As Jonathan Lethem’s novels go, You Don’t Love Me Yet is, well, pretty tame and usual. It’s not set on a strange planet like his favorite, Girl in Landscape. There’s no central character who’s a detective with Tourette’s syndrome as in his prize-winning Motherless Brooklyn.
The language flows, yes. The music plays. And his main character, bass guitarist Lucinda Hoekke, cribs catchy lines for her band’s songs from a phrase-writer she meets on a phone complaint line at a performance art installation. All right, I concede. A bored rock chick whose day job is soothing whiners calling in on The Complaint Line does give You Don’t Love Me Yet that unusual twist that characterizes much of his body of fiction. Still, it’s a small strangeness. The novel is looser and lighter than his other ones, as though it hadn’t steeped within him too long.
“This one was on-the-spot improvisation,” Lethem acknowledged when he stopped in Milwaukee last week, roughly midway through his 29-stop book tour. “It has an open structure because the characters are heedless. ... Serendipity could have had a hand in this book.”
Lethem said he found the complaint line he had thought up fun.
“What amused me about The Complaint Line was the way it was a bad day job,” he said, explaining that there was something comical about the disparity between the exalted image of the artist and the reality of an artist’s life.
“She (Lucinda) comes from—as they (his characters) all do—from parts of the world and people that make an impression on me and are given life from parts of me,” he explained.
Lethem, who stares earnestly now and again at you as he talks, seemed relaxed as he drank cappuccino in his Milwaukee hotel lobby. His cell phone suddenly burst forth with rock music. The Associated Press was calling. He was apologetic; he said he’d call back later that afternoon, before his reading, or the next morning, from the airport.
The music on the cell phone? “Marquee Moon” from Television, a punk rock band of the 1970s.
Lethem’s passions—art, music, the making and sharing of it—are rolled up tightly into the meat of You Don’t Love Me Yet. It’s set in Los Angeles, and the alternative rock band Lucinda plays in is central to the story.
The book harkens back to his 20s, Lethem said, recalling the decade when he lived in the San Francisco Bay area after dropping out of Bennington College. Lethem was 33 when he returned to Brooklyn, where he was born and where he now lives on the same block in Boerum Hill where he was raised by artistic, Bohemian parents.
Lethem’s father is the avant-garde painter Richard Brown Lethem. His mother, an activist, died when he was a teenager. From his parents, he said, he learned the life and dedication of the artist.
“I really am a person who grew up in the arts,” he said. “My father was a painter, so our religion was art. It was more so than any other myth or cultural tradition. My father was a huge influence on me. Made me into the writer I am. ... For me, the artistic life was quite familiar—the prosaic, daily commitment to making art. Art was very normal to me.”
Writing for him is a way of life; he writes every day, weekends included.
“Sometimes I may write for just an hour or less—just as long as I stay in touch with it and immerse myself in it.”
Lethem at first had thought he’d become a visual artist like his father. He enrolled at The High School of Music & Art. But he had always been a reader, enchanted by Graham Greene and Ray Bradbury and Kafka and Lewis Carroll. In high school he began writing, finishing a 125-page unpublished novel. He began writing seriously at 19; he found the ability to create new worlds appealing. In 1994, he broke onto the literary scene with his first published novel, Gun, with Occasional Music.
“I’ve changed my style a lot,” he said, alluding to the stream of novels that has come since then.
“Some of it is growth. I think I now have a fuller style. Some of it is that each complete book has its own set of rules, including syntax and style. ... Graham Greene was a very basic influence. I gained my sense of what proportions of the novel should be from him.”
You Love Me Not Yet also voices another of his passions—the sharing of art. Lucinda takes the snappy or catchy phrases her caller uses and turns them into lyrics that bring her band attention. Lethem says he is taken “with this whole issue of the gift economy.”
He shares an impulse with several other writers to “form an anti-commercial reality” where some works and words are shared in a communal-like impulse. “I’m thinking of the artist in the social context,” he said.
With that in mind Lethem began The Promiscuous Materials Project on his Web site. Here, for $1, he gives away rights to some of his shorter works to writers and artists who can use them to make films or plays.