A novel by Jonathan Lethem
There is something admirable in the creative marketing of the new Jonathan Lethem novel. He has used the power and access he has earned form his previous successful works to do a multi-month rollout of the product and the ideas within it.
First, in January or February, came the essay in Harper's The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism. Then came the novel You Don't Love Me Yetand The Promiscuous Materials Project on his web site. It is not unusual for an major novelist to have an excerpt of the upcoming novel published in a periodical in the months prior to the publication of the new work, but Lethem, prolific, hard-working, and full of ideas, transforms to age-old process in a way that while no doubt satisfying his publisher by getting the word out, also enormously expands on the process and makes it all work beautifully for the marketing people, himself, and most importantly his readers. It was so well done that the reader of the wonderfully entertaining, playful, and important Harper's essay would not at all know that the novel to follow was really part of the same piece, the fictional companion that illuminates ideas in a equally entertaining, playful and somewhat more subtle way.
The essay is indeed a plagiarism in that it is mostly made up of the work and words of others, sometimes recomposed, sometimes verbatim. It is a participation in the argument about the creation and ownership of art and ideas. An examination of where art and ideas come from. An argument against the capitalist-individualistic and corporate ownership cult that infects American and global mass market culture. This notion of individual and corporate ownership continues to gain political power with big media lobbying to extend the copyright ownership period in a way that locks down intellectual property far beyond the life span of the producer of the art work in the service of corporate ownership profits. This also raises corporate logos, trademarks, and their other properties to religious iconic untouchables . The form of the article, sampling of the writing of others in a way that produces a new and original work, makes it a brilliant showcase of the ideas therein. The artist does not just tell us, he shows us. The form, cleverly chosen and masterfully executed, becomes the thing itself. The thing celebrated in some circles and loathed in others.
The creative product does not only come from isolation, the brilliant artist emerging from his desert or garret with the new original work, but rather emerges from the organic interactive flow of human life. The product is clearly that of the artist, his creation, but also the creation of us all. He has a right to his due, in money or some other acknowledgment , but why is some corporate entity then permitted to buy it and lock it down forever? The new corporate owners didn't make it, they just bought it. And bought the power of The State to help them protect it, or rather imprison it from the natural flow of life. They try to make it a dead thing and charge admission to gawk at the corpse.
In The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism Lethem comes down on the side of life.
In a recent reading in New York, Lethem stated that he was a communist. And although we know he doesn't really mean of a Communist of the 19th & 20th Century Marxist-Leninist variety we see that he is in solidarity with the post WWW generation Open Source political-creative aesthetic. This is apparent as he offers stories and song lyrics on his web site The Promiscuous Materials Project . The material is offered to anyone for a dollar or for free so that art can be made from art. It brings to mind the work of Douglas Rushkoff among many others.
The novel You Don't Love Me Yet is a pleasingly multi-leveled work. It can be viewed as a simple novel, a story of the hopes of a somewhat hopeless LA indie art-rock band living somewhere in the 1990s. We begin with a scene of Lucinda, the bass player and Matthew, the singer breaking up. They are ending their romantic sexual relationship but pledging to preserve what they consider worth saving, the band. But this band is clearly floundering. They have a few songs but seem to be blocked from making anymore. They have never had a gig and they are not even creative enough to come up with a name. They have a desire to be a band, but not really much to say. Out of left field comes a creative energy that becomes theirs. The creative energy of the band members, coming to the end of their 20s, is directly related to sexual energy. In line with The Promiscuous Materials Project the band and their circle are sexually promiscuous. This is all a part of the life force of creativity. Perhaps that is the power of the corporate lock down of artistic materials. The corporate owners exploit the unnatural patriarchal legalistic element of human society that is afraid of what would come if people were free to associate in a more open, sexy manner. If you can control the sexuality, you can control the product of that interaction. If you can control that product you can control its function. The sexual repression becomes the repression of free artistic interaction.
Yet the somewhat mysterious and older entity that brings some creativity to the band attempts for the moment to be it part of the band, to own and control the band. But this is not the proper role, this is forcing the issue in an unnatural way, but in a way that is quite familiar if one goes by the ownership model. The random creative entity after joining the band becomes the three hundred pound gorilla in the room. He is out of place and destructive. The novel shows that the natural open source way is the best way, the only way really. The other way feels forced, constricting and in the end aesthetically just wrong.
The novel opens out to perhaps it's only exterior scene in the end. The natural world for the first time enters the story. It's as if in the course of the story there has been an evolution of consciousness. The characters have matured, they are noticing that there is a world outside of themselves and they might be connected to it. It might act upon them as they attempt to act upon it.
You Don't Love Me Yet is a fun somewhat wacky page turner, but it is also an illustration of an idea. Jonathan Lethem is still a rather young novelist. As Joni Mitchell said in a recent BBC 2 radio interview. An artist does not really come into his own until his 50s or 60s.
With the foundation of this work we see that we have a lot to look forward to in the future from Jonathan Lethem. He is open to the flow of life. He knows that it is not just about him, but about is all, our connections with one another and our life on the planet, the planet that we are only a part of, and which is us.
April 18, 2007
My band Tickled to Death has recorded one of Jonathan Lethem's lyrics Vaster Than Charlotte. Hear it: Tickled to Death