DECEMBER 1, 2011
JONATHAN LETHEM’S The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. is a one-man omnibus, and you’re either on it or you’re not.
A shotgun blast of multitentacled musings, it splatters the author’s obsessions across the cultural landscape in a kind of frenzied bookworm exuberance. There are dozens of essays. Essays on science fiction conventions and John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (as it relates to postmodernism). On actor Donald Sutherland’s buttocks (as they relate to the author’s sexuality), teenage boys, nude models, and Lethem’s mixed feelings about his success. On the urgent need to take a shit while on book tour and the “eternal intertextuality of cultural participation.” There are previously published reviews and rambles on 9/11, James Brown, Bob Dylan, death scenes in Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Norman Mailer, Spider-Man, and Roberto Bolaño, among others. Lethem even dusts off some of his early short stories, experimental fiction, and poetry.
Unlike a greatest hits collection — such as the Buzzcocks’ Singles Going Steady or The Greatest Hits … So Far!!! by Pink, or even Geoff Dyer’s (albeit excellent) collection of essays Otherwise Known as the Human Condition — Lethem isn’t just dumping a bunch of prepublished material between the covers and calling it a day. He may dabble in “nonfictions,” but at heart he’s a novelist and can’t resist the novelist’s impulse to craft a narrative.
Lethem begins beguilingly enough with a self-deprecating preface that reads as if a charming party host were anxiously trying to justify his interior design scheme while reminding his guests to use coasters when setting drinks on the coffee table:
Let me suggest a couple of organizing patterns not alluded to in my table of contents. A few preliminary termite holes I’ve bored into my edifice, to get you started on your own.
The subsequent collection is bookended by Chapter 1, “My Plan to Begin With,” and the last chapter, “What Remains of My Plan.” I would suggest you read it just like you’d read a novel.
First up are some nostalgia-tinged stories that establish the author’s booknerd bona fides; tales of his youth spent working in used bookstores, his hippie parents, and his brief stint attending college with classmates Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt. These early essays reveal Lethem to be a bit of a hipster — someone whose tastes run counter to the prevailing predilections of the masses — and this manifests itself in his devotion to science fiction and genre. He name checks everyone from J. G. Ballard and Stanislaw Lem, to Barthelme and Borges, to Patricia Highsmith and Charles Willeford. But the writer who packs the biggest wallop, the one who lights the fire under his youthful wannabe-writer ass, is Bay Area icon Philip K. Dick. Obsessed with Dick, Lethem moves to San Francisco.
The author includes a couple of early science fiction stories that he refers to as “juvenilia.” They are not great stories and he knows it; in fact, excellence isn’t the point. The stories give a sense of his beginnings, and to see the hero fail in the early stages of his apprenticeship is standard operating procedure in a classic bildungsroman.
His beginnings established, his influences clearly perched on his sleeve, Lethem begins what I’ll call the second act of the book with a set piece, the title track of the collection, which first appeared in Harper’s in February 2007. At first the essay’s a little perplexing — gone is the energetic swerve and wobble typical of Lethem’s writing — and what you get instead is a meticulous argument both for and against plagiarism, sampling, and the mashup of influences. It’s a dry read, more like a thoughtfully researched grad school thesis on copyright than something you’d expect to be the centerpiece of a collection. And then, just when I was beginning to nod off, a naked lady jumps out of a cake. What Lethem does is such a surprise, a wonder really, that a party breaks out. Guests arrive. Cocktails are served. If the essay passed you by the first time, you’re in for a treat; suffice to say the relative dryness of the essay is the setup, and the punch line is so good I re-read the boring part.
In the piece that follows — an essay about that essay — he explains: “Artists are among other things mischievous, and we should try to remember that we wish them to be.”
In the middle of the book Lethem offers an intermission, a “merciful break, for a section or two, from self-advertisements, and from the claustrophobia of a novelist worrying about novels.”
The respite is fine — some of the pieces are quite funny — if you like comic books. I like comics and graphic novels as much as the next guy, but I can’t help but wonder, is there anything more unsexy than an acclaimed novelist writing about superheroes? Aren’t the Superman, Spider-Man, Batman franchises kind of like those tight white Fruit of the Loom briefs we wore when we were kids? They were fine at the time but now they seem constrictive, the elastic shot, radiating an unhygienic aura. I just don’t see why an adult man would wear them.
From here, Lethem resumes exploring the world outside his preoccupation with comics and SF. He looks at films, music, cellphones, New York after 9/11, sex, art, advertising, his mother and father, and politics, and he generously spikes the mix with experimental fictions and loopy reveries. The essays and stories resonate and bounce off each other; fictional obsessions become personal histories, nonfictions connect to fictions that loop joyously back to the obsessions.
One of his more compelling obsessions is with the cognitive dissonance he feels about his literary success. He divides the world into two distinct groups, the “white elephants” and the “termites” (the distinction comes from a 1962 essay by film critic Manny Farber), and Lethem has one foot planted firmly in each camp: that of the pretentious, successful, white elephant torchbearers of high culture (in literature, examples would include Updike, Roth, DeLillo, Franzen, and sometimes Lethem) and that of termite art, where, Farber writes:
The spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence, so that the craftsmen can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it.
Termite writers are multitudinous, but some examples might include Raymond Chandler, Kathy Acker, Burroughs, Highsmith, R. Crumb, Anne Enright, Bolaño, Patrick deWitt, and, bringing it full circle, Philip K. Dick. Lethem wants to be a termite, and, truth be told, he probably is, but his commercial and critical success have thrust him into the role of semireluctant elephant. He’s suffering from a kind of survivor’s guilt.
This book is loaded with evidence of what termite moves you can still try to bust in an elephant suit. The sad fact is that a perfectly natural gesture of termitic appetite, like writing song lyrics for your friends in rock bands, may, coming from the perceived-elephant quadrant, resemble a gallery exhibition of Sylvester Stallone’s oil paintings.
And that’s the novelistic denouement: The Ecstasy of Influence is a termite book.
By creating a chronicle of the enthusiasms and influences that ultimately shape his world as a writer, Lethem has somehow managed to pull off an accidental autobiography, a profoundly personal memoir-between-the-lines that makes for a fiercely compelling and engaging portrait of the artist as a complete nerd.