In a volume he describes as “a series of covert and
no-so-covert autobiographical pieces,” Jonathan Lethem explores the nature of
cultural obsession—in his case, with examples as diverse as western films,
comic books, the music of Talking Heads and Pink Floyd, and the New York City
subway. Along the way, he shows how each of these “voyages out from himself”
have led him home—home to his father’s life as a painter, and to the source of
his beginnings as a writer. The
Disappointment Artist is a series of windows onto the collisions of art,
landscape, and personal history that formed Lethem’s richly imaginative,
searingly honest perspective on life as a human creature in the jungle of
culture at the end of the twentieth century.
From a confession of the sadness of a “Star Wars nerd” to an
investigation into the legacy of a would-be literary titan, Lethem illuminates
the process by which a child invents himself as a writer, and as a human being,
through a series of approaches to the culture around him. In “The
Disappointment Artist,” a letter from his aunt, a children’s book author, spurs
a meditation on the value of writing workshops, and the uncomfortable
fraternity of writers. In “Defending The Searchers” Lethem explains how a
passion for the classic John Wayne Western became occasion for a series of
minor humiliations. In “Identifying with Your Parents,” an excavation of
childhood love for superhero comics expands to cover a whole range of nostalgia
for a previous generation’s cultural artifacts. And “13/1977/21,” which begins
by recounting the summer he saw Star Wars twenty-one times, “slipping past ushers
who’d begun to recognize me…occult as a porn customer,” becomes a meditation on
the sorrow and solace of the solitary movie-goer.
Artist confirms Lethem’s unique ability to illuminate the way life, his and
ours, can be read between the lines of art and culture.
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