The Disappointment Artist, by Jonathan Lethem

The picture on the book jacket for this book is one of my favorite of all times — so suggestive.

I was really interested in reading this book — it’s a series of essays that make up a sort-of-memoir of Jonathan Lethem, one of my favorite fiction authors (he’s written Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude, and Gun with Occassional Music, among others.

He’s a little bit older than I am — he’s maybe just a little older than 40, but is one of the group of authors in Generation X that I consider more or less my contemporaries (others include Douglas Coupland and Jonathan Carroll) — and one of the defining characteristics of this generation of writers (also scriptwriters) seems to be an OCD-type obsession with the media influences of our childhood and adolescence. The Disappointment Artist is a series of stories about influences on Lethem (he saw Star Wars 21 times one summer, he saw 2001: A Space Odyssey a mind-boggling 3 times in one day (no breaks), and read every single thing ever written by Philip K. Dick (some very good, some very bad).

The book wasn’t incredibly interesting to me — it turns out that he goes into gory, obsessive details (OCD, like I say) about a lot of his influences that just don’t mean much to me: The Searchers, Marvel Comics, John Cassavetes — but I liked understanding some of the depth of his obsessions — so familiar in form to me and my friends.

Here’s a bit from the book that I think is characteristic (of a lot of things, not just Lethem) — sorry for the length:

I read all the Narnia books. I read The Lord of the Rings. I read every book by Ray Bradbury. Iread every book by Raymond Chandler. I reread every book by Raymond Chandler. I read every book by Kurt Vonnegut, including God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. I read every book by Richard Brautigan and Norman Mailer. I kept a complete set of the stories of Guy de Maupassant on the edge of my loft bed, and tried to read one a night until I finished it (I failed). I saw every movie by Stanley Kubrick, except for Killer’s Kiss. … I watched Star Wars twenty-one times in a single summer, largely alone. I sat alone at the Thalia, on West Ninety-Fifth Street, anw watched 2001: A Space Odyssey three times in one day. … [lots more elided here by John] … In my late twenties I lulled myself to sleep to Chet Baker records for a while, and at the peak of my Chet Baker obsession I owned more than fifty Chet Baker CDs, though I was never satisfied because I knew someone who had more than a hundred Chet Baker CDs.

and then the payoff:

I rarely listen to Chet Baker anymore. I haven’t read Vonnegut or Bradbury or Brautigan since I was a child, partly because I’m afraid of what I’ll find, partly because they have become inscribed on the interior surface of the eyes through which I read others… I couldn’t bear to listen to Talking Heads records [anymore], even the ones I’d previously revered, after Naked… All their music became poisonously embarrassing to me the moment I realized it wasn’t as good as I’d claimed it was (and no band is as good as I’d claimed Talking Heads were in the years I adored them). …

It was my splits from Talking Heads and Stanley Kubrick and Don DeLillo that left me as indignant, ashamed, and unmoored as breakups with a girlfriend or wife, wondering who’d failed whom.

Reflecting on it now, I sort of think just those bits were worth the price of the book and the time to read it. Talking about how a bunch of formerly deeply loved influences “have become inscribed on the interiour surface of the eyes through which” he looked at other works — that seems exactly right to me. It seems that it’s more universal a theme than just for authors and their writing, but is more about growing up in a media-saturated world like we do now.

Anyway, while The Disappointment Artist ultimately wasn’t everything I was hoping for, it gave me a bit of insight. Lethem is one of my very favorite authors of any generation, and in particular my own.

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