Tapping into Your Inner Lena Dunham: Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet

Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous is one of those flicks I like to catch up on every six or seven years. It pushes all the right buttons for me in the just right way: it’s sentimental but not treacly.  The protagonist (a thinly veiled Cameron Crowe) has a bonafide character arch (remember those?) that slowly pulls the rose colored glasses from his eyes without an ounce of jaded cynicism. And more importantly, it’s a gushing two-hour love letter to music. When Zooey Deschanel hands her little brother the keys to the kingdom via her stack of vinyl under her bed, I almost want to stop the movie, pour myself a glass of wine, and dig out my own record collection. And yet, for all of its warmth and charm, there is a part of me that feels like I am holding the movie at arms-length and for a very simple reason. Almost Famous is a movie made by men, for men. Sure, women are invited to the party and Cameron Crowe loves the ever-living shit out of his female characters, but like so much great art and pop-culture, it suffers from a serious case of the “male gaze.”

This problem becomes crystallized when Crowe’s puppy-dog protagonist realizes that the pixie dream goddess (Kate Hudson) has been sleeping with Billy Crudup’s character. She believed (really believed) that she and her friends were “professional muses” and NOT groupies, and the wide-eyed wunderkind buys into that notion- hook, line and sinker. When he discovers the more complicated (and yet somehow less interesting) truth, he is crushed. It is here, in that moment, I want to smack everyone involved. It’s not that I think Cameron Crowe is a sexist; it’s just that this is such a MALE way of seeing things. We go from worshipping Kate Hudson to feeling sorry for her. I don’t have a problem with it on a political level, or even an artistic level. All I’m saying is that it completely takes me out of the movie, and my suspension of disbelief comes to a screeching halt.

I’ve had this problem all my life, and it’s not hard to figure out why. The majority of pop-culture is still written and produced by men. But I’m not a hater, I’m a participator and for every Russ Meyer and Michael Bay there’s a Joss Whedon and a Matthew Weiner. Which is why I adore shows like Girls (Lena Dunham knows she’s annoying and you wish she would wear more make-up. I just don’t think she gives a shit. No one ever gave Larry David shit for not being likeable) and why I would cut someone for Peggy Olsen. I love my boys: Whedon, Apatow, Scorsese, Anderson (Wes and Paul), Cormac McCarthy, Stephen Colbert, Doc Watson, Johnny Cash- all make life worth living. But sometimes mama needs her some Female Gaze. Imagine my surprise to find it in Jonathan Lethem.

The basic plot structure for Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet reads like a horribly vapid soap opera made for the CW Network.  The protagonist Lucinda enters into a torrid love affair with an older man who makes his living writing bumper stickers.  At the same time, she pines for her more appropriate -aged ex, Matthew, who leaves his job at the zoo to kidnap a hostile, depressed kangaroo.  Lucinda is also a bass player in a band with one ex and works for yet another ex at a “performance art” gallery where her job is to answer complaints via phone (think suicide hotline without the suicide).  The older bumper sticker writer is one of those calls. Why isn’t this an info-graphic yet?

Does this all sound annoyingly quirky? Overwrought?  Yes. But, I must bow to Lethem’s gifts because this book hit me where I live (metaphorically speaking). The whole story takes place three inches behind Lucinda’s retinas, and if I didn’t know better I’d swear the author was a woman. She is confused, lonely, selfish, and at times completely oblivious to the feelings of others. And she is also kind and smart and vibrant and lively. In other words, she is neither slut nor muse; she is real and wholly relatable and her pursuit of that sweet feeling that only art and music can provide is neither scoffed at nor overly lofty. Lucinda’s navigation through lonely sun-drenched Los Angeles seems both impossibly hopeful yet somehow also isolated and filled with the echoes of her own fears and self-doubts. The men in her life are both nurturing and needy. No one is solving anyone’s problems, but rather they are bumping against each other as they try and make music in between working out their own shit. Lucinda’s inability to escape the bond she feels with her ex doesn’t detract from her sexual walkabout with her clearly unbalanced yet charismatic new partner. They are, in fact, two separate problems for her to deal with and there is never a sense that she is “betraying” anyone along her path. Her only responsibility is to herself. Even the sub–plot is masterful; the kidnapped kangaroo is an asshole in the world of kangaroos. But Matthew, Lucinda’s zookeeper ex, cannot bear to witness the animal’s depression and decline (hence the kidnapping). He is responding to an ugly situation that cannot be fixed by trying to fix it in the most ridiculous way possible. And isn’t that what our twenties are all about? That last ditch effort to bang our heads against the giant mountains of bullshit that didn’t seem to be there ten years ago? Isn’t this where music comes from?

This is a book about music. Kind of- Lucinda and Matthew’s band verge on success but only because of their socially maladjusted guitar player (the “too sensitive and weird for this world” variety). And when in a moment of loss and reflection, Lucinda reaches out to him, he makes a mountain out of a mole-hill, being un-quipped emotionally to handle things and Lucinda is pigeonholed as the “bitch” because she wanted to share a moment with him, not a lifetime. Sadly, in this book as in real life, ambition trumps talent in terms of true accomplishment.  Any hopes of this novel become Lethem’s version of Almost Famous is ridiculous; the band members’ needs and dysfunctions serve to undermine any chance of breaking out. The band’s “moment” dissolves even as it is happening. The true accomplishment here is Lethem’s pitch-perfect evocation of that vague, untouchable curse of longing- one that afflicts Lucinda and her cohorts. They beat their heads against one cruel fact: art and idealism, while enough to supplement their lives, will never be the driving force therein.  The kangaroo is isolated and miserable because, as kangaroos go, he sucks. The prodigy guitar player will never get anywhere because he may be autistic.  Lucinda will never be happy because that’s just not who she is. The charismatic bumper-sticker caller’s charms last just as long as the famous bumper stickers do.

I’m not sure I like Lucinda all that much. But I believe in her. I feel like I could bump into her at a show sometime, and more importantly, I don’t feel like I should try and be her (or NOT be her, as the case may be). It’s not hard for me to admit that I will be thirty soon.  I don’t sweat that at all.  But this is a novel about the magic hour between 22 and 30.  I maintain that Catcher in the Rye must be read before 20, along with Kerouac and most of Bukowski; You Don’t Love Me is a novel for the twenty-somethings.  It beautifully captures the sneaking realization that begins after that age: life takes no prisoners, even idealistic ones. While I loved every character’s foolish and eye-roll inducing pretensions, I also felt bittersweet reality behind the ridiculous “kangaroo in a bathtub” scene.  At the end of it all, life doesn’t tolerate quirks.  But hey, this book evokes the value in the journey.  It’s good to claw your way through the hungry streets in search of art, making shitty selfish and self-destructive decisions along the way.  Your band may never “make it” and you may never publish that novel.  If anything, You Don’t Love Me is Lethem’s celebration of the attempt.