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The Disappointment Artist: Essays [Hardcover]

Jonathan Lethem
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Novelist Lethem's new collection of essays starts with an intriguing, if emotionally distant, consideration of his lifelong relationship with popular culture and develops into a moving memoir that transcends those references altogether. As the essays make clear, Lethem (The Fortress of Solitude) has always been obsessive: he watched Star Wars 21 times the summer it was released, then followed that with 21 viewings of 2001 a few years later; the novels of Philip K. Dick played as large a role in his growing artistic vision as did the canvases of his father, painter Richard Lethem. But the collection doesn't find its purpose until the author strips away the pop culture references to get at what really drives him: the childhood his hippie parents provided for him, his father's artistic influence on him, his mother's early death. The book picks up steam especially in the essay "Lives of the Bohemians," a simple and direct family history in which, for the first time here, Lethem's depiction of himself as a child feels genuine rather than theorized, lived rather than considered. By the end, Lethem fully and beautifully bares himself, admitting that he, like so many, is driven by loss. Only then does he write the truest sentence possible: "I find myself speaking about my mother's death everywhere I go in this world."
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Praise for Lethem, author of Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, for what the Baltimore Sun deems "a hybrid tour de force." Not only does Lethem display a broad range of cultural and intellectual knowledge; according to the critics he’s mastered the art of memoir as well. The book is as heartfelt and self-effacing as it is esoteric. The one negative review seems more of a personal attack on Lethem than a reasoned slice of criticism (Jennifer Autrey writes in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "There are readers who will hang in there with Lethem. I was married to one of them once."). Is there any literary style that can trip Lethem up? We’ll have to wait for his poetry collection to find out.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

From Booklist

Lethem, the author of such inventive and sensitive novels and short story collections as The Fortress of Solitude (2003) and Men and Cartoons (2004), is also a skilled and winning essayist. Here he shares pivotal passages in his creative life in remembrances of his rough Brooklyn childhood, and his early attempts at writing. But as is his wont, Lethem sneaks up on key themes from oblique angles, portraying his bohemian household via descriptions of his father's paintings, and broaching his mother's early death in an essay about his going to see Star Wars 21 times the summer he turned 13. He considers creativity in a frank and funny account of his obsession with the film The Searchers; raves about comics, Philip K. Dick, and a favorite subway station; and offers a hilarious response to a letter from his aunt Billie, a children's author, recounting her experience with the famously misanthropic writer Edward Dahlberg, whom Lethem shrewdly pegs as a "disappointment artist." Lethem succeeds in granting readers insights not only into his passions but also into their own. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


“These marvelous explorations take us into the hiding places of the psyche, where second thoughts are assessed, secret-sharer sins confessed, and grief and loss redressed. In a collection as warmly engaging as it is ruminative, Jonathan Lethem shows himself to be as much a master of the personal essay as he is of contemporary fiction.”
—Phillip Lopate

From the Inside Flap

A mixture of personal memory and cultural commentary, THE DISAPPOINTMENT ARTIST offers a series of windows onto the collisions of art, landscape, and personal history that formed Jonathan Lethem's richly imaginative, searingly honest perspective on life as a human creature in the jungle of culture at the end of the twentieth century.

From a confession of the sadness of a "Star Wars nerd" to an investigation into the legacy of a would-be literary titan, Lethem illuminates the process by which a child invents himself as a writer, and as a human being, through a series of approaches to the culture around him. In "The Disappointment Artist," a letter from his aunt, a children's book author, spurs a meditation on the value of writing workshops, the role and influence of reviews, and the uncomfortable fraternity of writers. In "Defending The Searchers" Lethem explains how a passion for the classic John Wayne Western became occasion for a series of minor humiliations. In "Identifying with Your Parents," an excavation of childhood love for superhero comics expands to cover a whole range of nostalgia for a previous generation's cultural artifacts. And "13/1977/21," which begins by recounting the summer he saw Star Wars twenty-one times, "slipping past ushers who'd begun to recognize me...occult as a porn customer," becomes a meditation on the sorrow and solace of the solitary moviegoer.

THE DISAPPOINTMENT ARTIST confirms Lethem's unique ability to illuminate the way life, his and ours, can be read between the lines of art and culture.

About the Author

JONATHAN LETHEM is the author of six novels, including The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is also the author of two short story collections, Men and Cartoons and The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye, and the editor of The Vintage Book of Amnesia. His essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Granta, and Harper’s. He lives in Brooklyn and Maine.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Defending The Searchers

(Scenes in the Life of an Obsession)

1. Bennington

What's weird in retrospect is how I seem to have willed the circumstances into being, how much I seemed to know before I knew anything at all. There shouldn't have been anything at stake for me, seeing The Searchers that first time. Yet there was. Going to a film society screening was ordinarily a social act, but I made sure to go alone that night. I smoked a joint alone too, my usual preparation then for a Significant Moment. And I chose my heavy black-rimmed glasses, the ones I wore when I wanted to appear nerdishly remote and intense, as though to decorate my outer self with a confession of inner reality. The evening of that first viewing of The Searchers I readied myself like a man who suspects his first date might become an elopement.

I wasn't a man. I was nineteen, a freshman at Bennington, a famously expensive college in Vermont. I'd never been to private school, and the distance between my experience and the other students', most of whom had never set foot inside a public school like those I'd attended in Brooklyn, would be hard to overstate. On the surface I probably came off like an exuberant chameleon. I plied my new friends with stories of inner-city danger when I wanted to play the exotic, aped their precocious cynicism when I didn't. Beneath that surface I was weathering a brutally sudden confrontation with the reality of class. My bohemian-artisan upbringing—my parents were hippies—had masked the facts of my own exclusion from real privilege, more adeptly than is possible anymore. It was 1982.

Soon the weight of these confusions crushed my sense of belonging, and I dropped out. But before that, I cloaked my abreaction in a hectic show of confidence: I was the first freshman ever to run the film society. The role freed me to move easily through the complex social layers at Bennington, impressing people with a brightness that hadn't affixed to any real target. Plus I was able to hire myself as a projectionist, one of the least degrading work-study jobs, then pad the hours, since I was my own manager.

So when I walked into Tishman Hall, Bennington's small, free-standing movie theater, I was entering my own little domain on a campus that really wasn't mine at all. Which had everything to do with the episode that night. The rows of wooden seats in Tishman were full—deep in the Vermont woods, any movie was diversion enough for a Tuesday night—but I doubt any of my closest friends were there. I don't remember. I do remember glancing up at the booth to see that this night's projectionist was my least competent. The lights dimmed, the babble hushed, and the movie began.

A cowboy ballad in harmony plays over the titles. You're thrust into a melodrama in blazing Technicolor, which has faded to the color of worrisome salmon. A homestead on the open range--no, hardly the range. This family has settled on the desolate edge of Monument Valley, under the shadow of those baked and broken monoliths rendered trite by Jeep commercials. You think: they might as well try to farm on the moon. The relationships between the characters are uneasy, murky, despite broad performances, corny lines. At the center of the screen is this guy, a sort of baked and broken monolith himself, an actor you might feel you were supposed to know. John Wayne.

I'd seen part of Rooster Cogburn on television. The only feature Western I'd ever watched was Blazing Saddles, but I'd passingly absorbed the conventions from F Troop, from Gunsmoke, from a Mad Magazine parody of 3:10 to Yuma. Similarly, I'd grasped a sense of John Wayne's iconographic gravity from the parodies and rejections that littered seventies culture. I knew him by his opposite: something of Wayne's force is encoded in Dustin Hoffman, Elliott Gould, Alan Alda. And the voice—in high school I'd sung along with a hit song called "Rappin' Duke" which aped his bullying drawl: "So you think you're bad, with your rap / Well I'll tell ya, Pilgrim, I started the crap—"

As for movies, I was a perverse muddle, another result of my parents' milieu. I'd seen dozens by Godard and Truffaut, and never one by Howard Hawks or John Ford. My parents had taken me to The Harder They Come, not The Wizard of Oz. In my scattershot reading I'd sensed something missing in my knowledge, something central, a body of Hollywood texts the European directors revered like a Bible. But I'd never seen an American film older than Dr. Strangelove. Somewhere in my reading I'd also gleaned that The Searchers was terribly important, though not how, or why, or to whom.

Wayne's character, Ethan, is tormented and tormenting. His fury is righteous and ugly—resentment worn as a fetish. It isolates him in every scene. It isolates him from you, watching, even as his charisma wrenches you closer, into an alliance, a response that's almost sexual. You try to fit him to your concept of hero, but though he's riding off now, chasing a band of murderous Indians, it doesn't work. No parody had prepared you for this. Wasn't Wayne supposed to be a joke? Weren't Westerns meant to be simple? The film on the screen is lush, portentous. You're worried for it.

Now Wayne and the other riders falter. The Indians, it seems, have circled back, to raid the farmhouse the riders have left behind. The family, they're the ones in danger. The riders race back in a panic. They've failed. The farmhouse is a smoldering cinder, the family dead. The woman Wayne seemed to care for, raped and murdered. Her daughter, Wayne's niece, kidnapped. The sky darkens. The score is a dirge, no ballad now. Wayne squints, sets his jaw: the girl would be better dead than in the hands of the savages. John Wayne's a fucking monster! So are the Indians!

Now you're worried in a different way.

That's when the audience in Tishman began laughing and catcalling. Some, of course, had been laughing from the start, at the conventions of 1950s Hollywood. Now, as the drama deepened and the stakes became clear, the whole audience joined them. It was the path of least resistance. The pressure of the film, its brazen ambiguity, was too much. It was easier to view it as a racist antique, a naive and turgid artifact dredged out of our parents' bankrupt fifties culture.

Benefit of the doubt: What cue, what whiff of context was there to suggest to this audience why it should risk following where this film was going? These were jaded twenty-year-old sophisticates, whose idea of a film to ponder was something sultry and pretentious—Liquid Sky, The Draughtsman's Contract. If an older film stood a chance it should be in black-and-white, ideally starring Humphrey Bogart, whose cynical urbanity wouldn't appall a young crowd nursing its fragile sense of cool. The open, colorful manner of The Searchers didn't stand a chance. A white actor wearing dark makeup to play the main Indian character didn't stand a chance. John Wayne, above all, didn't stand a chance. The laughter drowned out the movie.

I was confused by the film, further confused by the laughter. The Searchers was overripe, and begged for rejection. But the story was beginning to reach me, speak to me in its hellish voice, though I didn't understand what it was saying. And I clung to shreds of received wisdom—this was the film that meant so much to . . . who was it? Scorsese? Bogdanovich? There must be something there. The laughter, I decided, was fatuous, easy. A retreat. Sitting there trying to watch through the howls, I boiled.

Then the film broke. The crowd groaned knowingly. This wasn't uncommon. The lights in the booth came up, illuminating the auditorium, as my projectionist frantically rethreaded the projector. It was then I began daring myself to speak, began cobbling together and rehearsing words to express my anger at the audience's refusal to give The Searchers a chance. A print brittle enough to break once in Tishman's rusty projectors was likely to do it again, and by the time the film was up and running I'd made a bargain with myself: if there was another break I'd rise and defend the film.

My silent vow scared the shit out of me. I sat trembling, hating the crowd, hating myself for caring, and praying the film wouldn't break again. The Searchers was meant to be the center of this experience, but with one thing and another it was reeling away from me.

It did break again. I did stand and speak. What I recall least about that night are the words which actually came out of my mouth, but you can bet they were incoherent. I'd love to claim I said something about how presentational strategies that look natural to us in contemporary films would look just as silly to an audience in the future as those in The Searchers did to us now. I'd love to think I said something about an American tendency to underestimate the past, that I planted a seed by suggesting The Searchers had been put together by artists with a self-consciousness, possibly even a sense of irony, of their own.

Of course, I didn't. I was nineteen. I called them idiots and told them to shut up. What I didn't do, couldn't do, was defend The Searchers itself. I hadn't seen more than a third of the film, after all, and what I'd seen I hadn't understood. My schoolmates might be wrong to condescend to this film, but I couldn't tell them why. Years later I'd come to see that part of what I was defending, by instinct, was the fact that the film had the lousy taste to be a Western in the first place. The aspiring novelist who'd soon make his first clumsy attempts to work out his surrealist impulses in the despised medium of science fiction felt kinship with John Ford, a director who persistently cast his moral sagas in the despised form of the genre Western. The indignation I felt was partly on my own behalf, indignation I couldn't express because ...

From AudioFile

Jonathan Lethem is the ideal narrator for these unusual, deeply smart essays, which amount to an intellectual and psychological portrait of the artist as a young man. His voice is appealing, and his diction clear but personal, a little rushed, but never to the disservice of the text. Since the writing is so engagingly honest about Lethem's past obsessions (comic book art, STAR WARS Stanley Kubrick, Philip K. Dick), especially the ones he has been changed by but outgrown, it is particularly satisfying not to have the scrim of a trained actor's voice between you and the author. Anyone who enjoys his marvelous novels (this reviewer particularly loves MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN) should be charmed and moved by this production. B.G. © AudioFile 2005, Portland, Maine-- Copyright © AudioFile, Portland, Maine --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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