The Disappointment Artist by Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem’s published work, thus far, is a welcome respite from the style that characterizes most of the primary figures in his generation of ambitious young writers. While most succeed (often brilliantly) by wearing their hearts firmly on their sleeves and pulling out most every trick they’ve got as often as they can, Lethem takes a more studied and precise approach to his writing. As the Eggerses and Safran Foers of the literary hype machine take childlike pranksterdom and surreal folk tales to often dazzling, uncharted heights, Lethem writes from a less ambitious but no less affecting point, imbuing well-worn genres (noir, coming-of-age, and now, the essay) with an almost paralyzing intimacy.

The Disappointment Artist is Lethem’s confessional, notes from the mid-point of a young writer’s career that may as well have been written just before his death. In these essays, Lethem describes the nature of his obsessions and preoccupations with a resonance that is sometimes shameful. The author explicitly and maturely acknowledges his impressionability of both past and present. The book is a graceful self-critique, weary with the apparent wisdom of adulthood but still exclusively guided by respect for the objects, people and moments that shaped him.

Perhaps the prevailing theme of The Disappointment Artist is Lethem’s discussion of the notion that he always felt like and wanted to be an adult while he was still just a child. The author toyed with idolizing objects and people that were alternately suited to a youngster and meant only for adults. He rationalized them both on a similar, hyper-intellectual scale that didn’t necessarily suit either category of art. The book’s first essay, “Defending The Searchers,” about his life’s interactions with that film, is a suiting representation of the author’s well-meaning, guilty pretensions:

Going to a film society screening was ordinarily a social act, but I made sure to go alone that night. I smoked a joint alone too, my usual preparation for a Significant Moment. And I chose my heavy black-rimmed glasses, the ones I wore when I wanted to appear nerdishly remote and intense, as though to decorate my outer self with a confession of inner reality. The evening of that first viewing of The Searchers I readied myself like a man who suspects his first date might have been an elopement.

This passage is a pretty handy representation of the tone of this entire book. Lethem is (unusually?) aware of his image and the tactical moves he makes within his friendships and social interactions. It’s striking that he’s so willing to admit them, and even more striking that he never admits that he’s completely stopped behaving in this way. In Lethem’s life, and in all of his writing, it seems that you can always grow up but you can never quite grow away from your past, but you keep trying to anyway. The author’s lovely vocabulary sometimes suggests a sense of detachment from his past self, but there’s a tone of observance about these essays that feels true and objective. The author deftly sidesteps the ever-present possibility of conveying false wisdom.

Every essay lets Lethem confront his premature adulthood from a slightly different perspective. “13, 1977, 21” traces the summer that Lethem spent compulsively viewing the first Star Wars movie, always in the same theater, sometimes twice in a day, as a means of avoiding current family conflict and the impending death of his mother. His most accomplished piece is “Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn” on the history of the Hoyt-Schermerhorn train station in Brooklyn. Lethem follows the evolution of the crime-ridden stop through generations, until he arrives at his most personal and embarrassing moments there, begetting a stunning confession about a night when he was supposed to pick up his girlfriend there, but followed her instead to observe her naked fear.

The final essay, “The Beards (a coda)”, is a naked summation of The Disappointment Artist‘s themes. Each section of the piece is titled by an album or film that consumed the author’s lifestyle in certain years or season. He discusses the albums, the people that inspired his love for the albums (who are, always, the people he wanted to be at that moment), and how and why (and sometimes if) he ever got over them. Lethem reveres his beloved artifacts as much as he used them to achieve the ends of an image or a friendship. He made himself superior to his friends by not confining himself to one type or genre, an elaborate game in creating a person. By the end of the essay, though, the game appears to have worked. At some point, it becomes apparent that Lethem became his own, self-governing being, less interested in placing himself in relation to others and more interested in appreciating those that helped shape him.

Still, I’m building my shelf. Like the comedian Steven Wright, who said “I keep my seashell collection scattered on the beaches of the world,” my teenage room is still expanding, like the universe itself. If writing’s a beard on loss, then, like some character drawn by Dr. Seuss, I live in my own beard.

The Disappointment Artist does a sound and thoughtful job of explaining the motivation of one of our brightest authors. These works of non-fiction end up accomplishing the same feat his best writing does: showing deep deference to the muses of the author’s past while innovating just enough to stand out from the pack.