Jonathan Lethem is an irrefutably "serious writer" with a serious thing for pop music. Unlike Nick Hornby or Chuck Klosterman, Lethem hasn't made a habit of addressing pop directly in his fiction until now, but his writing has long borne all the markings of a man infatuated with the electric immediacy of great rock 'n' roll.
His latest novel, "You Don't Love Me Yet," is about a band. It's mostly about the band's bass player, a young woman named Lucinda who sucks her identity and her world view from the teat of music ("Lucinda had read somewhere of the argument as to who derived the most pleasure from the sex act, the male or the female. She felt certain the musical reply would be: the bass player.")
Lethem -- a master of descriptive prose -- spends curiously little time detailing Lucinda physically, but she's clearly the kind of person who might end up in a rock band: raw, hungry, pretty and charismatic in some indefinable way, the person you'll trust to introduce you to something new, the person to confer official coolness on an album, a restaurant or a haircut. She's one of those people with a sharp candy shell and slightly gloopy inside who is simultaneously obsessed with authenticity and approval, ends that can often, without notice, prove to be utterly irreconcilable.
In neighborhoods like the one in which Lethem sets his novel, these people drift together in a haze of ambition, boredom and lust to collaborate. They form rock bands with the ease of atoms joining into molecules.
As the book opens, Lucinda has quit her day job, and accepted a typically wacky neighbor-esque new assignment: manning a telephone "complaint line" that her ex-boyfriend and occasional benefactor has established as some kind of art project.
While manning the complaint line, Lucinda meets a man she calls "The Complainer": a seductive, complex peddler of substance. He's the writer, the ideological articulator, the purveyor of the sticky phrase.
So stylish Lucinda and the substantive Complainer proceed to collaborate. They have intoxicating, vaguely sordid sex, discuss things and loot one another for treasure until Lucinda pseudo-accidentally contributes a few of The Complainer's sticky phrases to her band's lyrical lexicon.
Her band's resident awkward artistic genius is sparked to new heights, and after the band picks up some steam, they're delivered at high speed into the book's best pages.
The band plays its first show, and like Peter Parker being transformed into Spiderman, a radioactive hit of attention at the proper moment seems to transform these musicians into budding rock stars.
Lethem captures all the elements of this serendipitous moment perfectly: the indie rock "scene" in all of its hyper-languorous, studiously quirky glory; the palpable restlessness of assembled groups of people who are engaged in the act of waiting for the next big thing to happen when suddenly it does; the occurrence of a golden moment, before the shark has been jumped, before the bloom is off the rose; the feeling of being in on the ground floor of something really big ("the night they first played that song"). You understand that in this moment, this music, made by these people, is something the world will want to consume.
But just who was the author of that moment?
While he doesn't abandon his characters, Lethem's spotlight swings explicitly to this issue for the last third of his book.
Any great band, even those that sport an "auteur," is generally acknowledged as greater than the sum of its parts. We accept the forces of influence and collaboration in great music, and any rock snob can discriminate between a beloved band's eras: "they were never the same after Jones died"; "they were only good for those three albums, before they broke up and reunited, before they got sober"; "That's the album when Gwen & Tony broke up" etc.
In January of this year, an essay by Lethem appeared in Harper's, called "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism." The essay was actually a series of appropriated paragraphs, assembled in collage.
In the essay, Lethem presents the history of subterranean collaborations that happen within an author's own mind -- a process that Lethem quotes Thomas Mann in calling "higher cribbing."
In both his Harper's essay and novel, Lethem is using another voice to speak about the impossibility of art without influence; the entirety of rock 'n' roll is balanced on the backs of a few stray blues riffs that would have been called "open-source," had that term been in Muddy Waters' lexicon.
Much as some say the white man introduced the idea of land ownership to the Native Americans, Lethem argues that the idea of "intellectual property" is not so much natural as introduced, and that in its harshest applications it has co-opted our collective ownership of experience and the joy of collaboration.
"You Don't Love Me Yet" is an entertaining novel by a talented writer that's certainly not bogged down in "statements." It's light and funny (I laughed out loud at the band's casual conversation about their new manager, an "armpit sniffer"), and it's full of the lovely collisions of words that have made Lethem's name ("Crossing the open dance floor Lucinda felt exposed, a cat in a cathedral.")
But of course the book also is a bit of a mission statement: an attempt at "consciousness-raising" around the subjects of creativity and authorship. "You Don't Love Me Yet" has already gone multimedia: Lethem's Web site invites bands to write their own versions of his fictional hit tune "Monster Eyes" (some have), and he's giving away the book's movie rights to the most artistically comely candidate, free of charge (some have applied).
So in this way, the book is not the heir to Lethem's previous novels as much as it is to his Harper's essay and his own "Promiscuous Materials Project" (in which he offers his own stories for adaptation -- see www.jonathanlethem.com.)
If the experience of culture is not solely intellectual, then the product of creativity is not always the sole intellectual property of the first guy in line at the copyright office.
Lethem is certainly thinking and riffing about this in his new novel, but mostly, he's writing about a band.
Emily Simon is a freelance writer living in California.
>You Don't Love Me Yet: A Novel
By Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday, 224 pages, $24.95