A Musician Finds His Voice
By DeWitt Henry, Literary Bookmarks Editor
LONESOME LIES BEFORE US: A NOVEL by Don Lee (Norton, 2017). 336pp, $26.95.
Don Lee’s fourth novel is a masterpiece, an anti-romance romance between a once-promising alt-country singer and song-writer and a once-promising photographer, both of whom have given up careers (and the lovers once associated with them) and redirected the standards of their respective arts to the arts of menial, everyday trades for livelihood. Yadin Park, the singer, works at a small rugs sales and installation company. Jeanette Matsuda, the photographer and daughter to Yadin’s boss, works for a luxury resort hotel as a maid. Both live and work in the fictional California coastal town of Rosarita Bay, the locale of many of Lee’s earlier stories in the collection Yellow. Perspectives alternate back and forth from Yadin’s to Jeanette’s. In the course of their stories, they both hide their emotional pasts, which will threaten to undo their relationship. They function in their present lives in postures of limited emotion and invest themselves in small good things.
The book is primarily Yadin’s, however; its title is that of his comeback and farewell album, and each chapter in the novel is named for one of his new songs. The novel’s/album’s title is questioned midway by Mallory Wicks, a singer who has become a star: “I don’t get it…There are lies that are lonesome, and they’re right in front of us?…Or there are people, other people, who made lonesome lies in the past, which still affect everything that’s happening to us now?”
Yadin replies, “No. Lonesomeness, or loneliness, it’s lying before us, laid out ahead of us, in our future, for everyone, no matter what we do” (211). Lee teases us with a familiar meta-fiction, suggesting that his alt-country artist is a stand-in for a mid-list novelist bedeviled by demands of commerce, while trying to protect his artistic integrity.
Elsewhere Yadin speaks for both his music and this novel’s art: “The songs were depressing and desolate, but they somehow gave him solace” (26); music was “the only thing that gave him succor and purpose”; his new songs are “simple, quiet stuff…no frills, just slow, raw songs” (143); “He accepted that he would never be more than a cult favorite. He was fine with being a journeyman” (202). Also, Mallory Wicks’s description of Yadin’s songs provides a fair estimate of the novel: “They tear your heart out….You’re singing as if it’s the last time you’ll ever get the chance…Everything’s tight and focussed” (215), and “These songs will last” (279). Another character tells Yadin that his songs “get a little corny and sentimental…but they give people a few moments of propinquity…closeness. Solace” (299).
One hallmark of Lee’s realism is encyclopedic detail. In our age of internet research, he displays a wide range of exactitude. To create Yadin, a musician, the author needs to “know” about chords and instruments, not to mention the music business and indie and self-release record production, and to provide us with an insider’s intimate feel of expertise, including technical vocabulary. In his author’s note, Lee credits a musician who helped him, as well as books and films he consulted. However, his creative authority extends just as thoroughly to cooking, city management and politics, the rug business, golf, photography, recording equipment, religion (both Catholic and Unitarian), sex, poetry, corporate resort management, professional housekeeping, union organizing, auto repair, policing, loan and credit banking, divorce law, Bay Area and LA locales and logistics, Ménière’s disease, and acne. In all cases—and seemingly in any case imaginable—his tone seems sophisticated and worldly.
Lee’s prose is as rich as Richard Ford’s, modulating plain speech and literary eloquence. And his sense of story is classic. He earns everything, and is generous not only with his primary characters, Yadin, Jeanette, and Mallory Wicks, but also with a large supporting cast: male and female, mid-life and older, rich and poor, educated and not, attractive or not. Foremost are Jeanette’s father, Caroline the librarian (and Gerard Manley Hopkins expert) and her husband Franklin the UU minister. (If race is an issue, as it has been in Lee’s earlier fiction, it is so here by going unmentioned, and being carried instead by other aspects of body image: Yadin’s preoccupation with his acne and homeliness; and Mallory’s with her artificial, marketable glamour.) Along with dramatic dialogue, Lee fluently conveys his main characters’ silent thoughts, not as stream of consciousness necessarily, but as a searching, logical process in colloquial prose that works towards eloquence and clarification.
Yadin and Jeanette conduct their companionate romance without knowing each other’s actual conflicts and complexities. Where Yadin omits telling Jeanette details of his music career, which he says he has given up (she dislikes “his type of music” and she and her father think that “being a musician [is] impractical” ), Jeanette in turn fabricates a story about losing her first love to a car accident and aborting his child. Yadin will later learn from Jeanette’s father that there had been no engagement and that the lover had been a player (284).
The introduction of Mallory Wicks is particularly inspired. We hear of her as a fading movie star and pop singer to be treated with VIP anonymity and individualized service as she visits Jeanette’s resort to play golf. The hotel’s staff is primed. When Jeanette mentions Wicks as gossip to Yadin, he is surprised and says he used to know her. However, he conceals that he and Wicks had started out together in a garage band, been lovers and collaborators, and had reached the point where they were offered a recording contract; but then he had refused to sign and left her, knowing he would hold her back and that they’d lose their “purity.” He has, however, all along continued closely following her career; he’s also, in secret, begun writing again and has self-recorded songs for a new album. While Jeanette is away on a family errand, he reunites with Wicks at the resort (an encounter that Jeanette will learn about later from a fellow worker and others). Wicks insists on hearing the new songs, and more provoking complications ensue, inseparable from the substance of Lee’s characters. Plot pushes them to life ultimatums. Will Yadin choose marriage with Jeanette or Wicks? Will he follow the idea of public art? Will Jeanette respect and trust Yadin’s need for music or feel threatened by his talent and success? Lee keeps us in meaningful suspense until the surprising and satisfying ending.
Spirituality plays a key role for Yadin. His hearing loss and retreat from music have brought him to a crisis of faith in Chapter Five (107). Jeanette has invited him to a new UU church, where he sings in the choir and comes to know the minister’s wife, Caroline, the librarian and Hopkins scholar, who recognizes his search “for the transcendent, the numinous, the ecstatic,” and helps him to find it in Hopkins’s poems. But it is not until he plumbs perhaps his deepest sorrow—the loss of his younger brother Davey to aplastic anemia as a boy—and imagines the full life Davey might have had that “[he] thought he had found a connection to the numinous. There was a movement within him toward what could be called grace….He started writing. This would be his last album, a valediction” (208).
This is high-stakes, adventurous storytelling. And whether we call it “alt-fiction” or not, Lee’s novel belongs in a class with those of Yates, Salter, and Ford. Surely, it won’t be his last!
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