Who Wrote the Book of Love?

Reviewed by Joe Heim
Sunday, March 18, 2007


By Jonathan Lethem

Doubleday. 224 pp. $24.95

Lucinda Hoekke plays bass in a Los Angeles rock band that doesn't have a name, has never played a gig and whose songwriter can't come up with any new songs. To make matters worse, the central character in Jonathan Lethem's peculiar, funny and occasionally surreal new novel has just broken up with her boyfriend, Matthew (the band's singer), and lost her job as a barista. Her future is not so bright that she needs to wear shades.

To make ends meet, Lucinda agrees to answer phones for the Complaint Line, an art project where anonymous callers register their unhappiness about anything and everything: "The complainers spoke of their husbands and wives and lovers and children, from cubicles of their own they whispered their despair at being employed, they called to disparage the quality of restaurants and hotels and limousines, they whined of difficulties moving their bowels or persuading anyone to read their screenplays or poetry. They fished for her sympathy." Adding a playful touch, Lethem includes the complaint line number on the back cover. Feeling whiny? Call 213-291-7778. Trust us, it works.

Lucinda quickly tires of all but one caller, "the brilliant complainer, who interested her entirely too much." For Lucinda, there is just something about what happens when they talk that she can't shake, and soon she is clinging to his every word, replaying and dissecting every conversation, discerning meaning and import in his odd phrases and unintentional aphorisms. Whether it's love or confusion is difficult to gauge, but Lucinda quickly sheds anonymity and begins an affair with the Complainer.

At the same time, she also begins feeding the strangely inspirational things he says to her to the band's songwriter. He, in turn, adds his own lyrics, works out arrangements, and -- voila -- the band is finally going places.

This may seem the makings of a fairly flimsy plot for a novel, and in many respects it is. But then this is less a novel than a cultural manifesto about plagiarism. You see, just as the band's fortunes seem set to take off, the Complainer -- an older, slovenly and bloated figure who is somehow rich though he doesn't have a job and somehow appealing despite his misanthropy -- decides that the band's songs are really his and that he wants in on the action.

When the band's drummer asks about his intentions, the Complainer responds, "I want what we all want. To move certain parts of the interior of myself into the external world, to see if they can be embraced." As he insinuates himself into the band, the Complainer's passive-aggressive demands hasten the group's destruction. By insisting on what are, at best, tangential claims to the songs, by claiming that he is being plagiarized, he kicks the band in its creative kneecap and sends it tumbling before its artistry can be realized.

Plagiarism is on Lethem's mind these days. Far from decrying it, he embraces the dirty word, making the case that it is an essential part of the artistic process. "It becomes apparent that appropriation, mimicry, quotation, allusion, and sublimated collaboration consist of a kind of sine qua non of the creative act, cutting across all forms and genres in the realm of cultural production," he writes in a devilishly clever essay on plagiarism titled "The Ecstasy of Influence" in Harper's February issue.

Lethem puts forward the arguments for plagiarism more elliptically in this novel, but the questions are the same: Do artists own their creations, or is the creative process a never-ending collage, a cut-and-paste of conscious and subconscious influences that is by its very nature plagiaristic? As if to emphasize his thesis that all art is in some sense borrowed, Lethem begins his book with lyrics from songs by the Vulgar Boatmen and Roky Erickson. Both songs share the same title: "You Don't Love Me Yet." ยท

Joe Heim, the assistant editor of The Post's Sunday Source section, would like to acknowledge appropriating lines from songs by Timbuk 3, Lucinda Williams and Jimi Hendrix in this review.

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