by Jonathan Lethem

Random House


149pp/$22.95/April 2005

The Disappointment Artist
Cover by Alan Abramowitz

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

I first began reading Jonathan Lethem with the publication of his first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music, in 1994 and was immediately taken with his skewed vision of the world.  The book was an excellent combination of Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick.  Over the years, Lethem demonstrated that he wasn't merely a mimic of those authors, but had his own authorial voice, as demonstrated in novels such as As She Climbed Across the Table and Motherless Brooklyn among others.  In The Disappointment Artist, Lethem collects some of his none fiction for the first time.

In reading the novels and short stories of Jonathan Lethem, the reader quickly learns that the voice of the narrator is not necessarily the voice of the author, even in the case of Dylan Ebdus from Fortress of Solitude, clearly the most autobiographical of Lethem's novels.  In reading the nine essays which make up The Disappointment Artist, the reader must decide how much Lethem is actually revealing of himself and how much he is using the narrative voice as a beard to give himself freedom he wouldn't necessarily have if writing entirely of his own experiences.

The question of narrative voices aside, the essays provide a tremendous amount of insight into Lethem's work.  He begins with an essay "Defending The Searchers," about the film which he used as a basis for his 1998 novel Girl in Landscape.  Even as he explains why he feels John Ford's movie should be defended against the sometimes cruel first impression it creates, the essay does raise other questions, such as why Lethem feels such a tie to the film that he should have decided to use it for his novel when he had only seen it once.  At the other end of the spectrum is "13, 1977, 21," about the twenty-one times he saw the film "Star Wars" during the summer when he was thirteen.  If the narrator of the essay is to be believed, Lethem hasn't seen the film since.

Popular culture is important in all of Lethem's novels, and the same is true in his selected of topics in The Disappointment Artist.  From the writings of Philip K. Dick, whose influence he acknowledges, to "Star Wars" to the films of John Cassavetes and Stanley Kubrick, he touches on things all of his readers will have familiarity with.  The book practically calls out for an accompanying DVD with the films, songs and texts Lethem discusses.

Perhaps the two most heartfelt essays are "Lives of the Bohemians" and "The Beards" in which he discusses his parents and the atypical childhood he had.  His father, Richard Lethem introduced him to the world of art and his mother, who died when he was thirteen, but had an important influence on his literary tastes.  These essays provide a deep look at some of the influences that have helped create Jonathan Lethem, as do most of the essays included.

Lethem's essays are written with the same style and references as his novels and stories.  Their brevity invites the reader to read each of them multiple times, as do his longer works, but allow the reader the time to really focus on what Lethem is saying.  These essays should introduce people to not only Lethem's own works, but the wide range of works to which he refers in them.

 Defending The Searchers You Don't Know Dick
The Disappointment Artist Lives of the Bohemians
13, 1977, 21 Two or Three Things I Dunno About Cassavetes
Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn The Beards
Identifying with Your Parents, or The Return of the King  

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