The Disappointment Artist: Essays
Our personal obsessions, like our erotic fixations, shimmer with near-radioactive allure to us but appear ridiculous to everyone else. Author Jonathan Lethem (The Fortress of Solitude, Motherless Brooklyn) sheepishly acknowledges this truth in The Disappointment Artist, a collection of essays arranged around the personal obsessions that have shaped his life. Like any cultist, he’s all too eager to expound at length about the way Jack Kirby draws Fantastic Four comics or how the letter “L” is curiously tiled on the walls of the Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway station in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, he’s not interested in sharing what makes these artifacts vibrate with mystery and intrigue, and so ends up leading a sightseeing tour that entertains only the guide.
Lethem rightly observes, “When you’re a child, everything local is famous.” But he extrapolates that assumption (wrongly) into: “Everything I love is interesting.” It’s true that some of the things he likes have wide fringy appeal. Plenty of sheepish hipsters have experiences similar to the summer Lethem saw Star Wars 21 times in the theater, or made a cross-country pilgrimage as an acolyte of the Philip K. Dick society, or rocked himself to sleep every night to the white noise of Brian Eno. But when his objects of desire are fairly obscure (the works of his painter father, Richard Lethem) or completely unknowable (his own codified childhood emotional associations to the same), he provides no context and we’re left to our own decoding techniques. At least he says “oeuvre” when talking about his father’s work, instead of replacing it with the chatty “irv,” as in “Let’s discuss Philip K. Dick’s irv,” one of many linguistic precocities which dot the book and prove about as annoying as a 40-year-old announcing, “Today is Backward Day.”
The conversational tone Lethem applies to these essays is appropriately diarylike, but it slackens out of his control too often. He mistakenly assumes that naked self-absorption can be neutralized by self-deprecation, when what would really ingratiate the reader is more context for his obsessions, not pity. Film/comic-book/music/sci-fi geeks will feel less of a kinship with a fellow hapless fetishist and more like some blow-hard is sucking all the air out of the room. Lethem even fesses up himself: “The fact is I’m dealing with a realm of masturbation, of personal arcana.” Nobody said there was anything wrong with masturbation. It just takes some explaining when someone else is in the room.