Wednesday, May 31, 2017
Lonesome Lies Before Us by Don Lee
Don Lee’s novels have always resonated with me and towards the end of his latest, I began to understand why. Lee is resolutely plebeian in his writing: he gives his characters, no matter how wealthy or learned, no place to hide from our judgments of them. The business of living is messy, he seems to say, though some might look like they have an easier time of it, it ain’t necessarily so.
Lee also isn’t snooty about genre: there is a touch of romance hidden within the complexities of the married lives he delivers in Lonesome. People aren’t settled, despite their legal status. The intensely personal and minutely calibrated nature of the characters, however, elevate his art above the ordinary. Reading his work is just fun.
One of the things that Lee does exceptionally well in all his books is give us an idea of what exactly people do in their jobs, and what makes each job an opportunity for creativity and excellence. While many authors might hint at hidden depths, say, in cleaning a celebrity’s suite in a five-star hotel or in laying wall-to-wall carpet in a decaying hovel, Lee takes the worker’s eye view and relishes in explanations of how it can be done elegantly. It’s interesting. Readers develop understandings and sympathies where before there were none. (The government should hire Lee to analyze labor equivalencies in the workplace. We would come out with a far flatter and more just wage structure than we have today.)
At heart, this novel is about the creative process and the winding path each person’s dreams take as their lives progress. Yadin was a musician ever since he can remember, writing songs, both lyrics and tunes, that people want to hear. He sang, too, but experienced such severe stage fright that it began to take a toll on his health. He had to quit touring, and his life narrowed to a pinpoint of casual work & sleep as he tried to cope with his illness. One day, chancing one day upon a few lines of spoken poetry, his capacity for song is awoken again.
Poetry and song: the parallels are many. Those readers who relish language will love Lee’s focus on the way words work to draw us in, to inspire and delight us. In addition, there is something terribly exciting and beautiful about capturing the process of creation. Moments of creative flow described on the page are exhilarating for what similarities they bear to one's own experience. We don’t tire reading of someone who has managed to cobble together something unique from scraps; conversely we yearn for more.
Yadin’s mind was busy with “a thread of melody noodling inside his head” as he lay carpet; he would stop to call his landline and leave a message of the tune so he wouldn’t forget. Later, a few words and phrases burbled up from his subconscious which he’d capture on a piece of masking tape with his Sharpie.
Life is complex, and Lee relishes that complexity, carefully unpicking the tangled threads that got us from happy days of infatuation to a limping marriage, paradoxically featuring both not enough sex and too many children. His characters are irredeemably flawed, all of them, though they are talented enough that others may look to them to lead the way. Their failures are heartbreaking, and are perhaps as much like us individually as any characters in any book.
If I have any criticism of this novel, it is Lee’s two strong female characters. Each is carefully drawn and multi-dimensional, Jeanette being Yadin’s long-time companion and the daughter of his boss. The slow reveal of her character’s history is fascinating in its surprises but one has the sense at the end that here is a woman struggling to free herself from a constricting web of her own making. I personally thought she was capable enough (at her age) to have made a more proactive choice than the one Lee chose for her. In the end, she was not an appealing partner for Yadin.
Mallory, the celebrity folksinger, is familiar to the extent that we feel we may have met her before—her type, certainly. Mallory wanted authenticity in her art and had to settle for less to get by, but she was always looking for that real experience again. She had most of what she needed most of the time, but she was aging out of the business of love songs. Lee may have made her harder, less sympathetic, and less vulnerable than strictly necessary. I bought it all until the end when I thought she would have (at her age) made a different choice.
This novel of sophisticated adult dilemmas gives us confused folks who make one choice as young adults and different choices in the fullness of years. Yadin was completely sure, in his later years, what he wanted. Lee did not tie his novel up neatly but showed us the messy lives of people making choices we don't like. If aspects of this novel had romance-genre undertones, the overtones were richer and deeper and far more complex.
Another GR reviewer made the terrific suggestion that this novel would make a great indie film, and he is completely right. In the hands of the right actors, this is a star-making vehicle. All that unrequited or misdirected love can play out as music.
An interview with Don Lee by Terry Hong on the Bookslut blog shows us how Lee agonizes over the publication process of novel-writing, a phenomenon which is examined more closely in this novel when Yadin writes a couple songs and then agonizes over their method of release. Paste Quarterly has a book trailer featuring an exclusive Will Johnson track of the title song.
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