I’ll never love you, Mr. Lethem

Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel You Don’t Love Me Yet examines the ideals of love and art while ultimately seeking to degrade them.

Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel You Don’t Love Me Yet examines the ideals of love and art while ultimately seeking to degrade them. The story opens on a whimsical note. Fellow L.A. band members Lucinda Hoekke, a 29-year old bass guitar player, and pretty-boy lead singer Matthew Plangent, decide to break off their relationship yet again. To do so, they meet at a museum hoping a public place will help them keep their resolve. After one “last time” in the exhibit of one of Lucinda’s ex-boyfriends, they’re done. Care must be taken in telling their friends. Above all, they don’t want to break up the band.

The parade of two-dimensional cookie-cutter characters through You Don’t Love Me Yet continually reminds the reader that this novel is intended to be a farce, narrowly depicting love and art. The mindless sexual escapades of the protagonist, Lucinda, illustrate the age-old confusion between love and sex. After Lucinda breaks up with Matthew, she begins a sexual relationship with an anonymous caller she meets while working at an art gallery. It’s not long before she thinks it’s “love.”

Lethem satirizes art when he writes about Lucinda’s band. Lucinda’s band is the vehicle of Lethem’s unflattering observations on the 20-something band scene. He makes fun of them in various ways, beginning with their set list: “Shitty Citizen,” “Temporary Feeling,” “The Houseguest,” “Hell is for Buildings” and “Canary in the Coke Machine.”

Lethem’s descriptions, although often forced and overwritten, hit their mark when he describes music: “Lucinda plumped at her bass strings, jump-starting the song, and planted her thighs in a new stance, facing Denise, demanding the drums’ reply. Denise met the call, ticked the beat double-time. The sound was sprung, uncanny, preverbal, the bass and drum the rudiment of life itself, argument and taunt, and each turn of the figure a kiss-off until the cluster of notes began again. Who needed words?”

The character of Falmouth Strand, Lucinda’s former boyfriend and employer at the gallery, is used by Lethem to satirize the art community for its meaningless displays. Falmouth’s art is based on the manipulation of others. Lucinda’s job at Falmouth’s gallery is to answer complaint calls and write down the complaints. All complaints are from the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area and can be about anything: bad hair, bad jobs, bad kids. The point is simply to record the complaints, nothing else-no counseling, no small talk. In this way, the call center and its complaints are an installation of sorts. In Falmouth’s view, they are art. Soon Lucinda falls captive to a particular caller, the “brilliant complainer” whose words are “like a pulse detected in a vast dead carcass.” His lascivious banter catches her attention and propels her through her day.

The description of the “Complainer Caller,” along with some of Lethem’s other decisions, seem unrealistic. Here Lethem pairs Lucinda, who has discarded pretty-boy Matthew, with the “complainer,” a character who turns out to be middle-aged, flabby and ultimately highly critical of every woman he has ever dated. The relationship is built on sex, but given his physical description, how could it be? Lethem expects the reader to be drawn in, as Lucinda is, by the “Complainer’s” abstruse philosophical comments:

“You want to be in love? Or you want somebody to be in love with you? It can’t be both, that’s like mingling self-pity and sarcasm.”

Lethem missed an opportunity to develop his most interesting character, Matthew Plangent. Matthew remains two-dimension but has real possibilities with his concern for and theft of a kangaroo named Shelf. Might Lethem have dug a bit deeper to reveal the true nature of the relationship between Mathew and Lucinda? His tentative coverage seems to be that of someone flinching from a wound. Is there more here, something personal perhaps? Ultimately, Lethem’s borderline pornographic depictions of love and art are obviously contrived (he meant to do that) and, in the end, meaningless.

The reader doesn’t learn much about Lucinda other than she is ruled by her libido and is a control freak when it comes to the band. By the end of the novel, the characters’ relationships have changed, but there is no character growth, no catharsis, only a disgruntled reader anguished over her wasted time. The characters’ lives, as well, seem wasted and provide an adequate metaphor for the entire work.

You Don’t Love Me Yet, yeah, you’re right, Mr. Lethem, I don’t.