It’s an inevitably posed question, perhaps a fake-clever one, given Jonathan Lethem’s cheeky chapter titles in his new entry in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series about Talking Heads’ 1979 album Fear of Music. “Is Fear of Music A Talking Heads Record?” he asks in one. “Is Fear of Music A Text?” he poses in another. Plus, it’s also an obvious answer. Of course it’s a book. That’s the title right there on the 9-inch spine of the Continuum edition, just below the series’ logo, and its number in the set, which specifically is 86. But the answer is also yes in a far deeper way. Jonathan Lethem’s Fear of Music is profoundly a book.
Drowning in endless meta-analysis, classic recordings become easily reinspected via deluxe reissues, documentaries, tours recreating albums start-to-finish, oral histories, YouTube wormholes, and countless fan-driven back-channels, until their tracks get worn down and dulled by the proverbial gaze. The best of Continuum’s ongoing series — they just accepted proposals for volumes 87 and up — seem to effortlessly bypass the morass, becoming not only distinct cultural objects, but ones that actually enhance the aura of the originals. The books’ 4¾” x 6½” dimensions are about an inch too wide to be comfortably pocket-sized — the age of skinny jeans has not been kind to pocket paperbacks — but along with their black borders and color schemes matched from the covers of the LPs described therein, they are instantly recognizable. Their lack of titles besides those of the original albums somehow imbues them with paradoxically more identity.
The 33 1/3 books are books in the deepest possible way, in a manner that seems to grow rarer by the year: the cheap, usable kind of book that might eventually enter circulation at used bookstores and garage sales, making themselves (and their subjects and writers) that much less likely to slip into oblivion. Adding to the warmly mechanical aura of the series is its genuine pulpiness. At ten dollars retail, and often stamped out on-demand by Amazon, not all of the titles are winners, though misfires are often less due to a hackjob and more because a fan can’t quite quite get it all out. That or plain over-thinking. The treasures are real, though, ranging from deliciously researched monographs (Douglas Wolk’s Live at the Apollo, Amanda Petrusich’s Pink Moon) to imaginative and aching novellas (John Darnielle’s Master of Reality, John Niven’s Music From Big Pink) to finely honed fan-letters (Mike McGonigal’s Loveless), cultural critiques (Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love), and dozens of other approaches.
For noted paperback-head Jonathan Lethem (another chapter: “Is Fear of Music a Science Fiction Album?”) the form is a perfect match. He quickly lands on an elegant solution to the structural problem of how to write about an album, danced with by all of 33 1/3’s seven-dozen alums. Lethem simply alternates chapters named after tracks with chapters titled something else, in this case, his playful questions. It is a near-perfect workaround. The book stays focused on Fear of Music as experienced and Lethem resists the urge to slip too deeply into its creators’ timeline in anything beyond a passing way. The resultant text somehow manages to create the illusion of living wholly within the original record’s 40 minute, 40 second duration, despite taking (most likely) longer to read.
The answer to another question — Is Fear of Music a Jonathan Lethem Book? — is also a hearty yes. Conveying far more truth about music than his ostensible indie rock novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet, it sometimes functions like a Critical Edition appendix to Fortress of Solitude. Beginning with Lethem as a 15-year old listening to the radio alone in his bedroom, the writer admits, “I’ve dragged [my teenage self] into the light of so many contexts he ought to be pictured by now as if blackened from head to toe with font.” But, perhaps because it’s everything a 33 1/3 title should be — readable, not too abstract, a good introduction to an album’s culture, and album culture as a whole – -it turns out to be a fine thing (just this once) that “the keyboard’s entirely in the kid’s hands.”
“Turn it up, for fuck’s sake,” Lethem suggests as he is supposed to in the book’s forward, but the most appropriate method of consumption might be headphones, where the experience of the Talking Heads’ music and Lethem’s writing might be that much more integrated, producer Brian Eno’s subtle treatments filling the spaces between words. Here’s Lethem on the fade-in intro to “Cities”:
The next ambulance is audible from miles away, klaxons screaming, tires swerving and juttering on blacktop, chassis screaming across the horizon, the whole thing lit up like, well, a house on fire… Hearing it approach, you understand this party has no beginning or end, never stops, only moves on to the next town.
Deftly, Lethem describes the sound and feeling of the recording while gracefully connecting it to the songs around it — in this case, “Life During Wartime” and “Mind.” Not to give too much away about Lethem the Younger’s activities, but still another chapter title is “So Fear of Music is a Concept Album. What Happens on Side Two?” Locating and tracing a path to the album’s center in the single-word song titles and internal hashtags — fear, music, mind, cities, air, and others — he establishes a basic language for the album that checks out with his teenage and contemporary selves. It adds up easily, piece by piece. This is no Greil Marcus imagining Bob Dylan gurgling with the breath of a Civil War soldier, but a conscientious listener pulling lovingly on Byrne’s threads, using them to find passage to a bigger well of ideas behind them.
As in a concert film where the musicians subtly grow louder when the cameras focus on them, Lethem’s observations — about the lyrics or otherwise — act as something like a conceptual remastering job on the record, inevitably transforming the reader’s next listen, with new lyrics, guitar parts, and ambiences coming to the foreground. In this way, Lethem’s treatment of Fear of Music demonstrates in a precise, direct way just what it is possible to get out of cultivating a deep relationship with an individual recording.
At one point, Lethem links “Heaven” to a “Fear of Nowhere sequence” within the bigger Heads songbook, stretching from 1978’s “Big Country” to 1985’s “Road to Nowhere.” But Fear of Music — Lethem’s Fear of Music, that is, not the Heads’ — is definitively not nowhere. Consumed at the right age (much like Talking Heads’ music itself), Fear of Music — a cool little green and black paperback — might provide a young reader/listener with a friendly road to somewhere indeed, connecting her to a much bigger conversation about art and life and music. And for a Talking Heads fan who might’ve overplayed Fear of Music into oblivion, it might provide a surprising and welcome road home.
But no matter what metaphors Lethem’s book provokes through its arch self-reference, it always gracefully reinforces its sheer bookiness. The reading experience is surely better while listening to Talking Heads (much in life is), but it’s not strictly necessary. Lethem recreates the album so thoroughly that — listening or not — one is destined to end up in the self-contained world of his book, the Talking Heads themselves appearing in pantomime, but still playing rather loudly, at a party that might never really stop, even after the last page.
I’ve been feeling isolated lately. In the mornings (if I’m being good), I work on my new book, and, once I’ve been sufficiently humbled by the limits of my own skill and talent, I take my dog for a walk. On these jaunts, I wave hello to the neighbors and the gardeners, the local barbers and the auto mechanics. Maybe I’ll stop by the nearby coffee shop, and get something to go. On every walk, I’m likely to see a raised sprinkler–that little metal head–protruding from the edge of a lawn. When I see one of these heads, I do like I’ve always done: I tap it down with my foot and I make a wish.
It feels pathetic to admit this, but, lately, most of my wishes are about my writing, and my career. Lately, to make sure the Gods are listening, I’m as specific as possible with my wishes; I don’t want a higher power ignoring me because of an ambiguity issue. The other day, I caught myself wishing on a sprinkler head with a renewed fervency, my whispered prayer very long, and very specific. I thought: Edan Lepucki, you need to get a grip.
And then I thought: Does anyone outside of Los Angeles wish on sprinkler heads?
It’s like this: My sister Lauren and I grew up thinking that a snowflake was the size of an 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper. I mean–that’s how you make a snowflake in school, right?
It’s also like this: After 3 pm on a weekday, I don’t expect to hear from anyone in New York. It’s dinner time there.
When I go to my aforementioned local coffee shop, I often see other writers working diligently. But then I see that they’re writing screenplays, not prose. Most of these writers are men, most of them beleaguered (unless they look like Grade-A assholes), and I often feel sorry for them. Why? Because Hollywood is such a difficult industry to break into, where talent rarely has any bearing on success (or so it seems to me). I actually find myself feeling superior for writing fiction, which is probably a Grade-A asshole thing to feel.
But also: I feel lonely. It’s true, I do.
In January I went to New York, where I ventured into a few different coffee shops. In these fine establishments, I saw people writing not screenplays, but prose. Maybe some of them were working on philosophical dissertations or letters to their senators–but, in my mind, I imagined they were all writing novel manuscripts. It was exciting to witness this kind of widespread devotion to prose! It was also a little scary. In L.A., I feel a little lonely, but kind of special. In New York, I’d probably never write in public, for fear of turning into a cliche. It’s a trade-off, I guess: you get a robust community in exchange for being a dime-a-dozen.
It’s like this: In graduate school, I loved being around writers–it was one of the most valuable aspects of my time there. I also found it exhausting, and I’m sure my peers did too. At a Workshop party, if a non-writer showed up–oh man. A geologist could get laid every night of the week by a different poet.
It’s also like this: When I was a teenager, whenever my dad and I saw a group of people my age, he’d point to them and say, “Your people.” It was an observation, a joke, an insult.
Not that Los Angeles doesn’t have a lovely community of writers. It does, it’s just smaller and more spread-out. We meet a few times a year at a random bar to trade war stories and talk about books. Maybe we make fun of the east coast, or trade impressions of Michael Silverblatt. Sometimes Janet Fitch stops by. Last time, Meghan Daum was there, and I had to pretend not to be starstruck. We’ve got the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which basically kicks ass, as do our local independent bookstores. The ALOUD series at the downtown public library showcases Steve Martin, Rebecca Skloot, and Colson Whitehead, among other luminaries. And this week, The Los Angeles Review of Books launches with an impressive array of essays and reviews. Its mission statement alone has me all hot and bothered:
Since the 19th century writers have bridled at New York’s seeming monopoly over publication. Bret Harte in The Overland Monthly, Hamlin Garland in Crumbing Idols, John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren in I’ll Take My Stand, and writers and readers in a thousand other places—including even New York—have called for a more representative literary world. The internet has started to bring this to fruition, and Los Angeles, the largest book market in the country, is taking its rightful place as the new center.
Hurray, I say! But is this claim really true? I’m not sure I want Los Angeles to be the new center of literary activity. Do writers in Omaha want that moniker? How about in Amherst? I doubt it. After all, the distance any of us non-New York writers have from New York is frustrating, but also valuable. There’s an option to retreat from the noise–or, okay, the music–that I don’t think a writer in, say, Brooklyn has. This distance has benefited me for the last four years, as I write and write, without looking up, or around, me.
But it’s also this distance, this sense of being an outsider, an underdog, that makes me territorial about where I live and write. I am barely tolerant of non-L.A. writers poaching Los Angeles for fictional fodder. For instance, Charles Baxter’s unoriginal take on L.A.’s billboard-celebrity Angelyne in his novel The Soul Thief had me rolling my eyes. And don’t get me started on Jonathan Lethem’s novel You Don’t Love Me Yet! I refuse to read the damn thing, which supposedly depicts the lives of hipsters in Silver Lake. A friend on goodreads said the book gave her an “overall feeling that the author had spent a grand total of a weekend in Los Angeles before writing this book, and threw in random details from looking at a GoogleMap.” For me, it’s not so much the name-dropping of locations that would bother me, but that they’d come from the same writer who penned The Fortress of Solitude, a novel that’s so sensitive to the issues and complications of gentrification. Maybe now that Lethem’s moved to the Southland, he will render my homeland with more depth.
Why limit my rage to books? In recent years, Noah Baumbach’s film Greenberg ruffled my feathers, too. Anyone who knows Los Angeles geography was up in arms about how place worked–or didn’t work–in the film. Take one example: Ben Stiller’s character is staying in an Orthodox Jewish community, but then walks to the nearby hills to hike? Uh, no. Go back to tennis playing in Brooklyn, Baumbach!
My other problem with his film Greenberg, and with Baxter’s Soul Thief, is the sense that these artists are coming to my city to wrest profundity from it. There’s an implicit suggestion that we need an outsider to find the profound for us, to make order out of chaos. It makes me feel like I’m part of a rain forest tribe, being observed by pasty white men in wool suits. The problem is, these artists’ observations feel like 4AM stoner revelations. At the end of Greenberg, for instance, the camera pauses on one of those wind sock men often seen at auto body shops. It’s supposed to feel meaningful, but it just made me laugh. Pass the doobie, bro.
I don’t want to suggest that an artist should never venture into the unknown. My motto isn’t “Write what you know,” but, rather, “Write what you want to know.” I fear my territorial attitude has not only made me a harsh reader, but that it’s also placed a too-tight harness around me as writer. My imagination should feel free to venture to foreign lands, shouldn’t it?
I asked my friend Emma Straub, a native New Yorker who lives in Brooklyn, about this very issue, since she has written a novel called Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, forthcoming from Riverhead Books. Her book is a historical novel about an actress in Los Angeles. I’m so excited to read it, and also a bit nervous. What if the geography’s wrong? Will it feel like Los Angeles? But Emma’s response put me right back into giddy-mode:
As a native New Yorker, I find it hard to write about my own city. The streets are crowded with novelists, and it seems nearly impossible to stake out a piece of sidewalk for myself. The novel I’m writing takes place in Los Angeles, and whenever anyone mentions “Hollywood,” the main character can’t figure out whether they’re talking about the neighborhood or the place as an idea, like heaven. That’s how I think of Los Angeles: as existing on two planes at all times, the real and the fantastic. Would I feel differently if I lived there? I don’t know. I’m sure some people write about New York as a way to sort it out in their heads. I suppose that’s what I’m doing, too.
This is wise. We write to sort things out in our heads, and to escape from the world right in front of us. We write because we want to discover. That’s why we read, too, isn’t it? If an artist can help me discover something new about my hometown, that’s wonderful. I’d welcome it. Emma, I cannot wait to read your novel.
There’s also this: Before I began writing this essay, I asked poet and prose writer Sarah Manguso, a recent New York transplant, how it feels to be a writer in L.A., far from the center of the publishing world. She wrote back to say, “In New York, writers don’t use the phrase ‘the center of the publishing world’ and they don’t visit the Statue of Liberty.”
She also said, “In Los Angeles a writer is expected to learn to drive. Believe me, that’s a big difference.”
Now that is profound.
(Image: Los Angeles Palm Trees from tiarescott’s photostream)
I think of Jonathan Lethem as the poet laureate of gentrification. This is true in the literal sense — in the case of the subject of this piece, The Fortress of Solitude, and to a somewhat lesser extent with his follow up to it, You Don’t Love Me Yet — in that he writes about neighborhoods in transition: Gowanus in Brooklyn and Echo Park in Los Angeles. But Lethem is also an author gentrifying genre fiction – noir thriller and sci-fi – as he did in his earlier novels Gun with Occasional Music and Girl in a Landscape. Perhaps it’s a kind of reverse gentrification, in that case.
The Fortress of Solitude is the tale of Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, friends across the color line in the evolving neighborhood of Gowanus or Boerum Hill, as it would come to be called. Their racial difference hangs over every interaction in the book, despite their shared tastes in comic books and music. Split into multiple parts, divided by something that already seems incredibly ancient – a liner note – the book is shot through with pop culture, punk rock trivia and super powers. At its best moments, the book perfectly describes a time and a place in near constant transformation, and in realizing two great characters, in Dylan and Mingus. At its worst, it leaves itself open to charges of a kind of forced exotification, as the adult Dylan seems to have collected artifacts of African-American culture – most notably an African-American girlfriend – as one might the relics of a lost civilization.
You have to admire Lethem’s bravery — he fearlessly addresses race in a way that most white writers wouldn’t dare. At the same time, he embraces his geek origins, blending together hip-hop, punk, graffiti art, avant guard film and comic book culture into a dazzling pastiche. While it will likely be his earlier book Motherless Brooklyn that solidifies his reputation, The Fortress of Solitude remains his “biggest” novel to date, a book that tries to stand next to the other greats of the decade. That it doesn’t entirely succeed does little to diminish Lethem’s stature as one of the decade’s great writers.