The road to hell is paved with piss-poor attempts to capture the spirit of rock n’ roll in another art form. As an admirer of Jonathan Lethem’s work, I was thus worried to hear that his latest book would be the story of a rock n’ roll band, epigraphed by lyrics from the Vulgar Boatmen and Roky Erikson no less.
But (thankfully) rock n’roll is just one of the players in this light yet substantial novel – alongside a kidnapped kangaroo, for example. Lethem has a witty and energetic imagination, and while there are plenty of weighty topics touched upon – sexual politics, copyright, high and low art, to name just a few – this book, like the best of songs, is just as concerned with rhythm and groove as it is with meaning, making it a pleasure to read.
The story centres around a group of wannabes who – in one of the many gentle realities captured that suggest there’s more than a little autobiography going on in the musical interludes – spend as much time trying to work out a name as they do coming up with songs. The bassist, Lucinda, chances on an enigmatic copywriter, a man made rich by his ability to coin ‘itchy phrases’. Love blooms, and his phrases are, in a mixture of innocence and subterfuge, appropriated as the hooks on which to hang the band’s songs.
The novel provides an opportunity for Lethem to explore a number of ideas which have grabbed his interest of late (as demonstrated in his lengthy essay, published by Harpers
) in a playful manner. At the heart of the novel are transactions; acts of giving and receiving that inevitably change a person, for better and worse. There are various love stories, including that of the lead singer Matthew and a depressed (female) kangaroo called shelf. In each the gift of love has associated costs for both the reciever and giver. At the same time the traffic of intellectual and artistic ‘property’ is subject to scrutiny. Carl, ‘the complainer’, who gives over his phrases to the band freely, exacts a price by insisting on joining the band – and ultimately destroying the group as a result. Lethem readily admits an influence from Lewis Hyde’s influential (and recently republished) The Gift,
and this novel could have readily taken on an alternative – if less snappy – title of The Gift,
or perhaps more appropriately The Price
because all the characters trade amongst each other their love and talents, with a thin line demarcating the act of giving from selling, and receiving from buying.
The novel follows Lucinda, the bassist of the band – though it’s not a first-person narrative. Lethem is lovingly close to the characters he has created, but retains enough distance to question their motives, and self-constructed identities. And this is one of the novel’s key strengths which allows it to rise above the run-of-the-mill rock n’roll novel. One of the things a novel with music at its centre must do is describe the music – and some of the best rock music eludes description. It alters your moods imperceptibly, quickening your heart beat, flinting images fresh in the mind’s eye. When you try to capture that in words the danger is one of tone – to become over reverential with your words sounds ridiculous when describing a twelve-bar blues, and yet to treat it too lightly becomes a sneer. Lethem, it seems to me, has found a perfect balance – as opposed to, for example, Salman Rushdie whose mythological musings in The Ground beneath her feet strike such a false note:
“The earth begins to rock and roll, its music dooms your mortal soul and there’s nothing baby nothing you can do. ‘Cause it’s not up to it’s not up to you
The earthquake songs of Ormus Cama are rants in praise of the approach of chaos, paradoxically composed by an artist working at the highest levels of musical sophistication. The songs are about the collapse of all walls, boundaries, restraints. They describe worlds in collision, two universes tearing into each other, striving to beomce one, destroying each other in the effort. Dreams invade the day, while waking’s humdrums beat in our dreams” [The Ground beneath her feet – Salman Rushdie (pg 390)
“Lucinda plumped at her bass strings, jump-starting the song, and planted her thighs in a new stance, facing Denise, demanding the drum’s reply. Denise met the call, ticked the beat double-time. The sound was sprung, uncanny, preverbal, the bass and drum the rudiment of life itself, argument and taunt, and each turn of the figure a kiss-off until the cluster of notes began again. Who needed words? Who even needed guitars, those preening whiners? Lucinda felt violently unapologetic.” [You don’t love me yet – Jonathan Lethem [pg 22]
Both examples above are wordy, as befits their authors’ talents, but when Lethem opens with ‘plumped at her bass strings’ it’s obvious who’s on target of the two. Put simply, Lethem has the vocabulary to approach the subject without sounding like an anthropologist.
The main criticism that the novel will have levelled at it is that it’s not overtly clever – unlike much of Lethem’s work. There are no inspired crashes of genre, like the Philip K. Dick crash with Raymond Chandler of Gun with occasional music (with its gun-toting heavy, a Kangaroo); no brilliant central conceit, perhaps, such as the tourettes suffering detective, Lionel Essrog, of Motherless Brooklyn there is no ambitious cataloguing of culture which was one of the main strengths of his last novel Fortress of Solitude.It seems to me, though, that Lethem is to be congratulated for offering up precisely the sort of novel that no-one would have expected from him, and for making it work. In the final analysis the novel’s title says it all with that confident ‘yet’.