The Book I Read: Jonathan Lethem’s Infinity Loop

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Here’s a review I wrote for Amazon (here).

I was surprised to see so many negative reviews of this book. What’s not to like? At one point Lethem remarks that his identification with Fear of Music as a teenager was so strong that you could have placed the album where his head was and it would have adequately represented his inner self. If you haven’t ever felt that way about an album, book, or movie, this isn’t a book you should read. Lethem isn’t doing standard music criticism or cultural analysis—thank God, who needs more of that?—he’s exploring the strange liminal zone between his own psyche and a rock album that got so deep under his skin (like Byrne’s air) that it had a hand in forming it (his psyche).

But then, some people don’t know shit about the air.

For Lethem writing this book, everything seems to be up in the air. That’s the point. Lethem can’t tell where Fear of Music ends and he begins, or vice versa, and the reader isn’t supposed to know either. And it comes directly from his heart to you. What Lethem can do as well as any music writer I’ve ever read, however (as he also showed in his novel You Don’t Love Me Yet), is describe musical progressions and effects in coherent language that somehow captures the essence of music and meaning, that merges forms, creates prose that sings the praises of songs that narrate, so the music and the analysis get together, load their trucks, burn their notebooks, and change their hairstyles. This is one of those abilities that mystifies and humbles me: I don’t know how Lethem does it. I can only absorb it admiringly and, as with great music, enjoy its ineffability and my own incapacity to understand how he does it. Ironic, because Lethem’s Fear of Music is kind of about that: Lethem’s still-adolescent fumbling, joyful, jerky, melancholy, intense, searching, desperate, weary and inspired attempt to come to terms with his inability to understand Fear of Music and, at the same time, his inability not to at least TRY. Maybe that’s why some people didn’t like it? Too naked, too honest, too raw—like Fear of Music the album, Fear of Music the book offers no comfort or solace besides the comfort and solace of forgoing comfort and solace: “I ain’t got time for that now.”

Fear of Music has been my favorite album for thirty years. My favorite song was Heaven, which is about a bar where they play your favorite song, all night long. (How’s that for an infinity loop?) I had never read anything else by Lethem before I read his little book. It did not disappoint, which in itself is about as likely as a party where everyone leaves at exactly the same time. Lethem writes like a building on fire, like he’s flat on his back, with no regrets, like he’s a little freaked out, like he’s charged up, like he’s got it figured out, like he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, like there’s a party in his mind, like he’s inside a dry ice factory.

It’s a good place. He gets his thinking done.

This is the book I read.

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10 thoughts on “The Book I Read: Jonathan Lethem’s Infinity Loop

    • Towards the end of Reality Hunger (thanks for the rec!), David Shields writes “No one else gets what you’re doing; I alone get it. You and me, babe. Intimacy. Urgency. We alone get life. Let me tell you what your book is about. Life is shit. We are shit. This, alone, will save us – this communication.”

      Thanks for taking the time to connect Jonathan.

  1. A most extraordinary review. That is if two hypes don’t make negative once posiitve the opposite? No, I just had to say that regardless the consequence revealing, let’s see now, which way to take this serious but absurdity considering we decide what is our dignity in the first place. Know what I mean? I can only imagine this album. I must of course tuneup to it. That is if this whole thing isn’t a sort of fiction. I apologize. I am on the wrong page.

  2. It’s cool to see Lethem drop by and acknowledge your review.

    I always had an itch to read Motherless Brooklyn while peeping at the previews on amazon. I’ll eventually get to it someday.

    “he’s exploring the strange liminal zone between his own psyche and a rock album that got so deep under his skin (like Byrne’s air) that it had a hand in forming it (his psyche).”

    I find these types of explorations fascinating as I like to cross-reference myself on things that had influence my thinking or style in the past. But how would this translate to someone who never has experience that era nor ever been a fan of the band’s music?

    • In this case, I don’t know why they’d read the book, unless they were fannishly devoted to Lethem.

      Also, it;s very rare that someone examines this from the inside – the way pop culture shapes us – it’s taken me 30 years to really start to. Like any other ideology, we unconsciously assume it’s just “the way things are” – the illusion of values depends on an unconscious agreement not to examine them.

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