Monday, April 23, 2007

Walls tumbling down: Jonathan Lethem satire blurs the lines of artistic ownership

By Jonathan Lethem.
Doubleday, 224 pp. $24.95.p>

The February issue of Harper's Magazine featured an article by novelist Jonathan Lethem titled "The Ecstasy of Influence," in which he issues a manifesto calling for "open source" culture, based on the share-and-share-alike underpinnings of jazz and the Internet.

He suggests that the very idea of "intellectual property" is preposterous and proposes that art is better suited to a "gift culture" in which creators freely borrow from others works. "Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master," he writes. "That is to say most artists are converted to art by art itself. ... Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist of creating out of void, but out of chaos."

On his Web site, Lethem has been putting his theory into practice by offering the rights to a handful of his own short stories for a dollar. It's a program he calls "the Promiscuous Materials Project." In addition, he's running a contest to give away the film rights to his new novel You Don't Love Me Yet so long as the winner agrees to return the rights to the public domain after five years. The new novel itself explores questions of proprietary ownership via a Los Angeles rock band coping with stardom.

First, let's introduce the band. Lucinda, bassist, answers phones for a faux "complaint line" that's part of a performance art experiment run by a former lover. Lead singer Matthew has kidnapped a kangaroo from the zoo where he works and is hiding it in his small apartment. Denise, the drummer, is relegated to a dead-end day job at a porn emporium. Bedwin, the band's reclusive muse and guitarist, rarely ventures into daylight and instead spends his days compulsively watching Fritz Lang's Human Desire on his VCR looking for discrete visual clues.

As the novel opens, Lucinda and Matthew have just broken up, threatening to break up the band, which is already struggling to produce a playlist that goes beyond the five clich├ęd songs the four have already written and played to death.

What initially appears to be a fanciful tale of slacker sex and introspection — the kind of quirky setup seen in a dozen indie comedies — quickly becomes something deeper: a critique of artistic inspiration and ambition.

After Lucinda begins a mystifying phone relationship with a man she calls "the Complainer," a talker with beguiling tales of romantic misadventures, the band's fortune changes. The stories serve as the raw material for a series of new songs — Dirty Yellow Chair, Secret From Yourself and Monster Eyes, the last a likely hit that also provides the band with a name.

The band is invited to play at a highbrow happening. Dubbed "Aparty," it has a farcical twist: The band is expected to play silently while headphone-wearing party goers dance to their Walkmans (it is the early '90s, thus no iPods). Aparty — apart, a party, get it?

Fortunately, the organizer's absurd plans are thwarted, and Monster Eyes plays a full-volume set, one that leads to its big break: a chance to showcase its talent on the absurdly named Fancher Autumnbreast's radio show, a local music kingmaker who has launched numerous careers and appears based on the real-life Nic Harcourt, a famous DJ on Los Angeles' KCRW.

But here's the dilemma: The songs technically don't belong to the band, since they originated with the Complainer's calls. Carl — Lucinda discovers the Complainer's real name after impulsively becoming his lover — is upset and demands to become part of the band, which throws the quartet into disarray.

This somewhat absurdist plot is Lethem's way of illustrating his theory that art is not created in a vacuum, that it does not arise sui generis from its creator.

Besides embodying an agenda, the novel offers real pleasure, particularly in the witty way Lethem depicts the milieu of the L.A. art/rock scene: a gaggle of aging record producers are "unyouthful men in youthful clothes"; a local alternative weekly is titled "The Echo Park Annoyance"; perhaps best of all, he proffers a number of clever, hipster coinages, such as "Astronaut Food" as a metaphor for the meager sustenance one gets from an unfulfilling relationship. In this lovely sentence he describes a middle-aged man's body hair: "His hair, white at his throat, darkened below the curve of his stomach, as though night's setting had recorded itself across the field of his body."

The book's jacket may feature a stern-looking Lethem posing with a guitar — the very picture of artistic ennui — and promise "a romantic farce." But this slick, entertaining novel offers a relationship with the writer and his characters far more satisfying and serious than mere "Astronaut Food."

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