Having apparently decided that he needed a vacation, Jonathan Lethem has torn himself away from essays, moody and semi-autobiographical Brooklyn novels, and knotty sci-fi surreality, delivering You Don’t Love Me Yet, an easygoing romantic comedy that’s set in California. That’s right, Romantic Comedy. California, and Southern California, to boot, about as far as one can get from Brooklyn without leaving the country. But it’s a good thing for some authors to stretch themselves or just take a break from the old themes and settings, and Lethem is definitely in that camp. It’s a quickly devoured and quickly forgotten fiction with little resonance, which may be exactly what Lethem needed to deliver.
The focal point of You Don’t Love Me Yet is Lucinda, bass player in a band of friends who have been knocking around and rehearsing for a while, but haven’t quite gotten around to really getting a set list together, or having a name. She supplements her non-earning rock career by answering phones at the Complaint Line. It’s a sort of performance art piece set up by her pretentious scenester friend Falmouth, who envisioned a generic storefront office where girls like Lucinda listened to callers and their everything-under-the-sun complaints. Meanwhile, Lucinda’s trying to extricate herself from a frustratingly occasional relationship with the band’s drop-dead gorgeous singer Matthew. Making things easier on that front is the odd liaison she starts with one of the Complaint Line’s constant callers, Carl, an earthy, heavyset man of mysterious origin, surprising likes and multitudinous desires.
Lethem doesn’t push the novel toward much of a plot with any sense of urgency, as though he’d left the manuscript baking in the Los Angeles sun, soaking up the basin’s lackadaisical airs and general attitude of lucky happenstance. Lucinda’s life is a ramshackle mess, which is troubling to her but hardly the reason for any sort of existential crisis. The band is a similarly hapless collection of misfits, especially their writer and muse Bedwin, who barely seems able to feed himself for all his wordsmithing brilliance. When the band seems likely to get a big break, it happens almost entirely by accident, and the buzz itself is a wispy thing easily dissipated but no less enjoyable for those under its spell.
The novel bumps along from day to day, finding a peaceful and strangely lovely rhythm in its accidents and nonplussed conversations. For all its nonchalance towards plot, You Don’t Love Me Yet pays close attention to the sounds, feels, and tastes of its day-to-day happenings, Lethem’s sensory radar as well-attuned as ever. Even a simple day Lucinda spends by the beach is described with luscious detail, how she was “happily polluted with beer and lemon-butter drenched crabs and just one margarita, fingernails still grainy with pepper and salt”. Lethem uses Lucinda’s random-seeming and often contradictory desires and discontents as the primary motivator of the book’s farcical construct but never lets it all devolve into the standard romantic comedy formula. He’s enjoying himself too much here in the California sun, creating a swoony and haphazard love story that’s as unexpectedly enjoyable as the thing itself.