I haven’t kept strict count, but I’m pretty sure this is only the second time Jonathan Lethem has put a kangaroo in one of his novels. If so, maybe I should stick with the ones with the ’roos. Because I loved “Gun With Occasional Music,” Lethem’s debut, and I have been only fond, but not wild, about everything since. Now comes “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” and once I got by the awkward title, I found myself in a bumpy but charming novel about a Los Angeles rock band on its way up. Lethem’s not trying to prove anything here—and every time I caught myself wishing he’d tried a little harder, I’d recall that trying too hard has been his big problem the last few novels. This time, he’s coasting, having fun and not out to prove anything. The result is a novel with some air in it—not air as in airheaded but air as in atmosphere and breathability. This novel is not going to expand Lethem’s reputation as a serious novelist, but its cleverness and the good will with which it creates and then sustains its feckless cast of characters prove that as a writer he has charm to burn, and, more important, that he knows the difference between charm and its idiot cousin, cuteness.
The story arc of “You Don’t Love Me Yet” is nothing more complicated than “band struggles-band gets a break-band blows the big break.” (Is there another plot for rock and roll fiction? Apparently not.) But aside from making sure that everything works the way it should and when it should in the plot department, Lethem isn’t all that interested in the who-did-what-to-whom-with-a-candlestick-in-the-library. Instead, he focuses on the dynamic of the band, how they play off each other, not just musically but emotionally. In a series of moves worthy of French farce, Lucinda, the bass player, breaks up with Matthew, the lead singer, then takes up with Carl, who dumps her, so she can flirt with the idea of making it with Bedwin, the songwriter and lead guitar player. But the form of the story is secondary to the emotion—and sometimes just ambience—being conveyed. As Lethem puts it, after spending the better part of two pages describing the band’s first song of their first gig, only to finally throw up his hands after yammering about verse, chorus, drumbeats, etc: “Hey everyone knows how this works, knows it in their bones, even if unable to articulate it exactly: rock ’n’ roll.” Lucinda, from whose point of view most of the story gets told, is a one-woman roller coaster who we come to love but who we also come to realize is someone best appreciated between the covers of a book.
Is this novel the literary equivalent of rock? Not quite. It’s got the requisite sloppiness, and it moves with the kind of cockiness that just assumes everyone in the room is going to love it. “Slovenly charm” about sums it up. But it lacks that nasty kick that rock needs to make things happen. Maybe you just can’t write rock into literature. The two things may just be antithetical. Lethem, though, almost pulls it off a time or two, especially as Lucinda is careening toward her third lover in a very short novel. Her thrilling willingness to go out of control takes you right with her, even though you know better.
This may be a slight story, with nothing about it that is very illuminating or life changing, but it certainly captures a lot of the goofy idleness of youth. And it’s got a kangaroo, which so many novels lack these days. Not a book to love, but a hard book to get mad at.