Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Jonathan Lethem - You don't love me yet


I was drawn to this author, I think, by something John Updike wrote, suggesting he was one of a new crop of decent American authors. I think, with You don't love me yet, his most recent work, I may have chosen the wrong book.

This is essentially a romcom, a light breeze of a read. I finished it last week in a single session and, picking it up tonight, I honestly couldn't remember a single thing about it - not the subject matter, nothing. Okay, my memory is notoriously flaky, but that still tells me something.

The one moment of supposed 'depth' here comes when one character says: 'You can't be deep without a surface.' It is laughed off at the time as merely a joke, but the fact that it is revisited in the very last line of the novel suggests that, for the author, this is indeed meant to be a profound statement and, presumably, a thematic hook for the novel.

It's not badly written at all. It reads very smoothly and keeps the reader drawn into the action. It's just that, well, it is essentially trivial, and worse than that it seems to me to be deliberately trying to be so. For example, there is a simply ludicrous scene when the male main character kidnaps a kangaroo from the zoo and keeps it in his bath. Now, there's clearly no point in talking of the improbability of this: the author knows that better than anyone, so he has simply done it for some form of comedic effect. If the whole of the novel was in this vein that would be fine, but otherwise this is a fairly straight story, so that plotline stands out as being ridiculous.

My other main problem with it is the manipulation of characters in order to provide a nice, rounded, romcom ending. The woman manager of the zoo, painted throughout as some form of tyrant, suddenly becomes just the exact person to manage the slightly out-of-control would-be Svengali character, and they are manipulated into a meeting. One gets the feeling there may once have been two separate female characters in this story and the editing process tightened them into one. It feels manufactured and laboured, not in the least credible.

From a quick google of the author, this novel seems atypical. Google suggests (without citation, so take it with a pinch of salt) that Lethem gave it an 'intentionally silly and light tone.' Well, perhaps that's so, but it is inconsistent. His previous work seems to be more science-fiction based, with a highly fantastic turn (eg talking kangaroos, an animal he seems very fond of). So I'll try another one, and write this off as an interesting but failed experiment.

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