- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 17, 2007

YOU DON’T LOVE ME YET

By Jonathan Lethem

Doubleday, $24.95, 223 pages

Jonathan Lethem’s new novel might leave readers wondering what happened to the hand that guided the remarkable “Motherless Brooklyn” (2000) and “The Fortress of Solitude” (2003). In those books, Mr. Lethem turned the edgy preoccupations of a set of New Yorkers into cacophonous but deeply-felt revelations about life’s mysteries.

On first glance, “You Don’t Love Me Yet” seems a thinner book than its predecessors. Without the racial tensions of “The Fortress of Solitude” or the detective-story architecture of “Motherless Brooklyn,” one could argue that Mr. Lethem has relied solely on flashy narrative prowess and left depth behind. But that would be unfair to the considerable merits of this book — and to its play with what actually constitutes depth.

On the surface, the book is preoccupied with the story of Lucinda Hoekke, the bass player in a band of assorted L.A. misfits who also happen to be talented musicians.

Hers is a life of drinking hard, rehearsing hard and trying to sort out her relationship with Matthew, the band’s lead singer and her ex-boyfriend whose day job is that of a zookeeper. Lucinda’s best friend is Denise, the band’s drummer, who secretly pines for Bedwin, the band’s erstwhile lyricist, who is suffering from writer’s block when readers meet him.

Each is a thirtysomething with aspirations to make the band a success. And even though their hard work seems to be getting them to a level of proficiency on songs such as “Hell is For Buildings” and “Canary in a Coke Machine,” they are growing tired of the oldest songs in their repertoire “Crayon Fever” and “Temporary Feeling.” They are ripe for some kind of change, or more to the point, “They all rooted for Bedwin to write more songs. He hadn’t in a while. Not that anyone meant to start panicking about it.”

Just when it seems the band (which remains unnamed) is about to dissolve, Lucinda takes a job answering the phone at a performance art installation dreamed up by her former lover Falmouth. It is her responsibility to answer the Complaint Line, listening to all kinds of grievances. She can reply, but her replies must conform to a script that she is obliged to consult.

Lucinda hates the job except for fielding calls from a man she soon nicknames the Complainer, a seductive speaker who calls her regularly and begins to get under her skin.

She loves the stories he tells her, some of which have a strong erotic component, and, more importantly, she loves the way he tells them. But it’s his phrasing that remains with her, little nuggets of insight about life and love, and before long, she is re-directing some of these phrases to Bedwin who incorporates them into songs.

Here are the Complainer’s observations about his approach to love:

“‘I have this condition called monster eyes. I find something not to like and it becomes enormous, it becomes the whole world. Once it was a woman’s fingernails. I started to think they were too weird and short and stubby, and then it was all I could think about. I tried encouraging her to work on her cuticles, to push them up — am I disgusting you? …

“‘I told myself that if she’d just work on her hands I’d go back to adoring her. But really there were other things about her voice and personality … that were waiting to take the place of the fingernails. I’d begun to erode and degrade her in my mind. With my monster eyes.’”

And so, Lucinda grabs a pen and before long Bedwin is fed the words and develops “Monster Eyes,” the best song he has ever written.

The harmless plagiarism of phrases becomes a problem when, against Complaint Line rules, Lucinda agrees to meet the Complainer. They fall into bed, pursue a romance and move hectically forward until the Complainer (now called Carl) realizes that what he is saying is turning up in the increasingly popular band’s songs. Among the things he requires by way of compensation is a chance to be a member of the band.

Despite the racing along of the narrative and its seemingly elliptical constructs, this is a book with genuine heft. Funny, thoughtful, surprising at turns, it confirms Mr. Lethem’s place as one of the most original novelists at work today. Though it was alarming to find an engaging minor (but potent) character actually named Marian Rorschach, readers can make of that what they will.

Or as Carl says toward the end of the book, recalling a phrase a friend once shared with him, “You can’t be deep without a surface.”

In this witty, affecting book, the surface is just the appetizer.


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