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The Silver Lake follies

You Don't Love Me Yet A Novel Jonathan Lethem Doubleday: 226 pp., $24.95

March 11, 2007|Deborah Vankin | Deborah Vankin is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor. Her graphic novel, "Poseur," will be out in early 2008.

"IT'S good," said the reviewer.

"What is?" her friend asked, licking chai-spiced froth from his upper lip.

"Jonathan Lethem's new novel. It's set in L.A. Not great, but definitely good."

They were in a coffee shop on Sunset, and despite the assaulting midafternoon heat they cradled steaming chai-soy something-or-others beneath a sunlit picture window, their foreheads slicked with condensation.

"What's it about?"

"Um, music. And art. And love, I guess. Maybe the evolution or absence of those things. It's kind of about nothing. 'Nothing' being a profound entity unto itself."

The friend looked perplexed. He had a headache.

"It's funny," said the reviewer. "Trust me. Funny and good."

And so it went, my recent conversation with a friend -- much like a scene from Lethem's new book.

"You Don't Love Me Yet," the author's ninth novel, is a notable departure from his signature works, the critically acclaimed Brooklyn-based diptych "Motherless Brooklyn" and "The Fortress of Solitude." Those books are love letters to the borough, Lethem's hometown, his obvious affection generously realized in the narrative details, such as the ingredients of a signature local sandwich. Lethem knows that landscape, has internalized it, and the neighborhood itself is a staple character in the novels, which has earned him the appellation "the new poet of Brooklyn."

In "You Don't Love Me Yet," Lethem ventures outside his comfort zone, to Los Angeles, where he navigates the hipster-infested hillsides and hot, smoggy streets of Silver Lake. The story follows the intimacies of an aspiring neighborhood-based alternative-rock band whose members are about to break into their 30s and out of obscurity, though not before their precarious collective fantasy has evaporated, abruptly, before their very eyes -- and their wobbly mikes.

Lucinda Hoekke, 29, is a woman-child on the brink of many things: true love, musical notoriety, self-acceptance, alcohol-induced insanity and multiple orgasms. She's the bass player for the band, which has no name -- a metaphor for both its opaque self-image and its members' foggy mind-sets. At the book's start, Lucinda and her on-again, off-again boyfriend Matthew, a "tall, malnourished vegetarian" who is also the band's "lead-singer handsome" lead singer, break up. Matthew, who works at the L.A. Zoo by day, is housing a kidnapped kangaroo in his apartment; Lucinda's day job is working for another ex-lover, Falmouth Strand, a self-important, locally infamous experimental installation artist.

Falmouth (note the wordplay -- though he hardly curses up a storm) stages elaborate arty undertakings, such as transforming an empty gallery on Sunset Boulevard into a makeshift office space in which his CalArts students/interns/hangers-on robotically take anonymous phone calls on a fabricated "complaint hotline." Lucinda connects with one caller, a frumpy, dubious type who composes bumper-sticker phrases for a living and who wows her with his alternately brilliant and vapid self-analytical turns of phrase. In his ramblings she finds new inspiration, which she turns into song lyrics, and the two fall madly in love. Or sex. Or hate. Depending.

Whereas Lethem's work is known to careen from one medium to another, encompassing novels and short fiction, magazine interviews and essays, even the editing of collections -- and whereas within fiction he hopscotches among genres, from sci-fi to magical realism to hard-boiled detective stories to (here) "literary comedy" -- he nonetheless has a solid and recognizable identity as a writer. His work is personal, political and largely pop-cultural. Young and handsome, clever and irreverent, he's of that hip, New York writerly milieu, the sort that publishes in McSweeney's, hangs out with Heidi Julavits, interviews Bob Dylan for Rolling Stone and waxes poetic in Harper's. You get the drift. Consequently, certain Lethemesque touches consistently find their way into his books, among them visual and performance art, linguistic tongue-twisting, music, sex and friendship, the culture of cool, and kangaroos. "You Don't Love Me Yet" threads all these elements together.

The band gets its big break when it's invited to play at Falmouth's newest art-scene happening, held at a well-known party promoter's loft. Guests -- including "someone who might be Bruce Wagner" -- must come alone and wear headphones while dancing, individually, to their own private music of choice. "I might call it Party of Strangers. Or maybe Aparty, like apart, y," brags Falmouth. The nameless band is asked to play silently, in the background. Which is not without an upside, if viewed correctly: "They'd be forced to play inaudibly, sure, but to a huge crowd. Most bands debuted to barely anyone at all, to a handful of drunks. Here, they'd be an element in an artwork.... After showing how quietly they could play they'd give evidence of what else they were capable of, the quiet, nearly overlooked band, the art band, the band not like any other."

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