Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Love, Really

I run a book group. The group began about 30 years ago, with the first leader being a graduate student in comparative literature at the school where I later got my Ph.D. The job was passed down through the years until it landed at my doorstep about 7 or 8 years ago. Several of the women were young mothers when the group started; now they are grandmothers.

This is not the kind of group that reads, say, The Kite Runner. For 30 years, led by one graduate student in comparative literature after another, they made their way through most of the classics. For a few years I scrambled to come up with a few they hadn't read (Eugenie Grandet by Balzac; The Black Swan by Thomas Mann). I still manage now and then to find something "old" (this season we have read Lionel Trilling's The Middle of the Journey and will read Stefan Zweig's The Post-Office Girl), but for the most part we concentrate on contemporary novels. I try to introduce them to books of social and political interest (though nothing tendentious), to books that are being talked about in a critical and intellectual way, to "ideas." I have a pretty good antenna for over-praise; one of the surest guides to really bad over-praised novels is the "10 Best" published at the end of the year by the New York Times Book Review. Last year I added one of these 10 best -- Special Topics in Calamity Physics -- which turned out to be a bore (and at 500-plus pages) and  as pretentious as its title suggests.

Today we read and discussed You Don't Love Me Yet by male wunderkind Jonathan Lethem. Forty-four years old, he is from Brooklyn, has been awarded a Macarthur "genius" grant, and is spoken in the same breath as Jonathan Franzen, Richard Powers, and the recently deceased David Foster Wallace.

Its subject is love, or the desire for love, if not yet, and the confusions that result from that desire. The seekers, principally one named Lucinda, are late 20-somethings, four members of a band that has no name, has never had a gig, and has a set list of 10 songs. They are stuck, as their songwriter (Bedwin Greenish) is having what he calls "a sort of problem with language." He no longer believes "in the place where the sentences come from," but this uncertainty reflects their general lack of orientation.

The story is set in Los Angeles. The band members work at low-paying jobs (at the zoo, in a coffee shop, in a sex toy shop) and live in Echo Park and Silver Lake, which the New York Times reviewer of the novel called the "locus of Los Angeles's shabby groovester scene." An odd thing about these musicians is that none of them has an iPod (or indeed a cell phone). There are no references to TV. Their life revolves solely around the local indie music scene, the presiding personality of which is a character called Fancher Autumnbreast (anything goes in LA, apparently). They are a small island within a large city; one seldom has any sense of the larger city beyond, aside from a neon sign for footwear outside Lucinda's apartment. They have no parents, no siblings, no politics, no associations beyond the groovester scene.

This island-like quality underlines the group's lack of traditional attachments and, indeed, traditional  sources of artistic creativity. Since their ideas of love have no real-world associations -- like marriage or family or work -- Lethem has had the brilliant idea of connecting this search for love with conceptual art. The story begins in a museum of conceptual art, in which Lucinda, the bassist, meets Matthew, the singer/guitarist, "to end it," meaning their off-on relationship. They make love in an installation at the museum, a conceptual project built by her former boyfriend Falmouth. It is a large white cube outfitted inside with tiny furniture. Imagine a doll's house in which, Alice in Wonderland-like, they manage to fit themselves: while Lucinda braces against tiny bedposts, Matthew wrinkles her jeans over her knees. You get the picture.

What propels the action, what gets the band out of its rut, is Falmouth's newest conceptual art project at the gallery he runs. Orange stickers, reading "Complaints" with a phone number, have been posted on public phones, in restaurants, cocktail lounges, and the like, all over the city. Lucinda and a couple of "interns" (students of Falmouth's) take the calls and write down the complaints. Lucinda has given up a job as a cappuccino maker and has doubts that any museum will be willing to purchase Falmouth's "lunatic archive of woe and store it in its basement." One of the callers, however, "the brilliant complainer," makes an impression on her, as he pours into her ears his tales of failed love. As he says of himself, he has "this condition called monster eyes." He always find something to dislike in those he has been in love with, until it becomes so enormous that he can no longer look at the woman. "M-O-N-S-T-E-R E-Y-E-S," Lucinda writes in the notebook she has been instructed to fill with the words of complainers. Of course, the complainer is not really talking about love, but about the effect of real things (like bad cuticles) on our perception of the loved one.

The complainer, we later learn, is a writer of jingles and  bumper stickers (POUR LOVE ON THE BROKEN PLACES), and the tales he tells Lucinda, besides being heavily interlaced with sexual content, are full of bon mots. "Astronaut food," for instance, something that everyone has lying around: "The people you imagine you might be with but you know you never really will be. ... Friends who are almost more than friends but really, they're just friends. Astronaut food, bomb-shelter provisions." As I said, these are people with only a conceptual understanding of relationships.

Lucinda, however, passes on a list of the complainer's phrases to Bedwin. Unleashed from his language block, he incorporates them into songs .

Concurrently, the tales have lit up Lucinda sexually, and she seeks out the complainer. Though he turns out to be a middle-aged hipster, after an alcohol-soaked, sexual weekend with him she imagines she is in love. At the end of the same weekend, the no-name band, with the songs inspired by the phrases of the complainer, has got its groove back. The result is 15 minutes of fame at a happening misorganized by Falmouth.

From there things begin to go awry. Let me just say that the story ends with Lucinda and Matthew rekindling their love, following a route planned out for them by Falmouth, "a sort of unofficial wedding present": "He said he'd pay me for the day if we followed his exact instructions, to drive up the coast and ignore all the beaches until we got to El Matador. We're supposed to eat at Neptune's Net, too, a fish shack farther up the highway."  And that is what they do, though what they are really doing is starting out on the "oceanic voyage into their thirties and beyond." One wonders, however, if they will simply stay in their conceptual bubble, or whether they might go out into the real world: get a job, get married, support a family.

The "youth" of America (and the West generally) is divided into those who are "conceptual" (without roots in traditional culture) and those who are "real" (who follow in the paths of previous generations).

(Picture credit: Reuters/Alex Grimm [Oct. 18, '05])

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