Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Having Read Some of Jonathan Lethem's Lesser Known Works . . .

Jonathan Lethem is a great writer, as I see it. And I know, I'm always going off about who I think is a great writer. I'm beginning to suspect that's, like, the reason this blog exists (that and fun, free use of italics). But where was I going with this? Ah, and yet, I'm lukewarm with respect to the couple of books I've read of his that aren't "Motherless Brooklyn." Those two are, "You Don't Love Me Yet" and "As She Climbed Across the Table."

Funnily enough, with the Internet, if you search for just a little while, you're bound to find something resembling coincidence. And I did! Mark Athitakis mentions Lethem and alludes to "You Don't Love Me Yet" in an article about Advanced Genius Theory, a theory making the rounds these days that apparently suggests artists of a superior quality aren't exactly in decline as they age and change, and so likewise does their work, but that their fans (and the critics) have lost their grip on how to reasonably evaluate them, for one or more of a plethora of reasons. The fault lies squarely on the receiver, not the artist. The artist him or herself doesn't care whether you appreciate what he or she is doing, after all, or so says the theory, which was specifically fleshed out by Jason Hartley in his book, "The Advanced Genius Theory: Are They Out of Their Minds or Ahead of Their Time?" It's interesting, and I'll no doubt investigate the whole deal further, but it's not exactly applicable here. Or at least it's applicable, but only insomuch as it applies to Jonathan Lethem and "You Don't Love Me Yet."

Athitakis writes:

In the interest of helping fill out the theory a little, I tried to figure out which writers might fit the bill. The first one who sprung to mind was Jonathan Lethem, because Lethem once wrote an article made up of plagiarized sentences and then tried to work in some of his theories about it into a bad novel about a rock band ["You Don't Love Me Yet"], but that seems like an Overt move, and being controversial in itself isn't enough to be Advanced.
If I'm understanding him correctly, Athitakis explains that there are, in specific, two different kinds of writers who, when all is boiled down, can be classified either as fitting the "Advanced" label and all accompanying presumptions made of an artist who fits the Advanced Genius Theory's description, or an Overt. And Overt is an artist whose works meet the criteria of the highfalutin, haughty critics, which Hartley apparently defines in some detail, including things like verbosity and length of the book (if it's a book that's the artwork in question; and it should be long), so explains Athitakis' classification of Lethem.

I admit I didn't know about Lethem's impetus for writing "You Don't Love Me Yet." I found it a bit heavy-handed when I read the novel, but I didn't quite realize there was more behind it than meets the eye. Baggage, carry over, subtext? Bosh! Who'd have thought? But yes, there is. The theory and thought behind the novel prove more interesting than the novel itself, having now read both his article in Harper's and "You Don't Love Me Yet." The collage idea (and read the article with the provided link if you're curious to understand it specifically) that Lethem promotes is a good one, a well-reason one, but his novel illustrates its travails as much as its merits. So many times you feel like the story is making an interesting point, only to have that scrap of intrigue interrupted by plot points functioning in a different way, to express a different point that he's also thrown in as part of the general tableau. It's just a muddled story that never really cohered into anything terribly interesting, just flashes of cool ideas that were squelched just as quickly.

I haven't forgotten the other faulty Lethem novel I mentioned, "As She Climbed Across the Table." Again, there's a lot that's good about this novel, and in fairness, it operates far less on an experimental platform like "You Don't Love Me Yet" -- at least as far as I'm aware. But in it, too, something feels forced or foisted upon the reader. The idea is interesting enough, physicists have opened up a kind of void, "the Lack" as it quickly comes to be called, that they determine through various means and measurements available to them is choosing certain particles that pass through it to the exclusion of the others. The idea expands beyond particles when it's suggested they see what else it prefers, so begins the experiment to see if it wants strawberries or bananas and every other item imaginable. And lack then begins to take on an inter-spacial symbolism for the frivolity of feelings like love, of how you can't ask that someone love you, they do or they do not.

And so, at the same time lack is opened, the rift grows in the love life of the story's protagonists, Philip, a professor of interdepartmental studies at the university in which this experiment is taking place, and Alice, one of the two physicists and professors performing the experimentation with lack, and who simultaneously becomes completely infatuated with lack to the exclusion of Philip. Meanwhile, Philip remains completely obsessed and devoted to Alice, with much of the rest of the story revolving around how he can win her back. The metaphor, while a good one, is not entirely good enough to sustain a novel, and the character of Philip strikes me as not quite realized, although I see how that could be the author's intent. Still, even if Lethem wanted Philip to seem somewhat two-dimensional, in the absence of Alice, presumably, it nevertheless didn't make him a terribly compelling character to follow, and difficult what's more to root for. I just didn't care one way or the other what happened to him, making the conclusion far more vanilla than it should have been.

And Philip is especially disappointing when you compare him to Lionel Essrog of "Motherless Brooklyn" who couldn't really be much more complete, with all his ticks and foibles and hapless affability. Which, then makes "As She Climbed Across the Table" akin to "You Don't Love Me Yet" for the simple fact of the ambitiousness of an idea / philosophy taking precedence over the actual storytelling, which if you ask me is always detrimental to whatever the author is attempting to accomplish.

Thomas Pynchon said something similar in critiquing one of his own apprentice storytelling efforts of "Slow Learner," viz. -- "The lesson is sad . . . but true: get too conceptual, too cute and remote and your characters die on the page."


  1. Your Lethem reading-path is pretty unusual: most I think reading Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude first. Based on your comments about character, I think you'll find Fortress of Solitude quite a bit better and probably the same with Chronic City.

  2. Yeah, that is next on my list (actually As She Climbed Across the Table sort of fell into my lap, and seeing as it was such a quick read I kind of fit it in between everything else I'm reading, presently), so I've heard really good things about Fortress of Solitude, and I"m looking forward to it.

    I also heard that some of Lethem's early science fiction genre work is worth checking out. After Fortress of Solitude and then Chronic City, for me, though.