: Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert, a French ex-pat living in suburban East Coast America in the late 1940s. Taken in as a lodger by Charlotte Haze, he develops an all-consuming passion and desire for her twelve-year-old daughter, Dolores — sometimes referred to as Dolly, and by himself, the pet names Lo and Lolita. At first, he does all that he can to mask his feelings, so as not to spoil her or the convenient living situation in which he has found himself. Lo is a petulant, dramatic creature, especially towards her mother, but she takes a liking to Humbert, at first in an innocent, child-like way. The remainder of the book tracks the evolution of their relationship, written from Humbert’s point of view in the style of a memoir.

If the basic premise of the story seems creepy, it is. The beginning of the book contains plenty of leering and enough comments about young girls — “nymphettes” — that made my skin crawl a bit, especially since I have a daughter. One has to plow through all the ogling preamble before the story really takes off, and once it does, it’s less creepy. Or maybe after the first 100 pages, I just became used to it, acclimatized in the same way one gets used to Victorian language.

The edition I read was the 50th Anniversary paperback, which included some notes on the book by Nabokov at the end, written in 1956. He says:

Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”

It’s helpful to think of Lolita as a foreign environment and the readers should try to be impartial observers. If the object of Humbert’s desire were not a child, it would still be a tale of obsessive love that leads to a sort of madness, and it would still be the story of a woman who didn’t know what she wanted, other than attention. Nobody is all that sympathetic of a character, but they’re interesting, so I wanted to know what happened to them — the official mark of effective literature.

And despite the subject matter, the writing really is something else — big, beautiful sentences that don’t feel like something I had to digest. To make another food comparison — the novel was more like one of those chocolate Fiber One bars than eating plain bran flakes. Some people like a novel to feel like work, a big project to conquer; I am not one of them. I require only an interesting story, interesting people and writing that doesn’t try to call attention to itself. Within those standards, Lolita succeeded.

On February 25th, Pajiba will have an open discussion on the novel. You do not have to be an official Cannonball Read participant to join in, so if you’ve read the novel and would like to share your thoughts, do take peek.

Book #14/52

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.