City Paper is not for tourists
I’m giving up on novels about rock bands.
I say this after finishing Jonathan Lethem’s new book, You Don’t Love Me Yet, a thin, lifeless novel about a Los Angeles quartet. I don’t have a problem with Lethem, who’s written one excellent novel, Motherless Brooklyn, and what was almost a great one, The Fortress of Solitude (quality control falls off toward the end). But that only bolsters the point: I’m now convinced that it’s all but impossible for even top-shelf writers to tell a story about a rock band that isn’t sick with cliches and purple prose.
Does You Don’t Love Me Yet have a scene where the band struggles to come up with a name? It does. Does it have a scene about that magical moment where that song finally comes together? Yes. And does that scene employ a ridiculously outsize metaphor? You betcha: “Their hearts huddled around the fledgling song as if it were a tendril of bonfire in wild darkness, something they nurtured which fed them in return.”
There’s more: sexual tension between bandmates, struggling to get that first gig, the climactic moment that breaks up the band’s surrogate family. To be fair, Lethem weaves in some interesting commentary about the question of how songs come together and what it means to be a songwriter, but it’s impossible to shake the feeling that this is all beneath a guy with a MacArthur grant.
Maybe I’m set off here because I read a lot of lousy novels about rock bands in the past year: like this, this, and this. And I don’t have a problem with fiction about rock music: just to pick a recent example, Michael Parker’s recent collection, Don’t Make Me Stop Now, has a fine story about the grandmother-killing powers of Humble Pie’s “Hot ‘N’ Nasty.” But the story of a rock musician trying to make it? It’s a dead genre. (Not that I won’t hear out claims to the contrary.)