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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)

Plagiarism is a central plot element.

To summarize briefly: Lethem's protagonist, Lucinda, is the bass player for a musical foursome so fledgling it hasn't yet settled on a name. To make its debut, the band needs more songs, but its perpetually malnourished songwriter is blocked. One of the other musicians sums up the grim situation this way:

"We're turning thirty and we haven't done anything. Look at Bedwin. He can't even feed himself, and he's our genius."

Help arrives after Lucinda is hired to answer a "complaint line" set up as part of a performance art piece. She gets attached to one of her regular callers, mesmerized by tales from his dysfunctional life. "I have this condition called monster eyes," the complainer tells her one day, and he goes on to explain that whenever he gets involved with a woman, he wrecks the relationship by boring in on some attribute of hers that he can't stand.

Cut to a rehearsal. Bedwin has written new music, but no lyrics.

"Monster eyes!" Lucinda finds herself calling out as the band hits the chorus. "Best thing I ever did for you, was get you out of range of my monster eyes."

She appropriates more of the complainer's language for more songs, and the band is on its way. But who, exactly, deserves the credit for this development? File under "mysteries of authorship." It's the kind of cultural collaboration that fascinates Lethem.

And it's all the more fascinating because -- as the author of "You Don't Love Me Yet" is quick to volunteer -- the novel itself started out as someone else's idea.

More than a decade ago, when Lethem was living in Berkeley, Calif., working in a bookstore and starting to write, he became friends with a grad student in English named Amy Greenstadt. "I had this idea that I wanted to make a video," says Greenstadt, who's now teaching at Portland State University, "but I didn't have the confidence to do it on my own."

So she asked Lethem if he'd like to help.

Greenstadt's idea originated with TV ads she'd seen for a New York "confession line." She thought: What if there were a really terrible band -- the kind, say, that did grunge covers of Joe Jackson songs -- and one of the members got intrigued with the confession line? She imagined many confessers, not just one, but when she and Lethem started working on the story together, "we came up with the idea of the one annoying confesser who eventually shows up and tries to join the band."

Neither of them knew anything about video, but they liked the idea of a collective art project, so they decided to bring in more collaborators. After a few weeks, however, "the whole thing just died, as these things often do."

Well, not quite.

"I'm very compulsive about narrative," Lethem says. "I don't leave a lot of unfinished stories lying around." A few years ago, he asked if he could use the material. Greenstadt readily agreed.

"He's the artist. I never would have done anything with it," she says -- though she did find herself "a little sad" that he changed her confession line to a complaint line.

Greenstadt says she finds Lethem's ideas on artistic influence and cultural borrowing intriguing. When he came through Oregon on his book tour, she invited him to speak at Portland State on the questions raised by his Harper's piece.

Still, she has a bottom line.

"As a teacher, I need to have plagiarism mean plagiarism," she says, and laughs. "We can't be messing with it."


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