Jonathon Lethem “Disappointment Artist”


Originally published in the Portland Mercury, May 2005.

At age 13, during the summer his mother was dying of cancer, Jonathan Lethem watched Star Wars 21 times. Later, he dropped out of college and hitchhiked to California to become an envelope-licker for the Philip K. Dick appreciation society. In his essay collection, Disappointment Artist, Lethem foregrounds items like Cassavetes, Marvel Comics, and John Wayne’s The Searchers and then illuminates them with both a studied critique and his personal experiences with them.

Lethem doesn’t depict his pop-cultural obsessive tendencies kindly, such as smoking a joint alone before a campus film society screening wearing his black-rimmed glasses to intentionally appear “nerdishly remote and intense.” The creative icons he worships, Kafka, Kubrick and Eno, are those who aren’t afraid to make their audience uncomfortable. With descriptions of self-imposed isolation through media, Disappointment Artist can provoke a similar uneasiness.

These essays seem like the research on which Lethem built his ambitious and best-selling novel Fortress of Solitude. Those wondering how autobiographical Lethem’s fiction is and curious about his writing process will find their answers here, but these essays also stand on their own and represent an unusual approach; call it “confessional cultural criticism.”

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