Writing well is not easy; writing really well is quite hard. There are too many words available and too many ways to combine them, and most of the time we will do so in a non-optimal way. I’m pretty sure some sentences in this review will make readers immediately think of a better way to say what I meant. It’s impossible to get it all right.
What should we think, then, of a writer that almost reaches this unreachable goal, a statistically perfect sentence-builder? Shouldn’t them be unreservedly celebrated, win all our praises and conquer all our hearts? Poor writers. As soon as they master the stuff, we start taking it for granted. We’re always asking for more.
Take Jonathan Lethem. He’s got everything right: the words, the rhythm, even that most elusive of substances, the humor. He doesn’t make it easy for the reader, doesn’t dumb his work down, and yet following his prose is so easy and pleasurable it often feels I could keep doing it forever. He is inventive without being showy, avoiding cliches as if they simply weren’t there.
He also makes it all look effortless, as if he were born with this gift, and that he wasn’t just makes me think higher of his talent. I know this because I’ve read Lethem’s first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music, a delicious mixture of noir and science fiction. I don’t mean to say he wrote badly at the time; on the contrary. But one could feel the hesitations, and the way the old noir formulas were there to keep it all together when the writer stumbled. Nine years later, in The Fortress of Solitude, the genre support was gone, the plot was much more complex, and the writing was way better. (Between the two there were four other novels I haven’t read yet, including Lethem’s biggest hit, Motherless Brooklyn).
Following Lethem’s prose is so easy and pleasurable it often feels I could keep doing it forever.
And it’s all still there in You Don’t Love Me Yet: a simpler plot, for sure, but the same excellence in writing and the same style, Lethem’s private voice — which, if anything, only got stronger. What the hell is wrong with me to think there’s something wrong with this book?
It took me a while to summarise, but I got it a couple of pages before the end: You Don’t Love Me Yet is a great short story wrapped in a not so great novel. The short story tells of some 48 hours in the life of Lucinda Hoekke, bass player in a band with no name and call attendant for a complaint line created by a conceptual artist. During those hours Lucinda meets a mysterious, seductive complainer, with whom she has amazing talks and sex; oversleeps and is rudely awakened by her bandmates; and rushes to the party thrown by the conceptual artist, where the band is supposed to play really low while people dance to the sound of their private music players. Luckily for the band, things get out of hand and the performance piece is ruined, giving them the chance to turn their first concert into something of legend.
It all takes place in sixty pages or so, and it’s wonderful. The piece de resistance, the band’s concert, is uncannily described: we don’t need to hear the music to know what it was like, and we’re sure it was every bit as great as Lethem says. Lucinda’s date with the complainer is a not too distant second: theirs is a peculiar kind of romance, free of gushiness and full of weirdness, and Lethem makes it work really well.
It’s really disappointing to catch a good writer in the act of trying to make you laugh.
Before and after that, however, there are less attaching fillers. At the beginning, the novel takes some time to find its pace and to establish Lucinda as its unambiguous center: there is a lot of stuff going on, including a strange subplot whose existence is not really justified (the kidnapping of a depressed kangaroo from the LA Zoo) and a strange character whose strangeness is really gratuitous (party-thrower and armpit-sniffer Jules Harvey). Sometimes I had the uncomfortable sensation that Lethem hoped these and other quirkiness were funny: it’s really disappointing to catch a good writer in the act of trying to make you laugh. And sometimes he did, but most of the time the oddity was just estranging.
The great short story gives the novel enough momentum for the reader to keep going until its conclusion, but plotwise Lethem has to come up with something to fill the blanks, and it’s something very thin. Lucinda used the complainer’s words to write some of the band’s lyrics; the complainer inexplicably thinks this gives him the right to enter the band, and we can see trouble coming half a light year away. But the complainer didn’t strike me as a band-member type, and the sole justification I found for his behavior were his words about a previous lover: “It was a perfect relationship, so I had to wreck it.” Maybe that’s his modus operandi, but it feels more like a cop-out for a writer who didn’t develop his character enough.
I’ve read somewhere on the Internet, which amounts to say I have no idea if this is true or not, that Lethem expected a backlash after the critical acclaim for The Fortress of Solitude and voluntarily decided to write something less ambitious. Maybe it isn’t true, but it would be understandable: there’s nothing wrong with cleansing the palate between two major projects, and as an interlude piece You Don’t Love Me Yet is a nice treat. There is, however, no escape to the fact that I was hoping for more. So much more that the perfectly played chords and the excellent midsection are not enough to call this novel a great tune.