Cultural Substance Abuse And Other Perils of Youth

The Disappointment Artist, by Jonathan Lethem. Doubleday, 149 pages, $22.95. In the summer of 1977, Jonathan Lethem saw the movie Star Wars 21 times. Not that many times, really-if anything, in the annals of Star Wars geekdom, it qualifies as merely a good start-but Mr. Lethem was proud of his record, if only because of the passing humanoid shape which the number 21 bestowed on him: “stopping at 20 seemed too mechanically round. Adding one more felt plausibly arbitrary, more realistic.” Sometimes he watched Star Wars back-to-back on the same day, sometimes returning from a trip to the bathroom to experience the peculiar thrill of watching Star Wars from a different seat. Then there was the time he took his mother-then dying of cancer-to see the film and, after it was over and she went home, stayed on for one more helping: “I was saying, in effect: Come and see my future, post-mom self. Enact with me your parting from it. Here’s the world of cinema and stories and obsessive identification I’m using to survive your going-now go.”

This heartbreaking essay-easily the most moving piece of prose ever written on the subject of Star Wars-appears in a new collection of Mr. Lethem’s essays, which bed down into a surprisingly cohesive book about cultural obsession, about what it’s like to identify with a cultural artifact so strongly that you’re willing to lose friends and alienate your family in the process. (And what it is to wonder, on the long walk home, whether losing friends and alienating your family wasn’t, at least in part, the point of the exercise.) Mr. Lethem’s tastes runs to the cosmological and cultish-Philip K. Dick, Marvel artist Jack Kirby, David Bowie in his The Man Who Fell to Earth phase-but he isn’t above executing the odd switch-back into the more earth-bound and reactionary, just to keep the waiting world guessing. The book kicks off with a wonderful episode, a mesmerizing set piece of aesthetic tantrum-throwing in which Mr. Lethem berates an entire cinema for not liking The Searchers enough.

Naturally, he’d never seen the film before (“this was the film that meant so much to … who was it? Scorsese? Bogdanovich?”), but this was at Bennington, where Mr. Lethem ran the film society, employing himself as projectionist, and where a cynical urbanity was the order of day. An old-fashioned, sun-roasted film like The Searchers thus shapes up as the perfect tool with which to beat his generation around the head for their soul-impoverishing irony; and Mr. Lethem readies himself for the screening “like a man who suspects his first date might become an elopement.” The film itself lets him down miserably, of course-not least when the projector breaks down. Mr. Lethem rises up to defend the film and doesn’t stop for a decade, while friends and girlfriends crash on the rocks around him: “What was it with this film? Would I ever get to watch it without yelling at someone?” he asks, although, as he notes, by far the worst thing about these conflicts was that his opponents were “casual snipers, not dedicated enemies-like D., or the audience at [Bennington], they take a potshot and wander off, interest evaporated.”

This observation-so frank and funny in its assessment of the obsessive, peeking out helplessly from the doomed mass of his own obsession-is typical of this book, which alternates the blinkered intensity of the cultural mole man with the agility of a writer at full stretch of his lucidity, a beguiling mixture that pushes it to the very forefront of that burgeoning modern genre, the self-aware nerd confessional. Like such masters of the form as Nick Hornby and Sarah Vowell, Jonathan Lethem specializes in a form of smuggled autobiography: Speak, Memorex! With a few deft strokes, the reader is left with a vivid image of Mr. Lethem’s childhood: raised by hippie parents in a quasi-commune in Brooklyn with a painter’s studio (his father’s) at the top and a dense fug of dope smoke and infidelity down below, where “like an autistic child I wanted the human volume turned down.” He makes initial forays into liking Godard and Dylan, finding them baffling and enrapturing-but “I was at a point where I couldn’t trust art that baffled and enraptured me. I needed to feel like I’d encompassed it.” What he needed was “art that required endurance, that mimicked a galactic endlessness and wore out the non-believers.” Specialists in cultural substance abuse will have recognized all the tell-tale signs, from Mr. Lethem’s early portentousness cravings to the final jittery uneasiness in his own skin: We’re talking a hard-core Pink Floyd addict here.

And a Talking Heads freak. And a Philip K. Dick nut. And a Brian Eno bonehead. And a Lord of the Rings dweeb. And-after watching 2001: A Space Odyssey three times in one day-a recipient of the Stanley Kubrick–Arthur C. Clarke Fellowship for visiting teenage aliens. That’s nine hours of devotion to a film which Mr. Lethem found blissfully “clean of the paint-drippy, hippie-drippy, Bob Dylan-raspy-voiced, imperfection-embracing chaos surrounding me everywhere.” With its glinting monolithic surfaces, 2001-like Pink Floyd’s The Wall and much else that Mr. Lethem adored-offered a pleasingly perverse respite from the sort of thing that children are supposed to be enjoying. It’s exactly the sort of film, in fact, that an intelligent child might imagine the state of adulthood to consist of, culturally speaking: back-to-back space operas of gnomic impenetrability. Mr. Lethem’s rejection of childish things-which he characterizes, marvelously, as a “you-cant-fire-me-I-quit” approach to childhood-leads to a desire to vacate himself so desperately that he ends up with vacancy as his prime aesthetic objective.

You can see what’s coming, of course. The stage is set for a series of gargantuan disappointments, as one by one the chrome-plated impassivity of his idols proves insufficient to support the emotions that propelled him onto their Teflon surfaces in the first place. His love of the Talking Heads-a love “so complete that I might have wished to wear the album Fear of Music in place of my head so as to be more clearly seen by those around me”-stumbles when he wakes up one morning to find out, heartbreakingly, that they are not quite as good as all that. But then, “no band is as good as I’d claimed Talking Heads were in the years I adored them.” Hence his title: The Disappointment Artist.

This is a gem of a book. I can’t think of another that captures so well the livid warmth-later curdling into embarrassment-that characterizes the jejune, impassioned and borderline-pretentious tastes with which we first find, and then lose, ourselves; and it comes illuminated with an adult’s forgiving fondness for the cultural Mussolinis we once were, age 15. Seeking to patch up a rift with his friend Karl over the merits of Spider-Man artist Jack Kirby-an argument “which had seemed to me loaded with the direst intimations of the choices we were about to make, the failures of good faith with our childhood selves we were about to suffer”-Mr. Lethem finds instead, soberingly, that the argument had been conducted largely in his own head. Says the adult Karl, now living a few blocks down from Mr. Lethem: “I just never liked the way he drew knees.”

Tom Shone is the author of Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (Free Press).