2005_05_artslethem.jpgLast year, when everyone else was reading The Fortress of Solitude, we picked up Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem’s previous novel, about a South Brooklyn detective with Tourette’s. Given our general suspicion of It-books and buzzy fiction, we were pleased to find that it was good—really good, in fact, intelligent and true, more entertaining and earnest and linguistically acrobatic than anything we had read in ages. Even more surprising was the way strangers would approach us every time we pulled it out on the subway: Hey, how is that, I’ve heard he’s great or I’m reading The Fortress of Solitude and I can’t wait to go back and read that. It was as if we had joined a secret book club that met on the train (and this even happened on trains other than that favorite of publishing types, the F).

It feels right, then, that reading Lethem’s latest book, The Disappointment Artist, is kind of like getting acquainted with a new friend. In this collection of very personal essays, Lethem reveals his young self bit by bit as he catalogues his cultural obsessions (a partial list: John Ford, Philip K. Dick, John Cassavetes, Star Wars, the Talking Heads). Get to know me! Get to know my authors! At times, pleased that this smart, funny guy is talking to you, you’ll be entirely caught up in his enthusiasm, eager to go experience the things he loves for yourself. At others, you’ll cringe a bit for him as he shares too much too intimately, analyzing his early passions (and his reactions to his mother’s death from cancer when he was a teenager) with the kind of insight very few people are able to bring to their own lives. In the end, despite our occasional winces, the awkwardness of watching him reveal the voracious young man he was is justified by the beautiful way he handles his materials, swinging between descriptions of his self-seeking posturing and the art he used to try to arm himself for adult life.

Confessing that, thanks to his used-book habit, his homes have always been overrun with books, Lethem refers to the piles as “my exoskeleton of books,” having come to the realization that he has not so much downloaded his books, music, and movies into his skull as he has put them on. Though he recognizes that at one point in his teenage years when he had lost his mother he was at risk of choosing books over people, art over life, and perfection over messiness, in the end he accepted that these things could be necessary to him without being him. Everyone negotiates her own relationship to the art she loves, but not everyone can share this process as fruitfully as Lethem does.

This book will, no doubt, annoy certain people. Lethem usually writes charmingly but sometimes veers into winky self-indulgence. A couple of the essays are written in a numbered-paragraph format for which we can imagine no excuse, seeing as this technique seems suited less to writing than to organizing one’s thoughts beforehand. Nevertheless, Lethem redeems any infelicities of prose or unbearably raw emotion by the end of the book, when we see the way the essays work together.

We like books that make us want to read other books, watch movies we’ve never seen, listen to music we’ve never really heard before. This is that sort of book. (Also, we think its jacket is kind of brilliant).

Jonathan Lethem will be at the Union Square Barnes and Noble May 19th at 7pm, with John Banville and Deborah Eisenberg. The great John Leonard wrote about The Disappointment Artist in The New York Review of Books.