[10 November 2011]
I don’t know if Michael Chabon or Jonathan Lethem is my favorite contemporary American writer, any more than I know if Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay or Fortress of Solitude is my favorite contemporary American novel. A new collection of belles-lettres may sway me decisively toward Lethem.
But you don’t care, really, who my favorite novelist is. If you loved Motherless Brooklyn and found it revelatory or read the essay collection The Disappointment Artist, however, you give more than one damn about what turned Lethem from a kid from Brooklyn into a poet of modern marginalized art, interlocutor and celebrator of comic books, Star Wars and Phillip K. Dick.
Part of the answer, as several of these occasional pieces make clear, has to do with, well, being a kid from Brooklyn. But it also has to do with the ecstatic experiences of reading, the burrowing down deep into the interstices between genre fiction, great literature, film. And then bridging what appears to be deep chasms with the inexpressible yearnings that form most of our interactions with the world and the startling Others who inhabit it.
Lethem shows in one essay that it has to do with understanding why bookshops (or what we now call “the independent bookstore”) are worlds of impossible wonder; places whose basements might contain hidden treasures of forgotten word-hoards. It’s also maybe about being able to be the poet of Spider-Man and explain in a short essay, everything from the racial politics of the web-slinger to why films try too hard to adapt comic characters.
Lethem’s new collection, The Ecstasy of Influence, includes discussions of all of these ideas, not to mention an essay on what the film The Man who Shot Liberty Valance tells us about postmodernism and another that becomes extended meditation on James Brown. His title plays, of course, with Harold Bloom’s much-discussed notion of “the anxiety of influence.”. Lethem’s take on the question is plain in what he chooses to write about. The poets within the poets are not simple custodians of artistic integrity—they are bacchanalian daemons and Lethem lets them loose to play.
Divided in ten sections, this is a book with more heft than Disappointment Artist and with some essays certain to become as classic as in his essay, “13, 1977, 21” where he explains all the reasons that he, and maybe his whole generation, felt compelled to go and see Star Wars 21 times. And be prepared if you know his essays primarily from the hundred and something page book Disappointment Artist. Ecstasy of Influence is a pretty massive tome, especially for an essay collection. It’s the product, Lethem admits, of a suddenly successful writer who didn’t know how not to say yes to everything for ten years. But what an amazing ten years of material.
Start anywhere. Like all good essay collections, you can meander off the path. The author even gives you a few suggestions about sections you might like and sections you might not. Many of us will rush straight to Lethem’s interview with Dylan or to read his reflections on Shirley Jackson or re-read his powerful New York Times piece on why America became obsessed with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight in the midst of the War on Terror.
I would urge you not to skip too quickly the sections that don’t offer the promise of exploring your favorite pop culture obsession. Lethem opens with “My Plan to Begin With” which is both a reflection on what he wanted his book to be and what he wanted his life to be through a series of remembrances of his experiences as clerk in various bookshops.
And, whatever you do, don’t skip his short pieces on 9/11. Lethem manages in these to avoid both the easy moralisms and the gibbering uncertainties of that period, an amazing accomplishment since some of these were born in the immediate aftermath of the event. They express anxiety and relinquish all efforts to make sense of things through geopolitics and sentimentalism. And yet, they don’t declare the end of irony, the end of trying to make sense of a complex world, the end of the need to be the voice that speaks clearly amid a dull roar.
While Lethem avoids moralism, some readers (maybe not many, by now) will be surprised to learn he is a serious moralist and writes seriously about race, economic equality and the “War on Terror”. He would hate the phrase “serious moralist” and respond to being denominated as such with a fairly complex joke at my expense. This does nothing to quench the fire that comes out of his essay on Norman Mailer and why American culture decided to turn him into a joke and stop listening. Or how his discussion of subway graffiti gives voice both to marginalized art and to marginalized people. Or how his writings in the very immediate aftermath of 9/11 manage to demand that, as we crawled into our fetal balls of terror or up onto our soapbox of equal terror, we find some way, for God’s sake, to be human and to think.
Obviously there is much to love here and very little to disparage. There are times when the author drags us a bit far down into his own rabbit holes, both of language and of his own thought experiments. I say stay with him and you will find a new world opened up for you.
In one of my favorite essays, Lethem describes his writing process. He makes no outlines, no systematic notes that he uses to guide his characters through orphaned boroughs and hiding places for superheroes. He instead reads, reads a lot, and keeps a notebook where he tries to “accumulate shards of utterances, like a ransom note or an earl punk rock flyer.” He glues things, makes a kind of scrapbook. The books he gives us are a product of his reading and his friendships with books.
And this is the greatest thing about Ecstasy of Influence in the end. The author invites us to the ecstasy of intertextuality, to the intertwining of thousands of words with our selves. The guys a great writer but the guy’s also a great reader. Follow him down.