What I’m reading on the bus: The Disappointment Artist

Its an essay collection, ostensibly covering a variety of pop-cultural ephemera. But Lethem doesn’t just talk about the importance of Star Wars on the macro-cultural level. He explores the importance of Star Wars to him by discussing what was going on in his life the summer it first came out, when he watched the movie 21 times. The central theme driving the book is that movies and music, the novels we read and everything else that goes in to our entertainment becomes inextricably linked with the tumult of our lives. In Lethem’s case, the recurring motif is growing up in a bohemian family in Brooklyn in the late seventies/early eighties, and the loss of his mother to cancer. Tied in with his musings on The Searchers and crash course survey of Phillip K. Dick are his memories of trying to escape the grief he felt. In trying too escape his loss, Lethem succeeded primarily in linking it to his own cultural milestones.

It was interesting to see a more overt autobiography from Lethem, who obscured some of the more personal revelations with magical realism and poetic license in his novel Fortress of Solitude(which I enjoyed immensely.) There’s a surface similarity to Chuck Klosterman, in as much as both authors discuss Star Wars and their musical inclinations at great length. Like Klosterman, Lethem doesn’t shy away from subjects many authors would deem too trivial for contemplation. Both authors are adept at sifting through the detritus of pop culture and using it as springboards for introspection. It doesn’t hurt that I share many of the same obsessions and predilections of both authors: comic books, novels, science fiction, indie films, etc. If discussing the importance of Jack Kirby’s Return to Marvel work doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, I’d advise you to stay away from this book. But Lethem is infinitely more focused on the personal than Klosterman, and as such he offers more insights into the mind of the writer and the relationship between art and loss. It’s a relationship that Lethem, like the rest of us, can’t shake off.

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