In my post-reading on Jonathan Lethem’s novel The Fortress of Solitude I came across a comment (somewhere that’s difficult to find again after an hour of web surfing) that anyone interested in further reading should check out Lethem’s 2005 collection of essays and assorted non-fiction The Disappointment Artist. Taking the comment at face value, I invested.
Falling somewhere in the fuzzy arena of memoir, cultural reflection, and book and film commentary, The Disappointment Artist is, if anything, fully Jonathan Lethem. Indeed linking directly and indirectly to The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem looks back at his youth in Brooklyn, the biographies of various artists, his evolving relationships with his family and friends, schoolmates and other people in his neighborhood, often through the lens of his artistic interests, and the music and movies that have informed his views, his craft and the person he was, is, and may become, making for an interesting collection for those with similar interests or curiosity about the man behind the fiction.
Fully cathartic, in “Defending The Searchers” Lethem recalls his history with the John Ford film, particularly his youthful willingness to defend its artistic integrity, and slow acceptance that in fact there is little to defend. A humbling piece, Lethem’s very detailed memories of the moments he tried to sell the film on friends and colleagues come across as authentically human, even as he wars within himself that they are right—that there isn’t much to sell. In “13, 1977, 21”, Lethem recalls the summer of his thirteenth year, in 1977, when he went to the cinema twenty-one times to see Star Wars. More a reflection on the person that would do such a thing rather than a rehashing of what makes Luke Skywalker a geek god, the reader likewise gets a glimpse of what Brooklyn was like in the 70s through Lethem’s hashing out of what seems borderline absurd behavior.
One of the longer entries in the collection, the title piece “The Dissappointment Artist – Mrs. Neverbody vs. Edward Dahlberg” is more historical than personal in that greater page-time is spent citing the life of the lesser-known writer Edwarg Dahlberg and his idiosyncracies (aka curmudgeonly stoddiness). Lethem does tie himself to Dahlberg along certain lines, but overall the reader gets a wider view to Dahlberg the man. “Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn” is personal reflection combined with anecdotes on the history of Hoyt-Schermerhorn as NYC’s first subway station. Imbued with enough engaging material to make it interesting to non-New Yorkers, Lethem even manages a genre connection.
Part autobiographical and part personal reflection, in “Lives of the Bohemians” Lethem discusses the details of his parents’ lives, their careers, as well as his evolving relationship with them and the idea of them as his parents, particularly: how to rebel against people who are already rebels. A light tribute also tucked subtly inside the essay, readers can come to appreciate their efforts and endeavours alongside Lethem’s. Where Lethem has edited the Library of America’s Philip K. Dick omibus editions as well as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, in “You Don’t Know Dick” he puts his knowledge of the author to more personal use, relating his discovery of Dick, as well as his opinion on numerous of the eccenctric writer’s novels. (Good to know I’m not the only one who thinks Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is far from Dick’s best.)
In “Identifying with Your Parents, or The Return of the King”, Lethem contrasts the interplay of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in the world of comic books to how his parents’ art informed his own craft. Likewise a semi-history of the evolution of comic books, readers who grew up with 70s DC and Marvel comics will enjoy it. “Two or Three Things I Dunno About Cassavetes”, as the title indicates, is a breakdown of the art and career of the lesser-known actor/director John Cassavetes, and should be of interest to film buffs. In “The Beards”, Lethem goes through a list of artists—Brian Eno, Pink Floyd, Stanley Kubrick, and a handful of others—as they appeared in his life, and are discussed in how they informed Lethem as a person and writer at those times.
More revelatory and personal than The Fortress of Solitude, The Disappointment Artist offers up secrets of Lethem’s childhood, artistry, interests, and taking all those combined, a glimpse of who Lethem is as a human. Clearly not intended as a companion piece to the novel, The Disappointment Artist nevertheless can act in said capacity if the reader so chooses to draw the connections. For all others, the collection should be viewed as an erudite self-examination and revelation in the context of writers, directors, and musicians Lethem apparently feels are key to his own worldview and evolution. Each essay tightly and compactly written, it comes recommended.
The following are the nine essays and assorted non-fiction collected in The Disappointment Artist:
Defending The Searchers
The Dissappointment Artist – Mrs. Neverbody vs. Edward Dahlberg
13, 1977, 21
Identifying with Your Parents, or The Return of the King
You Don’t Know Dick
Lives of the Bohemians
Two or Three Things I Dunno About Cassavetes