Artists Of The Year

From escapist entertainment to aesthetic ecstasy: Twenty-nine writers script valentines to twelve months of culture

Curb Your Enthusiasm is the pettiest, most mundane half-hour of nothingness on television, which might be why it's the funniest. Playing himself, a rich guy who hangs out with his manager and runs a lot of super-dumb errands, David is a bald, gum-chewing narcissist who is ethically jinxed. Even when he tries to do good--especially when he tries to do good--only badness follows. He buys his manager's mother sunglasses for her birthday, and feels her up accidentally as he hands her the present. He offers to write his wife's aunt's eulogy, but ends up hated by his in-laws when the paper misprints the a in aunt as a c. (No one knows why the aunt committed suicide. Cracks David: "Would it have killed her to leave a note?")

David is harsh and grouchy Brooklyn plopped into friendly, low-key L.A. After his wife (the winning Cheryl Hines) organizes a dinner party that David deems "the Young Republicans Club" because one guest says grace before the meal, he informs her, "Next time you do one of these things, I want some Jews." For David, hell is other people, and the feeling's mutual. Because he always says the wrong thing or does the wrong thing, he's in a constant state of crisis cleanup that gives the show a thrilling air of anarchy, not to mention a sense of mission. Kind of like The Fugitive, but without the heart.

Sarah Vowell is the Chicago-based author ofTake the Cannoli: Stories from the New World.

 

JONATHAN LETHEM
by Bart Schneider

 

Much as I'd like to accommodate the wise-guy City Pages editor who wondered if I'd actually come up with another old or "expired" man to go with my Artist of the Year choices from years past, I feel obliged this year to hail the young Brooklyn writer Jonathan Lethem. Author of the early novels Gun, With Occasional Music, Amnesia Moon, As She Climbed Across the Table, and Girl in Landscape, Lethem hit the jackpot with his most recent novel, Motherless Brooklyn, which won this year's National Book Critics Circle award for fiction.

Billed as a story about a detective with Tourette's syndrome, Motherless Brooklyn might more accurately be considered as a portrait of an extraordinary Tourettic character who happens to do a little detective work. Lethem's character, the orphan Lionel Essrog, a product of the St. Vincent Home for Boys, becomes a connoisseur of the ticced language he hears in his head and tries not to utter aloud. Lionel's skill at coughing to cover his most frequent spoken tic--"Eat me, Bailey"--is prodigious.

In the course of investigating a murder, the novel becomes, among other things, a gorgeous verbal escapade, an ode to language and the imagination. Check out this verbal sequence that starts with nothing more provocative than the character's own name: "Lionel Essrog. Line-all. Liable Guesscog. Final Escrow. Ironic Pissclam. And so on. My own name was the original verbal taffy, by now stretched to the filament-thin threads that lay all over the floor of my echo-chamber skull. Slack, the flavor all chewed out of it."

Lethem goes on to describe the entire city of New York as a Tourettic landscape, with its repetitive streams of yellow cabs and its millions of creatures of habit. The author's most amazing achievement is to make his freakish character--his tough associates call him freakshow--so much like us in our desire to fit in and to be loved, that we feel as if we've discovered a fresh version of ourselves with slightly different symptoms.

Between novels, Lethem has just edited a fine, quirky volume, The Vintage Book of Amnesia--An Anthology of Writing on the Subject of Memory Loss. Keep your eye out for Jonathan Lethem: He's sure to soon find a malady near you.

Bart Schneider is the St. Paul-based author of the novelBlue Bossa. His new novel,Secret Love, will be published in March.

 

MICHAEL CHABON
by Jesse Berrett

 

The more culture I consume, the more I find myself attracted not to self-advertised big pleasures but to grace notes--artistic sensibilities that blend wryness and generosity, self-knowledge and a determination to wring something worthwhile out of this hard old world. Mindless negativism I can mainline from Fred Durst, the informed variety from Philip Roth. The trick for me is to find someone whose vision I both trust and learn from: How do you keep your heart open these days, when surrounding you stretch acres of coercive trash?

Michael Chabon taught me a lot this year. His big book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay revisited childish pleasures without stooping: I relived that flush of young love for Spider-Man and Ghost Rider, recalling my own hapless, scribbled attempts to render titanic arms and shoulders with the offhand fluidity the Famous Comic Artists promised could be attained--In Only Minutes!!! And you can't help but appreciate the sly way Chabon simultaneously grants the truth of attacks by scandalmonger Dr. Frederic Wertham, who charged that Fifties comic books incubated homosexuality, perversion, and fascism, and finds the unarticulated desire beneath those printed sheets. But Kavalier & Clay tossed me a tad too much undigested research, and a bit too schematic a design to represent the transporting experience I'd hoped for.

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