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HOMETOWN HEROES

Music factors prominently into Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, in which the central, superhero-obesessed best buds-in-the-face-of-rampant-gentrification Dylan and Mingus jam to The Sugarhill Gang, Lou Reed, N.W.A., and Run DMC. So it’s no wonder that this, of all Lethem’s locally-set work, has been made into a musical for the stage. The project of director Daniel Aukin (Bad Jews, 4000 Miles), it features a score by composer/lyricist Michael Friedman, who previously worked on the Pub’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and bookwriter Itamar Moses of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. With the source material’s focus on race relations, New York City’s turbulent 1970s, and the beginning of Brooklyn’s turn toward its eventual Williamsburgian outcome, the story makes for an especially relevant adaptation.

Oct. 23-Nov. 8, 8 p.m., 2014

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Books Fall Picks 2013

Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks

Keith Houston • September 24, W. W. Norton & Company, 320 pp., $25.95

Pilcrow. Interrobang. Octothorpe. No, not the names of obscure demons from The Lesser Key of Solomon, but typographical marks you’ve seen thousands of times, a world of symbolism with its own fascinating micro-history. The pilcrow—this little guy: ¶—once graced pages filled to grayness with text, demarcating paragraphs joyfully until the carriage return rendered it obsolete. The manicule, aka the little pointing hand born in England circa 1086, has largely remained the same, though the bullet point has far surpassed it in terms of popularity and graphic impact. If you’re still awake, you are the ideal reader for this surprisingly enjoyable and thoroughly researched—if literally marginal—chronicle.

At Least We Can Apologize

by Lee Ki-ho, 192 pp.

The House with a Sunken Courtyard

by KimWon-il, 240 pp.

Lonesome You

by Park Wan-suh, 264 pp.

A Most Ambiguous Sunday

by Jung Young Moon, 304 pp.

My Son’s Girlfriend

by Jung Mi-kyung, 232 pp.

No One Writes Back

by Jang Eun-jin, 212 pp.

One Spoon on This Earth

by Hyon Ki Young, 344 pp.

The Soil

by Lee Kwang-su, 528 pp.

Stingray

by Kim Joo-young, 136 pp.

When Adam Opens His Eyes

by Jang Jung-il, 144 pp. • All titles October 7, Dalkey Archive

Read any great Korean novels lately? Read any Korean novels, like, ever? Take heart—Dalkey Archive means to give you a lot more Seoul. Not to mention Gwangju. Over the next year, their Library of Korea series will publish 25 books of contemporary Korean fiction. The first 10 arrive on October 7, already indicating that a veritable Brooklynful of accomplished, exciting Korean writers awaits us in these bracing paperbacks.

Jung Young Moon, winner of numerous Korean literary awards, is represented by the story collection A Most Ambiguous Sunday. While he claims that his stories are autobiographical, sometimes he’ll take a secondhand tale and fashion it into something like “Mrs. Brown,” about a couple of naive criminals who break into a suburban home.

Lee Ki-ho’s dark slapstick At Least We Can Apologize presents fictitious case histories of people owed public acts of contrition by institutions that mistreated them, and tells the story of the organization that secures these apologies for a fee. Jung Mi-kyung’s story collection My Son’s Girlfriend explores modern relationship problems, such as whether to order the live or dead octopus when arguing with your girlfriend about leaving town for six months to care for your aging father. Actually, you’ll find that information just as useful in New York.

At the Bottom of Everything

Ben Dolnick • September 3, Pantheon, 256 pp., $24.95

Ben Dolnick’s terrific, seemingly effortless third novel concerns Adam Sanecki, a 26-year-old in a tailspin, getting over his first love by having an affair with the married mother of his tutees and drifting through a non-career. But the terrible secret he shares with his estranged high school best friend Thomas has overwhelmed Thomas’s life, so Thomas’s parents call on Adam to journey to a foreign land to rescue him, possibly from himself. It sounds like relatively standard novel fare, but Dolnick’s prose has abundant charm, humor, and intelligence, a knack for vivid details and stunning metaphors, and so many richly imagined characters that it calls to mind an updated Fitzgerald. At several moments, Dolnick invites this comparison himself, which would be annoying if he hadn’t gotten so close to the mark.

Dissident Gardens

by Jonathan Lethem • September 10, Doubleday,

384 pp., $27.95

Is it mere coincidence that Jonathan Lethem’s bawdy, funny novel of a mother, a daughter, and the Communist party in Queens during the last century—his most realistic, political, Jewtastic novel in years—arrives so soon after the announcement of Philip Roth’s retirement? Probably, but Lethem’s timing couldn’t have worked out better. What’s more, instead of the persecuted non-Reds of Roth’s I Married a Communist, we’re treated to Rose Zimmer, an uncompromising American party member with serious leftist cred: “She . . . marched for blacks practically before they marched for themselves.” Her daughter Miriam’s a flower child for whom Communism is less inviting than joining a commune. At a time when the Tea Party dominates headlines with absurdity and ignorance, Dissident Gardens means to reconnect us with America’s progressive past—a history perhaps as ludicrous as Michele Bachmann, but at least it’s intellectually loopy.

The Diary of Edward the Hamster 1990–1990

by Miriam Elia and Ezra Elia • September 26, Blue Rider Press, 96 pp., $14.95

Fans of Henri, the existentialist cat of Internet fame, will probably fall even harder for diarist Edward the Hamster’s brief, pocket-sized belles lettres. As ill-fated as any pet hamster, the defiant Edward, unlike the others, “will not do tricks.” Instead, he desperately seeks connection and meaning before his tiny shade passes through its painfully brief earthly journey. He goes on a 16-minute hunger strike, he contemplates murdering his ignorant cellmate, he ponders freedom and existence. “Death is the final cage,” muses Edward. “None shall escape.”

Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture

by Ytasha L. Womack • October 1, Chicago Review Press, 224 pp., $16.95

The late great writer-editor Donald Suggs used to joke about putting together an anthology called Crazy Black People, a compilation of art and writing by space cultists like the Nuwaubian Nation, musicians such as Parliament Funkadelic and Sun Ra, and oddball black arts figures like Robert H. DeCoy, author of The Nigger Bible. Pundit and filmmaker Ytasha L. Womack hasn’t exactly fulfilled Suggs’s original mission, but there’s considerable overlap between that project and Afrofuturism, her ebullient primer on all things black and science fictional. She’s created something that’s part memoir and part guided cultural tour of the galaxy’s black neighborhoods, stopping briefly to ponder Lando Calrissian, The Matrix, Blade Runner and its relationship to slavery, The Brother From Another Planet, the stargazing Dogon people of Mali, Octavia Butler, Grace Jones, OutKast, Samuel Delany, the Black Eyed Peas, and any other Negro who looks good in a silver lamé jumpsuit.

Half the Kingdom

Lore Segal • October 1, Melville House,

176 pp., $23.95

The venerable Lore Segal, now 82, saucily invites readers to stereotype her as an old person with her unflinching but humorous look into the waning lives at a nursing home called Cedars of Lebanon. A sudden, mysterious rise in the number of admittees with Alzheimer’s disease has sparked intense speculation about the institution and, for Segal’s purposes, a whole lot of paranoia. Half the Kingdom follows the home’s manager, Joe Bernstine, his wife, Jenny, their obnoxious daughter, Bethy, and numerous employees and patients to illuminate the freaked-out state of our nation, submerged in conspiracy theory, worried about surveillance, ignorant of the past, and headed toward an uncertain future.

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The Good Book: 5 Great Readings This Week

Jonathan Lethem and Jessica Hagedorn
Greenlight Bookstore
Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., free
A quick word on Jonathan Lethem–he’s awesome. That’s it. Because this guy is one of our favorite native sons. The author of Motherless Brooklyn (Vintage) and The Fortress of Solitude (Vintage) has the ability to pogo from sci-fi to memoir to detective fiction to hipster lit and back again, but he’s always been unshakably New York, in subject matter, support for Occupy Wall Street, outspokeness against the corporate renaming of Shea Stadium, etc. In September he’s slated to release his next novel, Dissident Gardens (Random House), a family epic set in Queens, but tonight he’ll talk with Long Island University professor and author Jessica Hagedorn about past work and his connection to Brooklyn.

M. Henderson Ellis and Rosie Schaap
Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden
Wednesday, 7 p.m., free
It would seem absurd to host these authors anywhere but a rowdy Czech beer hall. In Ellis’s first novel, Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Cafe (Random House), a Chicago man is fired for being “too passionate” about his job as a barista at a coffee chain, kickstarting a quixotic journey through newly post-communist Prague. Schaap’s travels, on the other hand, are booze-soaked rather than coffee-fueled. In her memoir Drinking With Men (Riverhead), she recounts a childhood spent in the bar car of a train, telling passengers’ fortunes in exchange for beer. Her love letter to pub culture highlights the sense of community that barrooms (and, we’ll wager, also the alcohol) create among strangers. Toast them with a pint at this night of readings.

“Mary MacLane, In Conversation”

Book Court
Wednesday, 7 p.m., free
You may not have heard the name Mary MacLane before, unless you’re into obscurist memoirs or maybe a big fan of Manitoba province like yours truly. But the Canadian-born, American-relocated writer has been called our country’s first blogger, despite the fact that she was working in the late 19th century. Her racy lifestyle and scandalous autobiographies gained her 50 Shades-level fame at age 19–think a slightly older, female Rimbaud–and by 1917 she was filming and starring in the Warhol-esque picture Men Who Have Made Love To Me. A mysterious young death added to the scandal before her memory and her work fell into the margins. Tonight author Emily Gould (And The Heart Says Whatever, Free Press), playwright Normandy Sherwood, and scholar Kara Jesella will discuss MacLane’s 1902 autobiography I Await the Devil’s Coming (Melville House), and how she paved the way for the realist confessional style.

Demetri Martin
Barnes & Noble Union Square
Thursday, 7 p.m., free
Somewhere, we imagine a retirement home for indie comedians–Reggie Watts, Kristen Schaal, and Aziz Ansari all one day sitting around a table playing the funniest game of dominoes ever. For a second, we feared Demetri Martin was already there, but thankfully he’s back with Point Your Face At This (Grand Central Publishing), a new collection of drawings. As always, his pictures are crude in rendering but pack a big punch to the wits, and we’ve got to love a comedian who traffics in Wittgensteinian antinomy doodles (which, by the way, are also a barrel of laughs). Ah…if only Demetri was sitting next to us in every lecture we’ve ever had. Tonight we can imagine as he reads and previews his sketches.

Douglass Rushkoff and Rachel Rosenfelt
McNally Jackson
Thursday, 7 p.m., free
Haven actually been called a “Luddite” in two different conversations in two different bars (always in an accusatory way, why?) we’re going to be careful about how strongly we recommend this. But in his new book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (Current), theorist Douglass Rushkoff makes some good points about the dicey ethos of real time technology, hyperspeed culture, fragmentation, and pretty much how everything is just happening too fast and for the love of god slow down please. He introduces his theory of “presentism,” basically an -ism ending word for how the largely tech-related immediacy of everything in our lives–conversations, media, ordering food–might have some less than stellar effects on our psychological and physical selves. Especially the ordering food part. He’ll chat–in person, machine free–with Rachel Rosenfelt, founder and editor of The New Inquiry. There’s no time like the present.

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TALENT ACT-I-VATION

Web-comics pioneer Dean Haspiel (the Brooklyn artist invented the Act-I-Vate and Trip City online-comics collectives and won an Emmy for Bored to Death‘s title sequence) is teaching an intensive workshop on comics creation at MOCCA. Expect an interactive lecture and in-class assignments, guiding writers and artists from idea to image to a sequential narrative—as well as a personal critique of the result. Haspiel’s work spans existentialist superheroes and semi-autobiography, and he has collaborated with such distinctive talents as Harvey Pekar and Jonathan Lethem. Sharpen your pencils, bring a fresh sketchbook, and prepare to expose what your mind’s eye has been peeping.

Tue., April 3, 6:30 p.m., 2012

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ALIENS ATTACK

Similar to Continuum’s “33 1/3” series of monographs on classic albums, Soft Skull Press’s new “Deep Focus” series features writers discussing one of their favorite movies. The first is Jonathan Lethem on John Carpenter’s 1988 satire They Live, which stars WWE wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as a drifter who finds a pair of sunglasses that allows him to see what no one else can—that aliens disguised as humans are taking over the planet. Tonight, watch the film and hear Lethem discuss with comedian John Hodgman the film he calls “howlingly blatant and obvious on many levels . . . [yet] marvelously slippery and paradoxical at its depths.”

Tue., Dec. 21, 8 p.m., 2010

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The Live

Dir. John Carpenter (1988).
The Reagan revolution is masterminded by tele-canny creatures from outer space in John Carpenter’s minor classic (newly monographed by Jonathan Lethem). One of the few pulp political satires of the 1980s and a forgotten precursor of The Matrix, They Live is scarcely less timely today; Carpenter’s acid-ripped Woody Guthrie worldview posits the most visceral paranoid theory imaginable for consumer greed, industrial pollution, and media narcosis.

Fri., Dec. 10, 10:30 p.m., 2010

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Jonathan Lethem and L.J. Davis Bring Back A Meaningful Life

If the Masters of the Obvious over at stuffwhitepeoplelike.com were actually on their game, they’d put “hand-wringing gentrification tales” way up on their list. A rapt crowd, 99.9% Caucasian, packed into Park Slope’s Community Bookstore for L.J. Davis’s March 31 reading from A Meaningful Life, his scathing 1971 satire about a reverse-pioneer from Idaho who tries to redeem his banal existence through the renovation of an old “slummed-up” Brooklyn town house.

Introducing Davis was Jonathan Lethem, who wrote the preface for the novel’s early March re-release by New York Review of Books Classics. A Meaningful Life reads like the harsher, blunter prequel to Lethem’s own gentrification saga, the more nuanced though still pessimistic Fortress of Solitude (2003). Davis (like his protagonist Lowell Lake) is part of Lethem’s parents’ generation, the first wave of hopeful bohemian transplants to rough-edged areas like Clinton Hill (where A Meaningful Life is set) and Boerum Hill, where Davis has long lived. The latter is also where Lethem grew up, idolizing his neighbor for being the lone Brooklynite to write the truth about outer-borough race and class relations.

Lethem talked about how he would “hang onto” the coattails of the then-critic for the New York Times Review of Books, and try to bum advance copies of novels he wanted to read. “Not so fast!” curmudgeonly Davis used to say, but then he’d make young Lethem Eggs Benedict on mornings when the aspiring writer slept over, after late nights browsing his host’s extensive library. Finishing up his intro, Lethem claimed—with characteristic descriptive wit—that the dictionary entry for “mordant” should include a picture of Davis’s books, “or just Davis himself.” And truly, a better adjective for the elder novelist would be tough to find.

Davis, after warning the African-American–free audience about his book’s use of the word Negro, launched with gusto into its core act: Lake’s phantasmagoric tour of his soon-to-be-acquired property. It’s still functioning as a rooming house occupied by motley boarders when he goes to see it, guided by a Mephistopheles-like real estate agent who has “no smell.” What ensues is a lengthy, almost fetishistic recounting of the building’s bizarre decrepitude: the “walls…painted a dingy lavender with a shiny substance that appeared to be compounded equally of mucus and glue…then thickly sprayed with a mixture of soot and old cobwebs”; a “pink ceiling centered on a heroic central medallion of what appeared to be lettuce leaves in a nest of worms”; “tables made of some kind of synthetic material that was veined and painted to resemble wood,” and so forth. Through sheer accumulating weight, the endless descriptions win you over to Davis’s perspective, which seems to be that restoring a 19th-century mansion gone to seed is no walk in the park.

The evening concluded with a Q&A session, in which someone obligatorily queried Lethem as to whether Brooklyn’s edgy, novel-worthy days are long gone. He responded by warning against the assumption that gentrification has been triumphant. He told a story about a New York Times reporter who laughed at him as they toured Boerum Hill’s Smith Street, not believing that Lethem was ever afraid to walk down it. Lethem brought the reporter one block over, to Hoyt Street, and showed her what was clearly a “very functioning crack-house.”

“Some people have a pair of first-rate blinders on,” Lethem said, miming the accessory with his hands.

L.J. Davis and Jonathan Lethem will appear again together on April 14 at 7 p.m. at Book Court, 163 Court Street, Brooklyn, 718-875-3677, bookcourt.org

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An Interview with Michael Almereyda

Best known for 2000’s millennial Hamlet, Michael Almereyda consistently integrates the avant-garde into the narrative: Some of his first features were shot on Fisher-Price Pixelvision camera, automatically threatening them with novelty status. His new work, Paradise, opens this year’s Film Comment Selects. It’s a kind of essay-film composed of video diaries that Almereyda has shot over the years (tourists buying rugs in Iran, Sonic Youth battling sound problems in France), with strategically placed blackouts to divide the movie into four parts. Like 2002’s Happy Here and Now, its seemingly disparate parts create a euphoric whole. (“Glad to be considered an optimist,” he noted in response to a question, “even while squinting into a murky future.”) Checking in from a writer’s retreat at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, Almereyda offered some illumination on his sometimes inscrutable film.

How long have you been filming footage for Paradise?

I got a Sony DV camera for location scouting on Hamlet, fall of ’98, and I’ve been using DV cameras ever since, casually recording people and places. I had a notion I could do something with the footage—every so often, you know when you’ve shot something remarkable, and it makes sense to keep track of it and share it. But I didn’t have a specific plan for Paradise until applying for a Guggenheim grant in 2004. As Jonathan Lethem put it, it’s a found-footage film made from the filmmaker’s home movies. 

Your narrative films seem increasingly guided by avant-garde strategies as much as narrative ones. And Paradise seems like a sort of culmination, with you abandoning narrative altogether.

Paradise doesn’t seem like any kind of culmination to me—or a departure, as some other people have said. I think of it as another spoke in a wheel, and I’m hoping that the wheel keeps turning, that I’ll get back to narrative films, soon, so your question catches me in a defensive crouch. Wasn’t Hamlet, for all its “avant-garde strategies,” a clear and concise telling of that familiar story? Also, not so long ago, I happily directed an episode of Deadwood. So I’d like to think I have an arsenal of standard narrative skills.

I don’t feel I’m abandoning narrative in Paradise. It’s like saying I’m abandoning dry land because I’ve decided to go swimming. Spoofy vampire movies, modern-dress Shakespeare adaptations, and unclassifiable, low-budget, New Orleans–based, sci-fi movies would seem to invite—or demand—a certain level of playfulness. By contrast, Paradise is a fairly sober undertaking, even if the stories it tells tend to be fragmentary. 

You seem to be New Orleans’ preeminent chronicler these days. [Paradise features the city, and both Happy Here and Now and New Orleans, Mon Amour take place there.] What first drew you to the city? 

I first came to New Orleans in 1988 or ’89, with the nominal excuse of hanging out on the set of Miller’s Crossing. I tend to go there at least once a year. But I’ve come to feel that the place is movie-proof. The city is so naturally dramatic, it doesn’t need or want a chronicler; it resists being put into any sort of narrative box. Fiction just waters it down. The one non-documentary film that people in New Orleans actually like is Jarmusch’s Down by Law, most of which takes place in a prison, then a swamp. Almost every other attempt comes off as a hapless caricature. Which is why this may be my best New Orleans film. There are just three episodes shot there, straight observation, undiluted. 

Would you care to shed a little light on the film’s four movements?

The best filmmakers, I’ve noticed, tend to avoid this kind of talk, but Paradise is oblique and seemingly casual enough to fool people into thinking it’s incoherent, so why not try to spell things out? The first section: “Innocence.” Second section: “Experience” (which isn’t meant as the opposite of innocence so much as its muddled extension). Third section could be considered “Work,” but I was thinking more in terms of “Art & Commerce”—again, not a conflict, but a duality, twin measures for understanding life as it moves beyond the freedom of childhood. The fourth section is perhaps more prosaic and literal-minded. It carries echoes of the first three passages and could be called: “America in the Early Part of the 21st Century, Sad but Beautiful.” Then there’s the coda.

The trouble with talking about the movie in these terms is that it gives little indication that it might be funny, or urgent, or magical, which I hope, now and then, it is.  

Paradise screens 6:30 p.m. February 20 at the Walter Reade Theater and will be followed by a conversation between Almereyda and Lethem

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Steal this Band

Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude faded to the sound of
Another Green World, Brian Eno’s haunting, monochromatic set piece. Dylan Ebdus, Solitude‘s semi-autobiographical main character and his father, Abraham, disappear on the last page of Lethem’s sprawling book into a Massachusetts blizzard: “We were in a middle space then, in a cone of white, father and son moving forward at a certain speed. Side by side, not truly quiet but quiescent, two gnarls of human scribble, human cipher, human dream.”

Is there a more beautiful invocation of pop music in literature than Lethem’s? A better transubstantiation of rock ‘n’ roll records—”the middle space they conjured and dwelled in, a bohemian demimonde, a hippie dream”—into something so transcendently valuable?

Now Lethem—who once spoke of music as “the art that other art flatters itself by bending towards”—has come finally, with You Don’t Love Me Yet, to the thing itself. Reviewers’ galleys of his new novel arrived affixed with a letter, inscribed on Doubleday stationery and penned by Falmouth Strand, fictional conceptual artist and gallery owner. “Here, minor characters have been given undue prominence, while major characters have been relegated to the margins,” goes the author’s wink-and-nod. “Real art has been willfully confused with fake art.”

To wit: In an unnamed Los Angeles museum, we are introduced to Lucinda Hoekke and Matthew Plangent, a pair of lovers and bandmates who quickly put Strand’s prophecy about art to the test. There to end their affair, they instead dip into one of Strand’s sculptures for one last mutual appreciation. When next they meet, it will be at band practice.

Lucinda has a gift for appropriating other people’s work. Answering phones at a complaint line—another Strand art project—she begins a hotline romance with professional slogan-coiner Carlton Vogelsong, whose initial telephone complaints and later, repetitive utterances during innumerable sex acts with Lucinda, become the lyrics to the songs that will make the as-yet-unnamed band locally famous.

Matthew, lead-singer and about-to-be-former Los Angeles zoo employee, is in the midst of stealing something as well: a kangaroo (reminiscent of the gun-toting marsupial of Lethem’s first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music) named Shelf. Shelf is undergoing a crisis due to “a certain lack of realistic perspective,” a problem Matthew understands because he shares it.

Theft and plagiarism, identification and misidentification—not coincidentally, the subjects of a February Harper’s essay by Lethem titled “The Ecstasy of Influence”—are at the heart of
You Don’t Love Me Yet. When the band’s stunted genius, Bedwin Greenish, becomes blocked—”My problem is I don’t believe in the place where the sentences come from anymore,” he tells his band—Lucinda rescues him (and jumpstarts the book) by secretly supplying Carlton Vogelsong’s words, expropriated without notice from her new lover. As one character notes toward the end, “theirs was a band whose secret genius had a secret genius.”

Genius, as a noun, figures large in the novel, and it becomes a kind of burden for Lethem—what does a song written by a pack of geniuses sound like on the page? The band’s signature achievement, a song called “Monster Eyes,” begins with “a bass thrum and a chiming guitar figure” (the former played by Lucinda, who, on bass, “possessed all anyone needed: she swung” ) and comes sometime after “Astronaut Food” and sometime before “Canary In A Coke Machine” in the band’s set list. Their “lead-singer handsome” (1) lead-singer brings out the words: “Get you/out of range/of my/monster/eyes” ; Carlton Vogelsong, whose eventual disastrous price for the phrases that make up the band’s lyrics is a place with them onstage, plays “his wonky organ fills in the manner of free jazz.” Call it bohemian demimonde by way of a high school talent show: “Monster Eyes,” as Lethem writes it, is tough to imagine as a song written by adults, let alone enjoyed by hundreds of fans.

The odd deafness to nuance when it comes to the band is even more apparent in contrast with Lethem’s gift for setting. Plangent’s zoo is “an abrasion, Los Angeles’ arid skeleton poking into evidence.” The city itself is a place where “the freeway was like a saddle on the splayed city, a means both of mastering it and of shrinking from intimate contact with its surfaces.”

Surfaces, in the novel, always matter: The book’s big idea is that what’s out there is as valuable as anything intrinsically within. Vogelsong, the book’s gnomic center of wisdom, even mints a slogan saying so—”You can’t be deep without a surface.” When the inevitable battle over ownership eventually tears the band apart, this bit of advice returns, via Lucinda, as a final reproach to those less free with art, or more hung up on the real thing, than she.

By the time Lucinda enacts her last plagiarism, the gap between Lethem’s love-and-theft and the absurd superficiality of what the novel deems worthy of repurposing becomes disorientingly wide. Lethem is as lucid about art here as he is anywhere else. But
You Don’t Love Me Yet asks us to delight in the borrowing of that which doesn’t always seem worth taking.

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Amnesia Girls and Strange Sprays: We’re in Lethem-Land

Consider this a Lethem primer. In the story collection Men and Cartoons, the Brooklyn writer retraces his steps through shared histories, crimes committed and solved, superheroes, weird science, weirder romance. This is familiar territory, the Empire State Building and Carnegie Deli of Jonathan Lethem’s Gotham. In the most engaging piece, “Vivian Relf,” twentysomething bore Doran Close corners a woman at a party, convinced he knows her. She shares the inclination, but the two can’t establish a common past. After a few more encounters over a few more years, Doran says, “Of course, how could I forget? You’re that girl I don’t know.” He comes to pine for her, he misses her: feelings irreconcilable with the fact that their acquaintance is predicated on literally nothing. She’s the girl who got away who keeps coming back. Though there’s no overt fantasy here, the sense of mysterious design and chaos-theory coincidence evokes as much a sense of otherworldliness as the Marx-by-way-of–Popular Mechanics social philosophy of “Access Fantasy” or the suicidal talking sheep of “The Dystopianist, Thinking of His Rival, Is Interrupted by a Knock on the Door.”

“The Spray” finds a burglarized couple unable to name all of their stolen things. They allow the cops to treat their home with a liquid that reveals salmon-colored specters of what was taken: the television, his cuff links, her vibrator “glowing like a fuel rod.” When the spray is accidentally left behind, she gives him a playful shot of the stuff, revealing the translucent effigy of an ex-girlfriend draped across his front. Here, the book’s sense of loss comes to the fore. The characters of Men and Cartoons need their stories to be told so they can be sure that what they thought happened happened, that who they thought they were, they are.