Jonathan Lethem's last novel was The Fortress Of Solitude, a bestselling literary doorstop. The one before that was Motherless Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Circle fiction award in 1999. In the meantime, he's won a MacArthur genius grant and been portrayed on The Simpsons. The man is due for a letdown.
You Don't Love Me Yet, his latest tale of relationships and rock 'n' roll, is that letdown. It squanders its few honest scenes with cringe-inducing sex, hipster caricatures, and unconvincing garage-band mythology. His protagonist, Lucinda, a twentysomething female bassist for a nascent L.A. band, has taken a temporary job with a former boyfriend, a dapper gallery owner who has set up a telephone complaint line for his latest performance-art project. After being seduced by a loquacious regular caller, she jumpstarts the moribund band by giving some of the complainer's best lines to its reclusive songwriter, and they land a gig at an anti-party happening where the guests aren't allowed to hear the entertainment or eat the catered food. Meanwhile, Lucinda's once and future relationship with the lead singer, a zoo employee, gets complicated when he kidnaps a depressed kangaroo and keeps it in his apartment.
Lethem piles on the quirks without ever producing much humor. His most egregious creation is Fancher Autumnbreast, a zoot-suit enigma who speaks in fragments and hosts a radio show called The Dreaming Jaw that has launched the careers of fictional bands "from the Rain Injuries to Souled American to Memorial Garage." By contrast, Lucinda almost qualifies as a three-dimensional character. But her motivations are weak, and her appetites inexplicable at best. The whole affair must be intended as a comment on authenticity and the irony culture, contrasting Lucinda's yen for her enigmatic complainer with artists' attempts to catch lightning in a bottle with a song, meme, or event. Yet the only thing that isn't ironic in Lethem's slight novel is the marathon sex, which must qualify as authentic because of its disturbing lack of eroticism.
A couple of cliffhanger moments could have served as the core of a much meatier, more thought-out story than Lethem has provided. His descriptions of the band's triumphant first performance, bookended by its meltdown on live radio, capture the elusive nature of musical collaboration and dissolution. He fails, however, to produce a story or characters that can house these well-observed experiences. Instead, he shores up his book with a truckload of cuddly oddities. It's a missed opportunity for a talented but perhaps overextended writer.