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Everybody's a Satirist

Jonathan Lethem on shallow scenesters, Christopher Buckley on boomer euthanasia, and Joshua Ferris on the collective corporate mind

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YOU DON'T LOVE ME YET | JONATHAN LETHEM (DOUBLEDAY)

BOOMSDAY | CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY (TWELVE)

THEN WE CAME TO THE END | JOSHUA FERRIS (LITTLE, BROWN)

YOU DON'T LOVE ME YET | Jonathan Lethem | The latest from Jonathan Lethem is a slight thing, less a novel than a playful workout for his ideas about the slippery nature of creativity, authorship, and ownership, which he most recently aired in his February Harper's essay, "The Ecstasy of Influence." There he made mincemeat of the notion of individual genius by stealing bits and pieces from other writers and stitching them together into a virtuoso patchwork of plagiarism. (Along similar lines he's offering an option on the film rights to You Don't Love Me Yet for free to a worthy petitioner--on condition that should a film be made all ancillary rights will revert to the public domain five years after its release.)

In the new book, set in the sun-soaked boho enclaves of contemporary Los Angeles, it's a rock band whose collective creative process is under examination--and as such, the story also functions as a fond satire of scenesters. Lethem's protagonist, Lucinda, plays rudimentary bass in an unheralded, unnamed indie outfit and during the day answers calls on a "complaint line," a bit of conceptual art cum public service dreamed up by a friend. Enthralled by one regular, who will confess his troubles only to her, she soon finds herself ferrying the language of his complaints to band practice, where they're turned into lyrics that make her and her bandmates, for one shining moment, stars.

The mild shenanigans that ensue may say something about the fleetingness of both fame and inspiration, but as a whole the story (which includes a loony subplot involving a kidnapped kangaroo) edges toward farce. Even after Lucinda's relationship with Carl, the unwitting lyricist, develops into something face to face (and pelvis to pelvis), he remains to her, and to the reader, "the complainer," perpetually defined by first impressions even though he never complains again. Lethem's Silver Lake hipsters are more types than characters, each a handful of tics standing in for a personality. (Oddly, I found myself wanting to hear more from the most preposterous of the bunch, Fancher Autumnbreast, a Rodney Bingenheimer stand-in prone to endearments like "babykins" and "buttermilk").

But for the purposes of the story, character development is beside the point. Shallow, self-absorbed Lucinda and her bandmates--pretty boy Matthew, reclusive Bedwin, practical Denise--drift through the city like paper dolls. "You can't be deep without a surface," says the gnomic Carl, a professional sloganeer. But in case you miss his meaning, Lethem drives the point home later, when Matthew, who's also Lucinda's ex, observes that her new lover is a little fat. "He's not fat," she says. "He's a grownup. We're the ones who look strange. We're anorexic, we're ghosts, we're tinder." --Martha Bayne

BOOMSDAY | Christopher Buckley | There's a Swiftian "modest proposal" at the heart of Christopher Buckley's breezy new novel, Boomsday: if aging baby boomers commit suicide en masse, the Social Security crisis would be solved. The immodest proposer is 29-year-old Cassandra Devine, who's using her blog, Concerned Americans for Social Security Amendment Now, Debt Reduction and Accountability, to urge selfish boomers to off themselves to void the burden they've imposed on "Generation W" (as in whatever). Fueled by indignation and Red Bull, Cass calls for public demonstrations by youth, spurring ugly incidents at golf courses frequented by retirees.

The second chapter opens 12 years prior, as Cass is headed for Yale but forced to take a detour into military service because her selfish boomer father has invested her college fund in his dot-com start-up. Stationed in Bosnia, she's assigned to escort visiting congressman Randolph K. Jepperson on a fact-finding mission. But after Jepperson drives the Hummer into a minefield, blowing off his leg and destroying Cass's military career, the congressman feels indebted---and maybe something more---and offers her a job. She's soon hired away by Jepperson's flack, Terry Tucker (an acolyte, it turns out, of the legendary Nick Naylor, the big-tobacco spin doctor who stars in Buckley's 1994 novel Thank You for Smoking).

Cracking wise all the way, the three strategize as Jepperson becomes senator and then makes a run for the White House, endorsing Cass's proposal for what's euphemistically titled "Voluntary Transition" in a shameless bid for the youth vote. But even this cynical trio is surprised when the idea has legs: boomers love it, it turns out, due to the healthy tax benefits.

If the characters sound pat and contrived, it's because they are, and the humor is broad as a barn: a right-to-lifer named Reverend Gideon Payne is the founder of the Society for the Protection of Every Ribonucleic Molecule, which allows Buckley to wedge in a reference to "big SPERM donors."

Unfortunately there's not much bite. Kurt Vonnegut's 1968 satire of politically encouraged euthanasia, "Welcome to the Monkey House," still has a lot more teeth--and a lot fewer words. --Jerome Ludwig

THEN WE CAME TO THE END | Joshua Ferris | Joshua Ferris's first novel may be typical of many first novels: an excursion into style and form that justifies those hours in grad school (in his case at UC Irvine). But Ferris's time in the rat race, as a copywriter at a Chicago ad agency, is just as important to this intricate depiction of a pack of coworkers whose company is taking on water.

The agency in Then We Came to the End, whose Magnificent Mile digs speak of better days, is going through tough times in the wake of the dot-com bust. Layoffs pick off the characters one at a time and the work occupying the remaining creative team hasdwindled to a sole, dismal pro bono project: coming up with an ad campaign to make breast cancer patients laugh. Ferris's use of the first person plural emphasizes the collective mind of the team and the minutiae of office life--"Those who loved everyone were unanimously reviled. We loved free bagels in the morning"--even as this odd remove gets the novel off to a slow start. Plot elements twist and contract as office lore from a year ago or this morning is passed on by the group voice without comment. As a reader you're never sure where you stand in the timeline. Just who are these people you've been thrust among, whom you come to know only through an accumulation of quirks and inappropriate office behavior?

But that authorial distance, broken only by a stately middle section that turns out to be a revelatory story within the story, allows the necessary perspective to get the bigger picture. Maybe there aren't a lot of great novels about work because work isn't something we like to think about. Yet for most of us our jobs aren't just how we sustain life but how we define ourselves. Though Ferris's characters all fight desperately for individuality, it's the group that defines them and gives them meaning. Even these self-consciously quirky "creatives," with their inalienable right to wear Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops around the office, can't or won't break free.

A coda set five years later shows the former coworkers still relishing their shared past, even though, or maybe because, at the time "Our boredom was ongoing. . . . It would never die because we would never die." It's not till the very end that Ferris reveals his control of his fragmented story as, in a neat trick, that we expands to include the reader. --Patrick Daily

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