We place on pedestals great American novelists and great American critics, especially the straight white guys, but we don’t usually see American novelists acting as critics without losing their writerliness. In THE ECSTASY OF INFLUENCE, Jonathan Lethem blends his novelist’s knack for sentences and vision with his critical eye, fan geekery and sheer love of all media, from drawing to science fiction to music. With new and selected works expertly disguised as a brand-new, planned-out series of linked essays, Lethem brings to light how all forms of art speak to each other by telling us in beautiful prose how they speak to him.
"With new and selected works expertly disguised as a brand-new, planned-out series of linked essays, Lethem brings to light how all forms of art speak to each other by telling us in beautiful prose how they speak to him."
I have never read any of Lethem’s novels, but I knew from the synopsis alone that I would love this book. I was not mistaken. Like an American Nick Hornby, Lethem makes no apologies (and rightly so) for his love of both highbrow and lowbrow art forms, riffing and musing on comic books, Bob Dylan, Bennington, Joan Didion and Shirley Jackson. Culled from just about everywhere, the essays of THE ECSTASY OF INFLUENCE reveal how art and the creative process are fluid, dependent on past and co-occurring works, memories, conversations and rereadings. We see how writers must make their living, not just from lofty novel pursuits but from seemingly simple paid assignments like introductions to the collected works of other authors and single, one-off essays for The Believer orGranta. This is where we learn how, why and through what processes Lethem writes, from explicit and implicit statements of adoration, confusion and frustration in reading other writers, knowing people, or viewing art. His influences range from Italo Calvino to Philip K. Dick, figure drawing circles to art galleries, superheroes to neighbors.
The collection itself is a bit meta, organized thematically rather than chronologically, and interrupted by italicized asides of the circumstances under which certain pieces were written, the impetus for creating a section, or unpublished essays that respond to the ones preceding them. It’s a book about the creative process that is itself the creative process.
Beginning with his younger life in “snotty bookstore-clerkland,” Lethem proceeds through stages of author worship, contemporary art viewing, Rolling Stone interviewing, and introduction-to-other-people’s-books writing. The title essay, beginning the third section, “Plagiarisms,” puts to rest any argument that great writers are totally original by making you think that maybe originality isn’t so much about what new things you use as it is about how you use old things. Section nine, “The Mad Brooklynite,” gets slightly surreal and hipstery, a fitting approach for a section named for that part of New York that either creates, houses, kidnaps, or attracts writers in this epoch. The first section, “My Plan to Begin With,” should remind you that writers are just as narcissistic and human as the rest of us mortals, but also make you crave the romantic, bygone era of writers as bohemians who hitchhike and drop out of college to work as pretentious bookstore cashiers. In most sections, too, is the etcetera --- shorter fiction, both published and unpublished, and nebulous, surrealist works that don’t fall neatly into any one category.
Writers, from those who publish prolifically to those who are too busy being inspired and excited to do much more than plan and begin drafting, will feel validated and in good company when they read this book. Fans of Lethem’s novels might either appreciate getting to know him better, or shy away from de-romanticizing and moving him from ethereal author space to real person land. Certainly those who love pop and high culture, or intellectual magazines, will want to read it.
Who needs a memoir or autobiography of an author when you have this book? And who needs to read a novelist’s “major works” when you have a book that gets you deeper into his head? THE ECSTASY OF INFLUENCE is not only an entertaining read for anyone who might enjoy snark, critical analysis, nostalgia, reviews and interviews, it also serves as a sort of biography through ephemera. I’ll have to get back to you after I’ve read his novels, but the Lethem in this collection is certainly someone I’d like to befriend. And worship.
Reviewed by Sarah Hannah Gómez on November 23, 2011