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The Disappointment Artist: Essays
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on March 19, 2005
In THE DISAPPOINTMENT ARTIST, novelist Jonathan Lethem examines some of the influences that have shaped him, as an artist and as a person. They include films, books, music, and his family and childhood environment. Lethem grew up mainly in Brooklyn, son of a painter and a bohemian mother who died of a brain tumor when the writer was in his early teens.

"Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn" is the most evocative of Lethem's childhood. In this essay, he describes the subway of his high school years. Hoyt-Schermerhorn was his station in a rough neighborhood and the essay reflects his fear in being easy prey as a young boy on his own, as well as his fascination with the vibrant city all around him. When an abandoned platform in his station is chosen as the set for the dystopian New York City movie The Warriors, Lethem's interests collide.

Three essays in this collection are about movies: "Defending the Searchers," "13, 1977, 21," and "Two or Three Things I Dunno About Cassavetes," and films are at least mentioned in all of the remaining essays. The Searchers is an old John Wayne movie, dated and awkward, yet Lethem is moved by its imagery, by John Wayne's acting power, and remains in thrall to it. He is moved to defend it, even in the face of a hostile audience, even to people he knows would understand neither the movie nor his compulsion to speak. "13, 1977, 21" is about seeing Star Wars 21 times at the age of thirteen. This isn't as odd as it might sound; a lot of boys saw Star Wars many, many times when it first came out. The essay isn't really about Star Wars; it's about obsession and how you can hide behind it. His mother's illness, his father's remoteness, the awkwardness of his preteen years --- the author could make these things disappear, temporarily, at the movies.

"The Disappointment Artist" is about writing and generosity. Based on correspondence from Lethem's aunt, Wilma Yeo, a children's book author, the essay concerns her experiences with Edgar Dahlberg, her writing instructor. Dahlberg, whose misanthropic work is largely forgotten now, was hypercritical, relentlessly discouraging, and mean. He is especially cruel to other writers, even students; Lethem examines Dahlberg's implicit self-loathing and compares it with his aunt's more positive approach.

"The Disappointment Artist" is the title essay and reading the whole collection will make its emphasis clear. When a reader (or viewer or listener) invests so much of himself in any given artist, the normal peaks and troughs of an artistic career become so meaningful that the disappointment of lesser works is nearly unbearable. This collection is in no danger of such a brush-off. It's a testament to our culture's fascination with itself, yet moving and personal, an interesting reminiscence on learning to think critically.

--- Reviewed by Colleen Quinn
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on March 31, 2006
The mock music reviews, the odd bits of arcane conversation, and all the other eddies of thinking that appear in The Fortress of Solitude evoked curiosity I hoped this book would fulfill. What sort of essayist would Lenthem be? He is certainly a skilled one. His prose is direct and honest while being, as you'd expect, witty and creative. As a companion piece to his novel, this collection explains a great deal. The chief trouble with this memoir, however, is that Lenthem ultimately leaves his audience behind, pursuing his literary and pop-cultural obsessions past a point readers can follow. By focusing on the books, movies, and music that forged his character, Lethem risks self-indulgence. The early death of his mother, his unconventional upbringing, and his father's artistic distance promise emotinal payoff, but this collection devolves. By the end, human concerns seem less important to Lenthem than the content of his bookshelves. He opens his closets...and reveals stuff.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on June 18, 2010
Like others have said, these essays just miss the target and at the moment I've given up after reading about half and skipping a section or two. Fairly dry anecdotes with no resonance. It reads as though you are listening to someone speak for hours about their not-all-that-interesting family who you have never met. This can be done quite well obviously but that's not the case here.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on May 21, 2005
Some readers have expressed their dislike of Lethem's navel gazing in this collection, I didn't mind at all. His essays on Jack Kirby and the Searchers are some of the best writing I've read about comics or film in a long time. The scene where he describes his cynical junkie friend ruining a viewing of the Searchers should resonate with any member of Generation X who had their private passions invaded by the that slew of non-commital flakes we found ourselves surrounded with in the 1990s:eyebrow cocking stoners, who despite their lack of commitment, were always vigilant for passion, always ready to chide us for taking a stand on anything, whether it be a political position or art. If there's one thing I didn't like about this book was Lethem's display of self-consciousness about seeing Star Wars 21 times, something that no one from his generation would bat an eye at. If anything, it says more about the world he lives in than the writer himself.
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I love introspective essays - I think they are the purest form of creative writing. In an essay, a writer can discuss the topic that he knows most about (himself) while writing in whatever voice and whatever form the author deems appropriate. If there are few rules in fiction, there are even less rules in essays. Who can tell you that you're wrong in your opinion on yourself?

Jonathan Lethem's "The Dissapointment Artist" is a collection of essays that chronicles the pop culture obsessions that made Lethem into the writer that he is. Music, movies, and art are all given ample time, but books and authors make up the lion's share of topics discussed. He also spends a chapter talking about Hoyt-Schermerhorn, his favorite New York City subway station.

New York City itself also played a formative role in his writing style, as "The Fortress of Solitude" is set there. "Motherless Brooklyn" goes so far as to wear the Big Apple's influence on Lethem in its title. Other previous works include science fiction novels "As She Climbed Across the Table" and "Girl in Landscape."

Lethem addresses his beginnings in science fiction by admitting to seeing Star Wars twenty-one times in one summer in one essay, while also telling of an obsession with Philip K. Dick that drove him to drop out of college and move across the country to join the Philip K. Dick Society, which was dedicateding to "propagating his works and furthering his posthumous career."

Lethem addresses each essay with a nostalgic excitement. Some essays retain the fanatical qualities all the way through, like the essay on Dick, and another on comic books titled, "Identifying with Your Parents." Others take a reverent turn. Lethem waxes philosophical on both the personal and public meanings of little-known author Edward Dahlberg in the title essay, while "Two or Three Things I Dunno about Cassavetes" made me wonder why no one had told me of film-maker John Cassavetes before, if he is so wonderful and important.

The strength of the essays lies in the strength of Lethem's convictions. Besides the pinpointing of a different formative influence in every essay, there are few things that hold the book together. The book is horribly non-chronological, skipping all over Lethem's life. Topics rarely get even so much as referenced again after their essay is over. Most of the topics he discusses are obscure, as I only knew Star Wars, Pink Floyd and Philip K. Dick in a 150-page book. Yet this book is compelling in the extreme, because Jonathan Lethem can really write. Even though his obsessions teeter precariously on the cliff that is "cultish" towards the sea that is "arcane," he explains his obsessions with such clarity, insight and humor that is impossible not to enjoy the ride through his influences.

I can't believe that such a narcissistic piece of work could ever get published - but I am better off for having found it. The distinct style with which Lethem writes could suck anyone in, and the humor and interesting insights will keep you reading. The fact that Lethem is an author of fiction plays a role in drawing the reader in as well - many of the essays seem to unfold in a very character-driven style, with Lethem using himself at different ages as the protagonist. This method is extremely conducive to enjoying this work.

If you're a writer, this book is a must. Seeing a writer deconstruct his own writing style and discuss how he became a writer is fascinating. If you're a fan of essay style, this book is also a must, as Jonathan Lethem's dissections of pop culture are compelling and enthralling. It's not often that a book comes along that makes me want to read it over and over, but this book has me on the fourth reading already.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
The Disappointment Artist is, as one usually expects of any collection, a bit of a mixed bag. The problem I had with it was that for me, the best essays, the most moving and most universal ones, came at the close and so the book, though slim, was a bit of a struggle to get through. The essays are a mix of memoir and critical book and film review, and a blend of both to look at Lethem's influences over the years.
It will come as no surprise to Lethem fans that comic book were one such influence and they take up most of one essay and appear in several others. Another essay details his passion over the Searchers, another looks at the films of John Cassavettes (the most strictly critical essay), One on his viewing of Star Wars 21 times has more to do with young Lethem and his mother's impending death then the movie itself. While it has some powerful moments, the essay as a whole is strangely aloof. This was my reaction to most of the essays. Part of it certainly having to deal with my lack of knowledge of several of his topics (the searchers, Cassavettes), but even those topics I am strongly familiar with (comic books, Star Wars), the essays never connected for me. I never felt Lethem fully universalized the experience for me nor did he fully personalize it except in rare moments, so I was caught in this strange area between--not fully caught up in the topic nor fully caught up in the writer's feelings about the topic. For that reason, the first half of the book was a struggle, not particularly compelling and somewhat slow. Things changed in the latter half as more of Lethem began to appear in Lives of the Bohemians. The Beards, the last piece, was by far my favorite.
Fans of Lethem will recognize his influences and those who share his interests will probably enjoy this book much more than I did. For others, though it may destroy the internal structure of the collection, (since most of these were published beforehand that isn't such a big deal), you may find it an easier start to begin "13 1977 21" the essay on Star Wars and then move to The Beards or Bohemians. Mixed recommendation.
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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on April 1, 2005
I first ran into Lethem's fiction back in the early 90's, when his first novel, Gun with Occasional Music, captivated me. As a novel it was unique and fascinating and glorious... and obviously a homage to Philip K. Dick, an obsession I too have indulged. Subsequent novels cast about for something to say before finally getting back on track in the last couple of years.

I read the essay "The Beards" in the New Yorker recently and had to own this book. Suddenly a lot of things about who this guy is and what he's about were clear. Each of his essays, so "about" obsession or longing or the importance of certain films or authors or what-have-you are also explorations of his internal landscape and the larger themes of growing up, or coming to grips with our own or our parent's humanity.

Unplugged from the need to fictionalize, Lethem finds a voice that sometimes eludes him in is fiction. And it is a funny, moving voice with interesting tales to tell.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on November 22, 2006
The reason to read this collection of personal essays, is not their subjects, but the thoughfulness of the author and his simply amazing writing skill. Regardless of my interest in the topics, if found them all captivating -- from the consistence of his brilliant writing and the deeply personal cast he lent to each of them. The essay about his father, the painter, is deeply affecting. Lethem's insights into what shaped him as an author and as a person are so candid and meaningful. Now I feel I will be able to read his novels next with a broader perspective into what went into them.
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In a nutshell, this book is too erudite and detailed to be worth spending your time on. There are moments of honest confession and insight that are really, really good . . . unfortunately the rest was too detailed to get there. It is only a 130 page book, but it is extremely dense.

If you are looking for essays on pop culture, life, or insight into the everyday, pick up Pulphead or any of Chuck Klosterman's non-fiction books. This book was written with a lot of care, but I cannot think of anyone I would recommend it to. (Although the chapter on Phillip K. Dick does make me want to pick up more of his books, so there is that . . .)
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on April 4, 2008
Bookshelf space demanded that I purchase "The Dissapointment Artist" as an audio CD instead of in hardback, something I did with a little hesitance--no matter how good the reader, many books on CD remind me of kindergarden storytime.

This is not the case with "Artist." Lethem reads his essays with an even, mellow pace as he tells of nerdy childhood obsessions...then slowly, slightly, lets his voice lower, his tone darken, as he frankly discussions the death of his mother and its effect on him.

I give a hearty "thumbs-up" to the Audio edition of this book--it's worth every cent.
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