Flipping pages with author Jonathan Lethem
Jonathan Lethem answers the phone with a deep voice. I blurt out, “I’m afraid you’re going to sound like Carl.” He laughs and quickly thwarts my worry, assuring me that he doesn’t have the same uncomfortable phone manners as Carl, a tacky and wacky character in Lethem’s new book, “You Don’t Love Me Yet.”
Thank God, because I really don’t want an interview with Carl, a man who is dripping with weirdness—someone you might be afraid to hang up on. While I’m not a particular fan of getting Carl on the phone, Lucinda is. Lucinda—she’s the main character in Lethem’s book. She’s a wild child, inclined toward impulsive choices, nymphomaniac trysts and a general crusty nature. Yes, she and Carl—they’re a match made in Lethem’s fictional heaven, which is actually Los Angeles.
The author will do a book signing and a reading at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 15 at Bookshop Santa Cruz. Lethem, a notable bestselling author and master storyteller, received the highly regarded National Book Critics Circle Award for his book, “Motherless Brooklyn.”
“It’s very much a valentine to my own twenties,” Lethem says. “… It was a time in life when everyone was wearing masks or playing at things. There’s something so pretentious and also very tender about that phase in life. I think it’s very weirdly true: If you’re going to be any kind of an artist you have to be a fake first. You have to pretend first and play at it.”
Lethem has supercharged his book with the angst and foibles of a foursome who are playing at being professional musicians. They’re also all on the cusp of turning 30, and we know how that affects a person: premature mid-life crises.
The troubled quartet includes the aforementioned Lucinda. She reminds me of someone I once knew: She’ll bed anyone at anytime, she’s hedonistic, the type who slurps when she eats cereal and talks while chewing at the same time. Sloppy is a great way to describe her. And yet, while she’s annoying, there’s something very vulnerable and loveable about her.
On page one of “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” we immediately get the skinny on Lucinda, which is a testament to Lethem’s fine writing. He has us hooked after the first sentence. The lure is instant. There, on page one, we discover that Lucinda and her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend, Matthew, are about to go splitsville for their umpteenth time. They chuck their relationship away while walking through a quiet museum. It’s this very museum where Lucinda later has an earthquake of sorts in her personal life.
Her friend, Falmouth (who’s also an ex-boyfriend), has a show in the museum: something very avant-garde, edgy, and, well, kind of weird. It’s a “complainer line,” where the public can call in to talk to Lucinda and a few others who take their complaints during this live action art installation. The only catch is that Lucinda gets hooked in by a mysterious voice, that of Carl. Intrigued by his bizarre conversations with her on the phone, she dubs him “The Complainer,” and asks to meet him. They have a rendezvous of the sexual sort, which goes on and on, for nearly a day-and-a-half. And then things become even weirder, when the no-named band becomes, in the course of one night, a hot commodity, and Carl wants in.
By now, we’re only half way through the novel and things just keep getting more and more weird and entertaining. A kangaroo hops into the tale and Lucinda makes the rounds with her sexual exploits. The characters all seem “lost” in Los Angeles, faking their way through relationships and their first true gig.
Rounding out the stellar writing is the care that Lethem takes to explain the intricacies of the band; when they discover a new song; when a drumbeat turns into a revolutionary musical moment, and so on. You can’t help but assume that Lethem himself must be a musician.
“I’m hopeless,” says the scribe. “I keep writing about it. I can’t live out that wish any other way. I don’t have the chops. Not even the ear. I can’t stay on pitch.”
But his writing stays “on pitch.” Lethem has fleshed out each of these characters so fully that I was personally creeped out a bit when I discovered that Lucinda was so similar to that old acquaintance of mine. It’s as if Lethem had met her at one point.
“There’s a lot of myself in all of those characters,” Lethem says. “I’m neatly partitioned in this book into different characters.”
On the cover of Lethem’s book is a brooding young man with fluffy brown hair and a moody look on his face. His hands are pressed to his sides. A guitar sits on his bed and a polka dot curtain hangs in the background. It could be Matthew on the cover (Lucinda’s new ex, and the singer of the band). Or it could be Bedwin, the lyrical genius and guitarist of the band.
“That picture is of me, when I was 25,” Lethem says, with a chuckle. “I was thinking about that time in my life and the kind of affectations that were typical. I showed the photo to my editor and it turned into the jacket photo. I never quite got around to canceling it.”
That seems like something one of his characters would do. But then again it sounds like something Lethem would do. He’s always trying something innovative and original, spicing up the artistic world with his own battery of ideas.
Take, for example, his Promiscuous Materials Project. Basically, a normal person can buy rights to selected pieces of his intellectual property and adapt it into a song, a story, a film, whatever, for $1. “In this one little kind of tiny experiment in communism I’m conducting, a few questions can be raised, about how work belongs to everyone and the person who makes it, and the ways it tends to be commodified in our commercial culture.”
This experiment is even being applied to “You Don’t Love Me Yet.” He’s giving away a film option (meaning that someone can acquire the rights to make a film based on the book) for free. This version has some game rules, but the concept is sturdy. “It’s partly for the fun of it and out of curiosity to see what would happen,” Lethem says. Funny, that’s part of what makes his book such a page-turner—the fun of it, and the curiosity to see what happens next.
Jonathan Lethem will be doing a book signing and reading from his book, “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 15 at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. For more information, call 423-0900 or visit jonathanlethem.com.
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