When it comes to contemporary authors I think will be studied in early 21st century literature seminars of the not-too-distant future, it's hard not to circle back to Jonathan Lethem. Part brainiac, part genre-bender, part literary celeb, certified Genius (as per the MacArthur Foundation), ambitious novelist—Lethem has been a sort of "total package" in the books community. And given that most people have never read the first half of Lethem's oeuvre, and that his most lasting contribution to the way we think about art may be unfolding in front of us at this very moment, this premature canonization is all the more fascinating to watch.
Few people knew about Lethem before the publication of Motherless Brooklyn in 1999. His previous novels, including Gun, with Occasional Music and Girl in Landscape, fused disparate genres like sci-fi and mystery with an overeducated sensibility that didn't lend itself to a lot of casual readers. But when Motherless Brooklyn, an astonishingly oddball novel about a misfit guerilla detective with Tourette's Syndrome, hit the streets, it became one of those word-of-mouth phenomena that publishers only dream of.
Four years later, Fortress of Solitude cemented Lethem's standing as one of our era's most intriguing authors. A semi-autobiographical novel about two boys—one white, one black—growing up in Brooklyn during the Jackson 5 and hula hoop era, Fortress was wildly ambitious in scope, spanning over 30 years in the protagonist's life, reading in parts like an intensely detailed (and nostalgic) historical novel, and flaunting Lethem's gift for writing about music.
Lethem followed Fortress with collections of stories and essays, but it appears as if his real third act may be upon us now.
First up is You Don't Love Me Yet—a slim novel about an aspiring rock band in LA. Lucinda, the book's anti-heroine, mans the phones for a conceptual art project where people call in around the clock with their life complaints. Lucinda commences an affair with one of her regular callers, despite the Complainer's flabby white body and self-absorption. Lucinda's ex, who plays guitar in their unnamed band, has become so over-identified with a depressed kangaroo at the zoo where he works that he kidnaps the marsupial in misguided protest. Eventually, the Complainer worms his way into Lucinda's band, destroying the whole project before it can ever really start.
Ultimately, though, You Don't Love Me Yet feels like a minor work by Lethem—highly readable, but short on the "wow" factor, unlike a recent essay in Harper's that is undoubtedly his best short piece to date. "The Ecstasy of Influence" makes an energizing and passionate case for sampling, appropriation, influence, and even plain old copying in artwork. Heavily influenced by the Creative Commons movement (which Lethem calls "very inspiring"), Lethem argues that art is generous by nature, and that being "creatively ripped off" or "bootlegged" never diminishes the value of the original artwork. It's one of the most thought-provoking essays I've ever read, and will surely go down as one of the seminal reads about the current "open source" creative movement.
Lethem's most recent creative coup, however, isn't something that he wrote, but rather, what he plans to do with a preexisting text. Last month, the author announced that he would be giving away the movie option to You Don't Love Me Yet (rather than selling it) to a filmmaker of his choice.
"That in itself is not that striking," says Lethem. "The more provocative part is the next part, where I'm asking the yet-to-be-determined filmmaker to do a sort of lovers leap with me into the public domain later on. All the other rights—to make sequels, or other kinds of artworks, like a play or comic book or TV show—we're going to throw those things out into the public domain. It's sort of presuming to act as if everyone will come running or care to make any of this stuff, but it still seems very interesting and worthwhile as a kind of public thought experiment."
This isn't to suggest that Lethem has become a total Communist, resolved to never again make a penny on his artwork. Motherless Brooklyn was optioned and sold to New Line Cinema in a traditional manner, and Ed Norton is currently working on the film adaptation. "That's part of what I'm trying to say," Lethem tells me. "It's not a black or white thing. Artists are always, by the nature of what they're doing, involved in commodity transactions and gift transactions. So I'm just emphasizing the gift ones for a little while here."
It could take years to see what effects Lethem's essay and upcoming "public thought experiment" have on literature and the way we think about art, but we don't have to worry about those lasting effects just yet. That's what those future students of early 21st century literature will be around to study.