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Powell's Books


March 20, 2008

Then We Came to the End


You Don’t Love Me Yet

judged by MAUD NEWTON

Jonathan Lethem is a gifted literary thief. I mean no insult. Last year, after all, he published an essay, “The Anxiety of Influence: A Plagiarism,” in which many ideas and even actual phrases are lifted from other places and amended a little. The reader—this reader, at least—would have been unaware of the borrowing if it weren’t for the source attributions that follow the text. Bob Dylan’s art, Lethem argues in the piece:

…offers a paradox: while it famously urges us not to look back, it also encodes a knowledge of past sources that might otherwise have little home in contemporary culture, like the Civil War poetry of the Confederate bard Henry Timrod, resuscitated in lyrics on Dylan’s newest record, Modern Times. Dylan’s originality and his appropriations are as one.
The same can be said of Lethem’s own best work. Motherless Brooklyn, a novel about a depressed private investigator with Tourette’s, is uniquely Lethem’s story, but unmistakably infused with the sensibility and preoccupations of noir maestro Raymond Chandler. Gun, With Occasional Music, an earlier book, also centers on a bumbling, karma-challenged outcast of a detective and takes a great deal from Chandler, but mixes in gun-packing rabbits and kangaroos straight out of Philip K. Dick’s nightmares.

Literary fiction that takes elements from genre is all the rage now, but too often it careens into the twee or the randomly fantastical or—worst of all—the ponderous. Lethem was a trailblazer in the field of modern genre-borrowing, and his footing in works like Motherless Brooklyn, Gun, and As She Climbed Across the Table is sure and surprising. These are unsettling yarns about men so out of place that their mere presence in an interaction throws the social customs of their worlds into sharp relief, highlighting their absurdity. By steeping his stories in the conventions of genre—the almost comical melancholia of noir, the concrete ominousness of sci-fi—by placing his characters in these harsh, reality-bending environments, Lethem, like the great British writer Rupert Thomson, is able to explore dark realities and emotional terrains at once strange and oddly familiar.

Perhaps it is a mark of immaturity in a reader to be disappointed when a writer so innovative and astute turns his hand to more traditional narrative forms, but I have been less fully drawn in, and ultimately less moved, by Lethem’s more recent, more straightforward efforts. I did admire The Fortress of Solitude, a Brooklyn story that originated in Lethem’s own childhood and takes much of its power and resonance from life, but my appreciation was distant, even slightly abstract. And his latest novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet, though funny, sexy, and sometimes cutting, is ultimately a disappointment. Lethem himself has called it a “deliberately silly book.”

As our story begins, bandmates Lucinda and Matthew resolve to stop sleeping together and just focus on the music. They’ve gone down this road before, but they mean it this time. Or do they? Regardless, part-time zookeeper Matthew is soon distracted by his one true passion, an ailing kangaroo, and Lucinda becomes obsessed with a caller to a complaint line she’s working at as part of a friend’s art project. She steals the complainer’s catchiest phrases—”monster eyes,” “astronaut food,” “nostalgia vu”—and uses them as lyrics for songs that finally yield her obscure band a following. You Don’t Love Me Yet is a lucid, entertaining satire of the art and indie-rock worlds. Yet the characters’ motivations get lost along the way.

The complainer and Lucinda talk about desire and attraction and sex, and almost as soon he reveals that he’s incapable of loving a woman after he’s slept with her—after the mystery is gone—Lucinda resolves that she will be the exception. I’m prepared to believe, as Lethem needs us to, that Lucinda would fall for the complainer, that she would insist on a doomed relationship, resort to pity-fucking an old friend after the complainer loses interest, and then wind up essentially where she started. But there is no window into these self-destructive impulses, no access to the emotions that fuel this sequence of events. My favorite characters of Lethem’s are wild and disturbed, stuck in impossible realities that are rich, nightmarish hybrids of Chandler or Dick or Barth and the author’s own imagination. The world of You Don’t Love Me Yet is far more realistic and far less compelling. You recognize early on how the characters are going to get themselves in trouble—you’ve probably done some of the same things, yourself—and their dilemmas don’t linger very long once you’ve closed the book.

It’s a story that might make for a good movie, though. And in the interest of encouraging artistic thievery, Lethem has given the film rights away.

• •

I’m already on record with a rave for Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, an office novel so insightful about group dynamics that I wasn’t at all surprised to learn the author has a background in philosophy. That’s not to say the book is heavy-handed. On the contrary, it’s funny and voice-driven, and its invocation of philosophical concepts is subtler than, for example, Murdoch’s, Percy’s, or Barthelme’s.

Rather than paraphrasing what I’ve said before, I’ll just quote from my Newsday review:

[Then We Came to the End] lays bare the interconnectedness of human cogs in the corporate machine. The dot-com boom has already turned to bust when the story opens, and the ad agency where our heroes work is laying them off one by one. Milling around in cubicles, taking advantage of increasingly infrequent free morning bagels, they have almost no work to do but plenty of time to talk about each other—and about Lynn, their boss, who may or may not have cancer.

Standing aloof from the group and its gossip is Joe Pope, the bike-riding manager who tends to show up just as someone is printing out a scandalous picture or relating a particularly juicy bit of gossip. Joe is forever peering over the tops of cubicles, possibly hinting that people should get back to work. His perennial inscrutability makes everyone uneasy… Ferris generally opts for the first-person plural perspective, so that we’re never sure where ‘our’ allegiances lie. Sometimes they shift from sentence to sentence: “Most days we let human foibles run right off of us, as Jesus commanded… We had a bible-study group… We drifted in and out of it, trying to make sense of The Word as it applied to us in our personal lives as well as in the corporate setting, but most of us just stayed away. More power to them, we liked to say.

Then We Came to the End exposes the delusions that people in groups are susceptible to, the surprising little cruelties they’re capable of. But it is not the sort of “small, angry book about work” one of Ferris’s characters is endlessly writing. Instead, it is an insightful, expansive, and often hilarious story, a novel so complex it may well deserve Jim Shepard’s assessment of it as “the Catch-22 of the business world.”

I’m going with the Ferris.

• Today’s WINNER •

Then We Came to the End

• About the Judge •

Maud Newton is a writer, editor, blogger, and former attorney who has written for The American Prospect, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post Book World, Newsday, and other publications. Connections to authors: “I’ve been email pals with Laura Lippman for years, and I met her at a wedding last fall and recently hung out in Baltimore. I’ve written admiringly about the work of Junot Diaz, Joshua Ferris, and Jonathan Lethem, and later met all three. Last fall I ran my friend Kevin Kinsella’s delightful interview with Anya Ulinich.”

• From the Booth •

On nearly every page Ferris is violating the first and most sacred rule of creative writing: Show, don’t tell. Then We Came To The End is largely telling. Kevin John If there are any agents reading these commentaries that currently have a pile of manuscripts written in the first-person plural on their desks, please discard them immediately.
» Read Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner’s commentary on the match «

• The Peanut Gallery •

Do you agree with the outcome of this match?

absolutely   no way

The Standings


• Round One •

Tree of Smoke v. Ovenman
judged by Tobias Seamon

The Savage Detectives v. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name
judged by Elizabeth Kiem

Then We Came to the End v. Petropolis
judged by Anthony Doerr

You Don’t Love Me Yet v. New England White
judged by Jessica Francis Kane

Run v. Shining at the Bottom of the Sea
judged by Kate Schlegel

What the Dead Know v. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
judged by Elizabeth McCracken

On Chesil Beach v. Remainder
judged by Ze Frank

The Shadow Catcher v. An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England
judged by Helen DeWitt

• Round Two •

Tree of Smoke v. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name
judged by Mark Sarvas

Then We Came to the End v. You Don’t Love Me Yet
judged by Maud Newton

Shining at the Bottom of the Sea v. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
judged by Ted Genoways

Remainder v. The Shadow Catcher
judged by Mark Liberman


Tree of Smoke v. Then We Came to the End
judged by Gary Shteyngart

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao v. The Shadow Catcher
judged by Nick Hornby


Then We Came to the End v. Remainder
judged by Rosecrans Baldwin

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao v. The Savage Detectives
judged by Andrew Womack


Remainder v. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
All Judges + Jennifer Szalai