‘The sound of a writer coming to take himself seriously’ – The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem

350 or so pages into The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan Lethem’s second collection of nonfiction, immediately prior to a short section devoted to Lethem’s articles on other writers, he writes:

‘Once I’d written a few book reviews and literary introductions that I thought stood up as essays, and liking collections of these things by other writers, I started to imagine a collection of my own.’

However, once he’d written the essay that gives this book its title, which was published in Harper’s in 2007, he ‘began planning this more centrifugal book instead’. A centrifuge is just about the only way to describe The Ecstasy of Influence. Imagine ten test tubes, each of which contain something Lethem has an interest in – be it books, films, comics, art, the job of being a writer, pop culture – spinning until blurred, separating out aspects of particular fascination into short articles and oddities that have for the most part appeared in magazines, journals and online watering holes over the course of the last fifteen or so years. If, like me, you consider yourself a fan of Lethem, you’ll undoubtedly find this sturdy, thought-provoking collection the proverbial manna from Heaven.

Arranged (semi) chronologically, the pieces follow Lethem from book store clerk and literary bridesmaid (he went to college with Donna Tartt and Bret Easton Ellis and watched their always on the cards ascent from afar) through success in the wake of Fortress of Solitude to what he is today, a successful American novelist (though possibly not amongst the first guard of Chabon-Eugenides-Moody-insert whoever you want to carve on Rushmore here and then read Lethem’s great article ‘Rushmore versus abundance’, which expresses a sentiment I wholly agree with even as I wonder if it’s a sentiment you would only express if you were not quite as popular and successful as you’d like to be).

Were you to begin with the eponymous essay, you’d find a genuinely interesting, provocative piece on the sharing of ideas, the gist of which – if a gist can be given in a line – is, ‘Don’t pirate my editions; do plunder my visions.’ This essay gives way to a number of pieces that exist in the same milieu as David Shields’ Reality Hunger. ‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’, a piece of fiction subtitled ‘A Mashup’, inhabits the same territory as the short story ‘Access Fantasy’, a story Lethem obviously liked so much he included it in both of his short story collections, The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye and Men & Cartoons (traffic jams are big in Lethem). There are other short pieces of fiction contained herein, some of them – such as ‘Ad Man’ and ‘Walking the Moons’ – embedded within articles. Curiously, they feel like a distraction from the journalism.

So. You have Lethem writing about Lethem (or ‘Lethem’), the writer, the thinker, the intellectual. This isn’t as pompous as it sounds. At the very close of the book, he writes:

‘The truth is, nothing about what I do qualifies me to weigh in on this and that, and it is probably only dangerous that my practiced employment of the tool of language makes my personal opinions decant from my brain so readily.’

He’s a fan, he tells us, and it’s as a fan, of both Lethem and a great many of the things that Lethem is a fan of that the book stands or falls if you are a reader. (If you’ve read The Disappointment Artist, his previous collection, you’ll already have the scent of what to expect in your nose, but it’s a scent caught on a wind blown from the next mountain over – The Ecstasy of Influence is a whole different ballgame from The Disappointment Artist – but we’ll get to that in a moment). Lethem writing about bookstore clerks’ air of superiority, Roberto Bolano’s 2666, dancing, Marlon Brando, GK Chesterton, the first Spiderman film – all of these things makes for a great read. At the outer edges of the centrifuge, there are pieces that you possibly wouldn’t expect to see, such as Lethem’s interviews with Bob Dylan and James Brown, both of which are fascinating in their own way, even if Lethem is tremendously self-deprecating about his writing on music (he isn’t Greil Marcus, we forgive him). Conversely, there are also articles, a handful, in which the arguments are either too involved (see ‘White Elephant and Termite Postures in the Life of the Twenty-first Century Novelist’), too particular (as much as I’ve read, a few of the book articles concern authors I’ve never heard of before) or too short to make themselves felt amidst the cacophony of the book (sorry ‘an orchestra of light that was electric’).

Lethem apparently wanted to call this collection Advertisements for Norman Mailer, in homage to Mailer’s own Advertisements for Myself. What the book does signal, I think, is Jonathan Lethem moving into a different mode. The Ecstasy of Influence is the sound of a writer coming to take himself seriously, which is no bad thing, especially when that writer isn’t afraid to turning his gimlet eye on himself. Perhaps best of all, no review of The Ecstasy of Influence I’ve read (and, of course, I include this one, let the fish swallow its tail) has done justice to the cornucopia it is. It is easy, in collections such as this, for the author to find themselves blinded to their strengths and weaknesses (Lethem admits in the introduction to the book that there were great pieces he left out and weaker pieces he included because they fit). Rare indeed is the collection that makes a virtue of that commingling of strength and weakness. Lethem’s next book is set to be a novel, Dissident Gardens, that seems, from the scant I’ve managed to dig up about it, to return to the autobiographical grounding of The Fortress of Solitude . On the strength of his last novel Chronic City, I would have been queuing up to read it on the day of publication. On the strength of The Ecstasy of Influence, I’m going to start bugging his new publishers for a proof just as soon as I post this review…

Any Cop?: The sound of Lethem successfully staking his claim as one of the big boys (even as he self-deprecatingly attempts to distance himself from them). Now if he’d only add his terrific comic Omega the Unknown to his list of books…

Peter Wild

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