“The world, unlivened by alcohol, music or sex, was tinny, pallid, unwound,” thinks Lucinda Hoekke, the protagonist of Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet.
Driven so relentlessly by her appetites, Lucinda seems the obvious point-of-view choice for a novel about a struggling L.A. rock band that manages a single modest hit before the obligatory betrayals and squabbling over songwriting credits take them down. Lucinda can only make sense of the world by drinking, screwing or playing her bass. “I bet they fuck all night, every night, when we’re not looking,” she says to drummer Denise during a visit to the L.A. Zoo.
Lucinda is at once spontaneous and irresponsible, irresistibly flagrant and self-destructive. She sleeps with three quarters of the male leads in this novel, makes a rather desperate and deluded pass at the remaining quarter and, yet—for all the damage she does to herself and those around her—she loves her band. When things go well for her, as they do when she’s engaged in her favorite activities, Lucinda feels that the source of her happiness was a stream through all their lives, a bass figure under all their music.” The fact that she breaks up with her lover Matthew, the lead singer, in the first chapter is no loss to her. In fact, she sees it as a plus. “A lot of the great rock and roll bands are founded in break-ups, love triangles, love-hate relationships.”
Like the perfect pop song, Lucinda’s character straddles the murky border between cliché and profundity. It’s often hard to tell whether she’s a true rock ’n’ roll talent or a poseur. Lethem saddles her with a sensibility that can seem both shallow and appealingly forthright. He carefully avoids making her a musician with an annoyingly literary way of understanding the world, a trap many writers fail to avoid when writing about artists other than writers. Yet her songs come from that place from which all art derives—the unexpected collision of desire and some artifact blown in mercifully by the wind.
Her artifact is Carl, an older man who compulsively calls the complaint line she answers at her day job. The complaint line is actually a piece of performance art created by her ex-lover, Falmouth. In a nod to opportunistic art-world figures (clueless about rock ’n’ roll, if not indifferent to it) who promote rock bands—think Andy Warhol and Malcolm McLaren—Falmouth becomes, briefly, the band’s impresario. The band’s first gig, in fact, is at a sort of “happening” staged by Falmouth.
Lucinda’s infatuation with Carl the complainer leads to a binge of sex and scotch, and, eventually, to his appearance at their inaugural gig, where he discovers that the words out of his mouth—often uttered during copulation—have turned up in the band’s best songs. (One of his phrases, “Monster Eyes,” becomes not only the title of the band’s lone and ephemeral hit, but also its name.) The gig, improbably, is filled with label scouts, A&R men and a Los Angeles legend named Fancher Autumnbreast whose radio show is a known rung on the ladder to rock stardom. Industry types want to sign them, Fancher Autumnbreast wants them on his show—and now Carl wants to join the band.
The problem is, as Denise points out, Carl doesn’t really look like a member of a rock band. He’s pudgy in contrast to their hip thinness, and nowhere near as stylish a dresser as moody lead guitarist Bedwin, who wears top-buttoned thrift-shop shirts. But Carl has an enormous loft the band can use for practice space, and money to spend on booze and food. And, by this point, he’s Lucinda’s lover. At the radio gig, Autumnbreast pegs Carl immediately as a fifth Beatle, and, indeed, his disastrous performance on the show breaks up the band.
When Lethem describes Monster Eyes’ music, the prose becomes stiffly analytical; the sentence rhythms do little to convey the quality of the music itself. But the novel is less about a rock band than it is about Lucinda’s attempt to understand the choices she makes, particularly in love.
Despite the shifting allegiances, creative differences and wounded egos of these fledging rockers, it’s the rhythm of Lucinda’s movement from lover to lover, her verse/chorus/verse return to Matthew by novel’s end, that leaves the reader pondering the conundrum of great pop songs. How to create that hook, or some magical but archetypal-familiar sequence of chords, that will linger in the listener’s head, evoking both mystery and the sense that the song was written from inside the listener’s heart?
“You can’t be deep without a surface,” says Carl. There’s quite a bit of surface in this novel, but there’s also a sweet truthfulness in its investigation of how the songs we love express something we can never fully articulate. Lethem understands this paradox, even if his characters don’t.