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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Disappointment Artist: Inside the Mind of Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem is in awesome company. His name is paraded with the likes of Paul Auster, David Foster Wallace (rip), and other literary luminaries who make Brooklyn New York home. The Disappointment Artist is a great collection of essays. It is a wonderful, short read for those of us who grew up a bit too fast because most of the people we related to were adults. Lethem dictates his obsessions and his encompassing love for his neighborhood train station. Being the son of "bohemians" (Lethem didn't use the quotation marks, those are mine because I still don't know, nor have I experienced the term), Lethem is surrounded by creative people. It is naturally for a young person to be influenced by adults. But Lethem goes further here; what he proposes is that his relationship with adults moved his creativity at a faster pace than his contemporaries. Of course this brought a great deal of strife: Lethem watches--faithfully (not wanting to use obsessively) the film Star Wars, the original 1977 movie theater version, 21 times. 21 times! How could he do this? There was in Lethem, even at that age, a sort of philosophical searcher. He wanted to delve into the film and see what others weren't seeing--which pretty much amounted to seeing what others were seeing, really. But these temporary obsessions led to more and more explorations: the validity of the term "classics" in relation to comic books, and the pseudo-political taking sides on the topic of who was the purist artist at Marvel comics, Kirby, Lee, and others, and how Lethem struggled with his alliances to the artists/script writers because of his obsession with purity. He proposes Chuck Berry's "Johnny Be Good," as an original from which the gods of rock and roll descended upon the world an original art form: Rock and Roll. It was later when Chuck Berry had a 1970s hit with "My Ding-a-Ling" that Lethem realized everyone has a price, and alliance to purity in art is as elusive and the premise of art itself.

There are other things--his parents' separations, the illness that eventually took his mother's life, moving west and struggling like artists struggle. I think that overall, this little book of essays "The Disappointment Artist," is by far one of the best 'essays' books I have read since Nicholson Baker's "The Size of Thoughts."

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