Book Tour is a new Web feature and podcast. Each week, we'll present the leading contemporary authors of both fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their current work.
Jonathan Lethem's new book, You Don't Love Me Yet, is a spirited comedy about a struggling rock band in L.A. and its unlikely source of inspiration, the seductive ramblings of a complaint-hotline caller.
Lethem is a literary risk-taker with a reputation for pushing genres to their limits and beyond. His acclaimed Motherless Brooklyn, a fresh take on the noir detective story, features a loose-lipped private eye with Tourette's syndrome. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1999. Lethem's semi-autobiographical bestseller, The Fortress of Solitude, mixes memoir with magic to tell the uneasy story of a white kid growing up in a black neighborhood. The book sealed Lethem's reputation among critics as a master craftsman of language and helped earn him a MacArthur "genius grant" in 2005.
The author of six novels — including two earlier sci-fi thrillers, Gun, With Occasional Music and Amnesia Moon — Lethem, 43, is a prolific writer whose work goes beyond fiction. He has published pieces in McSweeney's, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker. He has also edited two anthologies, one on the best rock, pop, jazz and country music of 2002 and another on amnesia, two subjects to which he often returns. For all of Lethem's genre-hopping, his varied writings are often infused with certain recognizable obsessions, some of which — comic-book art and the novels of Phillip K. Dick, among them — he discusses in his 2005 collection of personal essays, The Disappointment Artist.
Lethem has also obviously thought a lot about plagiarism. The "Complainer," as the hotline caller in You Don't Love Me Yet is known, discovers that his words have been put to music and demands to become a member of the band, to disastrous effect. It's also the subject of Lethem's much-talked-about essay, "The Ecstasy of Influence," which ran last winter in Harper's. In it, he argues that imitation is not just a form of flattery but lies at the core of the creative process. His Web site (www.jonathanlethem.com) explains that "artists should ideally find ways to make material free and available for reuse."
Lethem has decided to do exactly that. He made news in literary circles this spring when he announced that he would give away the movie rights to You Don't Love Me Yet. He is currently working on a revival of the Marvel Comics series Omega the Unknown.
This reading was recorded live in March 2007 at Politics and Prose, an independent bookstore in Washington, D.C.