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Improbable serenade

A nonmusician from Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem conjures L.A. and its music scene -- as he imagines it.

March 11, 2007|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

New York — FOR a writer with Brooklyn roots, Jonathan Lethem faced a daunting challenge in his newest novel: He wanted to tell the story of an alt-rock band in Los Angeles, a gaggle of dimwitted bohemians caught between their post-college years and thirtysomething angst. But he knew little about the city.

At one point, in a quest for literary color, the visiting New York writer asked an artist-activist from Silver Lake to show him around. The plan backfired, however, when his tour guide got cold feet, feeling uneasy about the request. Instead, he took Lethem for a long, unplanned visit to the Los Angeles Zoo.

"He hijacked my entire research day, but it was a piece of serendipity, because the zoo became a backbone to the book," the author said. "You can't imagine the book without the zoo, and it weirdly became this metonym for Los Angeles itself."

The zoo?

In his other stabs at a sense of place, Lethem offers only drive-bys: superficial glimpses of the downtown loft scene, a quickie visit to Tang's Donut in Hollywood and fleeting images of Sunset Boulevard. One character notes that people don't walk much in Los Angeles. Another reads a (nonexistent) "City" section of the Los Angeles Times. A beachside tableau features "middle-aged valley couples, tanned Malibu executives, feral bands of teens, Asian families like strings of ducklings, anyone but hipsters." After she fails to reach someone on the phone late at night, a depressed character imagines Los Angeles as "the largest inhabited abandoned city on earth."

Lethem isn't the first New York writer to produce a stylized, once-over-lightly portrait of Southern California. In his own defense, the author of well-regarded novels such as "Motherless Brooklyn" and "The Fortress of Solitude" said his take on L.A. was in keeping with the nature of the story he was trying to tell in "You Don't Love Me Yet." He also said it reflects his restlessness as a novelist. If some find a lack of gravitas in his newest work, he added, they're missing the point.

"In my previous books, I paid a lot of attention to accuracy; I became the bearer of communal memories for a Brooklyn neighborhood," he said. "There was an enormous sense of wanting to get details right. But then I wanted to be irresponsible again.... I wanted to get back to the sense of play in writing fiction."

Given a cast of characters who were utterly clueless about their future, who were drifting and had no true sense of place, Lethem felt that he too had the license to "fake it" in describing a Los Angeles that seemed frivolous and shallow. "I don't know it well," he confessed. "Really, it's a place I'm only curious about."

Indeed, the 43-year-old writer, one of America's most prominent younger novelists, is famous for exploring -- and then quickly shedding -- a variety of themes and influences, including detective stories and science fiction, road trip novels and movies. His edgy, taboo-busting work, packed with references to American pop culture, has been called "fiction's answer to Quentin Tarantino" by the Guardian of London. He won the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction in 1999 for "Motherless Brooklyn."

Lethem's gift, said Albert Mobilio, an editor of BookForum, is that he blends so many genres unexpectedly, while producing literary fiction. "He's at the forefront of a group of writers who do this, and it's a generational thing," Mobilio said. "In one novel, 'Girl in Landscape,' he takes elements of John Ford's movie 'The Searchers' and combines it with a coming-of-age story. Then he sets it on another planet, so it's also a science fiction book. He combines all of these threads in a way that's distinctive."

He's also churned out a large body of nonfiction work, including a recent Harper's essay, "The Ecstasy of Influence," a defense of artistic plagiarism, and a long Rolling Stone profile last year of Bob Dylan. A media-savvy player in New York's often backbiting literary world, Lethem has carried a torch for previously neglected or underappreciated writers such as Philip K. Dick and Paula Fox, helping to restore their legacies by promoting their works. In Dick's case, he edited a Library of America edition of his novels.

"It's nice that I can do that," Lethem said, acknowledging his reputation in book circles as a kind of champion of overlooked brilliance but also trying to sound modest. Soft-spoken at first, he shifted gears when the conversation turned to his work, talking intensely in paragraph-long bursts.

Lethem spoke on a wintry morning, relaxing in the living room of his small but comfortable Brooklyn brownstone. Books, DVDs and CDs were crammed onto shelves in an adjacent room, and film noir videos were stacked atop his TV set. The Boerum Hill neighborhood where he lives with his wife, filmmaker Amy Barrett, is rapidly gentrifying, yet Lethem feels about as rooted here as one could: He's living on the same block where he grew up, back when Brooklyn evoked menace more than pricey bistros.

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