Entertainment & the Arts: Sunday, March 27, 2005

“The Disappointment Artist” by Jonathan Lethem

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

“These confessions have started to bore me,” Jonathan Lethem writes toward the end of “The Disappointment Artist,” a memoir thinly disguised as a collection of pop-culture essays. Lethem may have been bored, but I wasn’t.

I haven’t been a big fan of Lethem’s fiction, yet I was fascinated by these essays that elliptically lay out a chart of his development as a writer — well-read nerd in the 1980s, published science-fiction novelist in 1994 and National Book Award winner in 1999 for the literary detective novel “Motherless Brooklyn.”

Fan or not, here are some things you should know about the adolescent Lethem: He watched “Star Wars” 21 times in one summer. He read every book by Kurt Vonnegut and Raymond Chandler. He loved the Talking Heads and Pink Floyd.  He tattooed the cover art from Philip K. Dick’s “Ubik” onto his arm. His mother died when he was 14.

Loss, he says, fuels his novels. In this, at least, he is like most novelists.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that writers are “a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person.” Lethem is an excellent example. He is a sci-fi geek, a well-read intellectual, a fan of Marvel comic books, a devotee of Jean-Luc Godard and a cryptic writer working in a confessional mode.

“Of the writers I know, I’ve been the most eager to point out my influences, to spoil the illusion of originality by elucidating my fiction’s resemblance to my book collection,” he admits. This is one of the aspects of this book that’s so compelling. Lethem’s deepest and most complex relationships have been with artists he’s never met, except through their work.

Rarely does a novelist seem to truly grasp the mysterious forces that guide him. Many are too suspicious of the muses to even attempt to understand. Not Lethem. He fearlessly analyzes his influences — movies, books, artists, friends, parents — and his insights are highly personal, but also often universal, and thus these essays reach the highest goal of the memoir form.


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