you don’t love me yet / the only truth

You Don’t Love Me Yet, Jonathan Lethem’s smooth, spacious exploration of an LA band’s potential moment of glory, is a precise and lovely book. As his latest, Chronic City, is about to hit bookstores, it’s worth revisiting Lethem’s charmingly motley collective: singer Matthew, guitarist Bedwin, drummer Denise, and lynchpin bassist Lucinda, whose personal journey forms the bedrock of the novel, grounding its more raw and experimental tendencies, just as her controlled basslines anchor the band’s chaotic musical explorations.
The band is an elusive concept, to themselves and to the world: their name flickers and changes throughout; they cannot be defined and therefore never fully achieve cultural reality, or perhaps are the only truth in the city of make-believe. Lethem’s finesse in evoking music is rare: the depictions of the band’s rehearsals have the quiet assurance of authenticity; they read like Anthony Kiedis’ descriptions of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ jams in his autobiography Scar Tissue, which, like You Don’t Love Me Yet, feels like a hymn to LA as much as anything (“…sometimes I feel like my only friend is the city I live in, the city of angels…”). In particular, Kiedis’ recounting of a chaotic Saturday Night Live performance in the early nineties recalls Lethem’s band’s first radio moment, when all their possibilities coalesce, and anything could happen. In the early nineties, musically, anything could have happened: Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Chili Peppers, U2’s Achtung Baby and Zooropa albums, their Zoo TV tour, all of it an exhilarating collision and evolution of everything that had gone before. Lethem’s novel is not so wild or chaotic: it’s smooth, gleaming with a quiet glow from within, like listening to an iPod in bed, deep into the night. He shows us LA hipsters in the light of their own helpless gleaming. The city is smooth, measured. They exist in its contemporary spaces, its lofts and clubs, its radio stations, the static and sound waves that contain souls. Their life is music, they breathe chord changes and talk melodies. It’s a world of legendary DJs, doomed art installations, ephemeral connections, and a misplaced kangaroo. It’s also about sex, complaining, being a rock star, the last of the rock gods or the first of the new stars, living in the glass and steel of Los Angeles in what could be the nineties or the future. Lethem nails the desperate intensity of human couplings: the speed of the emotional vertical take-off, the slow spiral back to earth from the sexual cosmos, the pain of re-entry, the brutality of the hard landing. He handles all of this with grace, elegance, streamlined writing, the literary equivalent of gleaming, molded architecture, all reflective surfaces and hidden structures. The words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters change with digital smoothness, the barely perceptible transitions of an iPod moving from one song to the next. It’s a world of smooth lines and clear light. It’s the golden light over the Pacific as the world sinks into a clear dusk. It’s deft. Even the kangaroo has an emotional clarity.
“Too many times I have wanted to turn around and walk away… you can’t provide what I need from you anyway.” The Ahn Trio.
Like dancer Kayla Radomski’s anguished, strenuous yet light-on-her-feet interpretation of the Ahn Trio’s All I Want, Lethem communicates the desperation and pain of wanting someone on their way to being, or already, out of reach. You Don’t Love Me Yet communicates it with beautiful lines, sensual movements, and a deep appreciation and powerful understanding of love, music, souls and humanity.

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