Writing about subcultures in a mainstream form is difficult. If you’re writing non-fiction, the difficulty comes from striking a balance between authoritative and accessible. Err too much on the side of the former, and your piece will sound too “inside.” Err on the latter and you’re likely to dumb down a subject so much that you fail to capture what makes it interesting in the first place. Either way, the end result is the same: the reader is left uninformed.
Setting a novel inside a subculture carries the same risks. I’ve been as bored as anybody when reading Tom Clancy’s interminable descriptions of the insides of naval warships in between Jack Ryan’s derring-do. On the other hand, when I reached the end of Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet, I wondered why he bothered to make the L.A. arts and music scene the backdrop of his novel, if he had so little to say about it.
Love Me is the story of an L.A. band whose inter-romantic difficulties are matched only by its inert career, until its bassist Lucinda, holding down a side job answering phones on a complaint line, brings the group’s troubled genius songwriter some lyrics culled from the calls she receives from an anonymous loser she dubs The Complainer. His turns of phrase become the basis for both the band’s new direction, and Lucinda’s erotic obsession with her caller, whom she eventually meets and shares a torrid days-long, booze-soaked love affair in advance of the band’s first gig.
Lethem is aiming for a modern satire here, but it’s a jab that feels dated by about 20 years, as he neither understands the world he’s describing nor his characters. The band’s first show is initially to be a silent one, where the group will only mime a performance at a party that doubles as an art installation. The party guests rebel and the band gives a bravura performance, which leads to encounters with a legendary ex-hippie DJ, an would-be Svengali manager and Lucinda’s slothful, romantic partner, who’s expectedly talentless but still insists on joining the band, due to his lyrical contributions. Just what the world needs: Yoko jokes mixed with riffs on Andy Warhol’s Factory.
The story isn’t without interesting details, like the armpit-sniffing culture reporter, the zookeeper guitarist who kidnaps a kangaroo who’s in the midst of a depressive episode, or the drummer’s employment at a place called No Shame, which is described as a “masturbation boutique.” But Lethem never really explores the flair of these side stories. We never find out what differentiates No Shame from the average porn shop, for instance, thereby missing an opportunity for some genuine satire on the smarter set’s tendency to dress up low culture in high fashion before reveling in its enjoyment.
While understanding that art subcultures – particularly music – are both fluid and transient, Lethem doesn’t realize that the people within them are not. Rather than craft arcs for the band members, Lethem’s characterizations double back on themselves, contradicting everything we’ve been told about them. Too consumed with the questions of how art is created within a flurry of influences, the novel fails to give us a sense of the character’s own motivations, making them nothing more than sketch pads for Lethem’s ideas, full of scratch-outs and scribbled side notes. It’s also a bit disconcerting that even the best-written female characters in the book – particularly the hard-nosed zoo administrator Dr. Marian – are shown to be mere putty in hands of The Complainer, due to his seductive, but slovenly, gaze.
Lethem is a writer of impressive ideas and skill; my experience with Love Me won’t deter my desire to read his celebrated novels Motherless Brooklyn or Fortress of Solitude. But it’s worth nothing that his plan to give away the movie rights to Love Me says far more about the issues of copyright and ownership and art than the book does.