Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstasy of Influence

I’ve never invented a drinking game before, but The Ecstasy of Influence unwittingly gave me an idea for a great one.

Here’s what you do: google “Jonathan Lethem + [any cultural topic].” If you find an effusive, multi-thousand-word essay in the results, drink.

And don’t be afraid to get creative. Try out the Robert Altman film McCabe & Mrs. Miller, or the ‘70s Australian pop group the Go-Betweens, or the artist Fred Tomaselli. Try Shirley Jackson, Otis Redding, or Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Try third-tier science-fiction writers. Try forgotten ‘50s TV icon Ernie Kovacs. Try Donald Sutherland’s buttocks.

The point is you’re going to get messed up very quickly. Lethem has written about all of the above, and then some—as he notes, rather staggeringly, in the introduction to this hefty, omnivorous book, The Ecstasy of Influence contains “maybe a quarter” of his total uncollected writings.

Lethem’s unifying principle is that influence is everything. Writers—indeed artists of all stripes—absorb, borrow, pilfer, adapt, remix, and add onto anything they can get their grubby hands on. That’s simply what they do. In fact, he’s been making this point through his fiction for decades; it’s impossible to imagine books like The Fortress of Solitude or Motherless Brooklyn without the comic books, pulp crime novels, and soul records that infuse their every page.

Ecstasy doesn’t so much expand on this principle as spell it out a few dozen times, then dump a metric ton of evidence at the reader’s feet in support. The title essay provides the best nutshell argument: it’s a brilliant, passionate first-person celebration of appropriation in all its forms that is, it turns out, itself a patchwork of other people’s stories and ideas (all properly endnoted, of course). Lethem—or perhaps Harper’s magazine, where it first appeared in 2007—misleadingly subtitles it “A Plagiarism,” but its potency is undeniable, and the world it imagines, where copyright is drastically reimagined and reduced, feels damn near utopian in its possibilities.

The book as a whole is full of pieces of varying quality and polish, and comes sequenced, prefaced, and catalogued to within an inch of its life; as such, it can feel like you’re illicitly snooping through Lethem’s private filing cabinets while he’s out of the room. Some, like his profiles of Bob Dylan and James Brown, illuminate both subject and author alike. Others, like basically the entire section on visual art, do neither. Most fall somewhere in the middle.

Yet that’s not meant as an insult, exactly; rather, it seems to be precisely how Lethem envisioned the book himself. On the very first page he refers to it as “this long test of your patience.” A few pages later, it’s a “bloggish book”—by which I think he means longer and more rashly personal than it needs to be. On some level, it’s an indulgence on Lethem’s part. The interstitial notes constantly refer to his thought process as he imagined compiling such a book. And it’s in one such note that he uses the most accurate adjective of all: “centrifugal.” For Lethem, everything moves outward from the ecstasy of influence.

In a short piece about book tours, Lethem writes, “I’ve been variously flippant, morbid, and no doubt teeth-grindingly sincere on every topic ever pushed my way. The only approach I neglect is to bow out, to ignore a question or scratch an interview; I show up too early and say too much.” What a fascinating statement. Yes, this leads him to compose some of the omnibus’s more sloggish sections, but consider: as a personality trait, what could be more endearing? I’m already a fan of Lethem’s fiction, and picturing him as a helpless super-fan, happily blabbering about the things he loves and never knowing when to pipe down, only makes me like him that much more.

Doubleday, 464 pp, $32, hardcover

(review also appeared in Vue Weekly, March 8, 2012)

  1. modernrambler said: Oh, I picked this up and looked through it at B&N the other day — and it’s true. So very true. Everything under the sun, it seemed.
  2. booksinthekitchen posted this