Page 4 of 5   <       >

Writing Under The Influence

In an ingenious Harper's article and a new novel about a rock band in search of lyrics, Jonathan Lethem makes a provocative argument.
In an ingenious Harper's article and a new novel about a rock band in search of lyrics, Jonathan Lethem makes a provocative argument. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)

"If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism," Lethem wrote in his Harper's piece.

Except that he didn't write it, really.

As he acknowledges, he flat out stole that line from U.S. Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner.

Listen to Jonathan Lethem hold forth long enough and you'll come to understand that he sees the question of literary borrowing as part of a larger dialogue between private property and "the commons." He thinks that artists who take an absolutist position on copyright are complicit in "what is essentially an attack on the public good" -- the privatization of things "that should belong to everyone."

He's talking about copyright-obsessed corporations like Disney, which Lethem likens to a creative roach motel ("cultural debts flow in, but they don't flow out"). He's talking about environmentally essential wetlands paved for private profit. He's talking about private fortunes exempted from estate taxes because they were supposedly amassed independently of the social fabric surrounding them. He's talking . . .

But hold on.

The man is supposed to be on a book tour here.

Time to get back to that lyrics-challenged rock band in L.A.

'Monster Eyes'

"You Don't Love Me Yet" is, among other things, Lethem's deliberate attempt to change gears after his previous novel, 2003's sprawling, ambitious "Fortress of Solitude." Lauded as "melancholy and marvelous" by New York Times critic A.O. Scott, "Fortress" tells the story of two motherless 1970s teens, one white and one black, growing up in the same not-yet-gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood in which Lethem's idealistic and somewhat clueless parents chose to raise him and in which he lives today.

Many young fiction writers go straight to the autobiographical well, but Lethem waited -- and it paid off. "I couldn't have written 'Fortress of Solitude' without developing certain tools as a writer," he says. But when he'd finished, he was ready to be done with fathers and sons and Brooklyn for a while, to write something "mischievous and defiantly playful" once again.

The result was "You Don't Love Me Yet," an almost weightless tale of four Los Angeles band mates trying to negotiate that disconcerting, exhilarating stage of life in which parents are invisible, identities mutable, careers nonexistent and relationships about as stable as hydrogen.

Its one nod to seriousness?


<             4        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company