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Sunday, May 4, 2008

Book Review: Lethem's "You Don't Love Me Yet" Inspires Like...Not Love

Book Review by Noah Mallin

"You can't be deep without a surface" is uttered by two characters in Jonathan Lethem's latest novel, You Don't Love Me Yet and this slogan is as apt a motto for the book as any. I might as well say that this engaging breeze of a read is a disappointment after the lofty heights of his magical realist Brooklyn opus Fortress of Solitude and it's noir predecessor Motherless Brooklyn. Unlike the aforementioned, Lethem gets the surfaces all right but the depths remain resolutely unexplored.

The novel traces the horned-up path of bassist Lucinda Hoekke and her nameless band through L.A.'s bohemian latticework (a brave locale for a New York oriented writer). Hoekke answers phones for a "complaint line" masterminded by her artist ex, becoming obsessed with one caller in particular she calls "The Complainer." Some of his more interesting musings become grist for her band's songwriting mill, finally giving them the focus to write really great tunes. The problem is that The Complainer finds his way into both Lucinda and her band, complicating everything.

Issues of creativity and authorship are raised, only to slide across the slippery surface and drop off the edge. Lucinda barely gets past one dimension and The Complainer seems to be more an idea than a rounded character. Things happen, there are some funny scenes and clever conceits, but little of it adds up to much at all. He's on his firmest ground when his characters discuss theories of film and music but when it comes to the deeper issues of what makes them tick and why he comes up resolutely empty.

There is the shell of what could have been another fantastic Lethem opus here. As it is You Don't Love Me Yet (titled after a great Roky Erickson and a Vulgar Boatmen song -- the man does know his music) feels rushed, like a draft. As easy to skate on as the surface is, alluding to depths is not the same as actually having them.

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