Lucinda Hoekke is on the cusp of a lot of things. She's 29. She's just left one crappy low-paid job working in a coffee shop for another answering phones in an art gallery for an installation piece called The Complaint Line. She's in a band, but they've got no name, have never played a gig, and are embarrassed by their own songs. As her on-again, off-again boyfriend Matthew puts it: "I might be suffocating slowly, who knows, it's hard to tell. Like all of us. We're turning thirty and we haven't done anything."
The rest of the group aren't faring any better. Matthew's immersed in a mini-nervous breakdown. Denise works in a porn store for the minimum wage. And the band's alleged genius, songwriter Bedwin, is unable to write lyrics for his songs because he's "having a sort of problem with language".
Into this stymied mess strolls the complainer. At first he's just a voice pouring into Lucinda's ear at The Complaint Line. His complaints are woeful tales of love and his inability to sustain it, told in a series of rambunctious, aphorism-drenched ramblings. His "monster eyes" destroy everything he loves, focusing on the tiny flaw in the love object, at which point he can only suffer from "nostalgia vu" - not longing for something, but longing for longing itself. Lust-struck and inspired, Lucinda scribbles down the complainer's words and surreptitiously delivers them to Bedwin. Slowly the lyrics form songs that turn the band into local heroes and sees the complainer, Carlton Vogelsong, demanding a place onstage with the band in exchange for his unwitting artistic contributions.
Theft, inspiration and plagiarism run through this novel. The complainer makes money by coining slogans for bumper stickers and baseball caps in the band's hometown of LA: "Pour love on the broken places", says one; "All thinking is wishful", declares another. His phrases have what he calls "itchiness" - they stick in the mind, niggling, breeding, becoming popular. Conversely, Bedwin is searching for hidden, discarded, broken, secret bits of text - delving for fragments of advertising and warning signs that appear in Human Desire, the Fritz Lang film he obsessively rewatches - then relentlessly overanalysing them.
Lucinda, meanwhile, is the recipient and deliverer of words, moving into the complainer's flat; working at the artist Falmouth's gallery, mouthing Carl's words over Bedwin's songs. She inspires action and creativity in the people around her - a traditional muse role.
Jonathan Lethem's descriptions have all the "itchiness" of the complainer's phrases. The minor characters are deftly drawn, recognisable to anyone who's ever inhabited a city's arty/ music circle: armpit-sniffing hipsters, pushy wannabe managers, frustrated artist-curators dressed as formally as everyone else is relaxed, voracious indie label managers desperate to sweep fledgling bands into their vicelike grip. Where Lethem falls down is in invoking the alleged genius of the band. He's no Lester Bangs, and phrases such as "chunks of noise", "gaps of feedbacky silence" and "rolling changes" fail to convey the excitement of seeing a great band play for the first, life-altering time. As for the infamous lyrics, lines the quality of "I'm your house GUEST/I can't get no REST/In your guest BED/I'll sleep when I'm DEAD" hardly seem worth getting possessive about.
By the end, it's unclear whether Lethem is chastising or celebrating the frustratedly wannabe-creative lives of his protagonists. If the book is designed as hipster satire, then it's nowhere near savage enough. If it's a homage to the struggling, plagiarising, endlessly inventive artistic underclass, it's too slight for its lofty aims. The book's constant refrain (courtesy of the complainer) is "You can't be deep without a surface". But some things are just surface: sadly, You Don't Love Me Yet appears to be one of them.