Book review: ‘The Ecstasy of Influence,’ essays by Jonathan Lethem

The Ecstasy of Influence

Nonfictions, etc.

Jonathan Lethem

Doubleday: 438 pp., $27.95


Like Norman Mailer’s “Advertisements for Myself,” Jonathan Lethem’s collection of essays and occasional pieces “The Ecstasy of Influence” resists our attempts to fence it in. I mention Mailer because Lethem does, early and often; “Influence is semiconscious,” he writes, four pages in, “not something to delineate too extensively, except when we’ve patterned our latest book on a literary monument of the past, at least a half-century old, by a master with whom we’d never dare compare ourselves, only hope to be ‘worthy.’”

There it is, not only the Mailer reference but also the organizing principle of influence, of how what we read and hear and see, what we experience, becomes the signal substance of who we are.

“We make lists of things we want to remember,” Lethem insists in the book’s closing essay, “and then we lose the lists. My life is a tattered assemblage of abandoned calendars, misplaced agendas, water-damaged address books with names blurred, family trees I’ve never managed to hold coherently in mind, third cousins unrecalled named for third uncles unmet, files of paper I’ve misplaced or never looked into, schoolwork praised by teachers I can’t bring to mind.” More than 400 pages separate that observation from the opening invocation of Mailer, but in the end, both touch on the same point. Here we see the movement of “The Ecstasy of Influence,” which continually circles back upon itself like a literary ouroboros, a snake that eats its own tail.

Did I say I love this book? Well, OK then, I love this book — although, as Lethem admits, it is, perhaps inevitably, flawed. No, not flawed but inconsistent, which is, of course, the whole idea. Lethem makes that clear: “I left things out,” he notes. “There are pieces I liked that didn’t fit, just as some pieces that seemed in themselves pretty weak went in because they did fit. This is that sort of book.” One essay, “Going Under in Wendover” — a remembrance of an ill-conceived summer hitchhiking trip — comes with the admonition, “This next piece irks me.” Two old stories and a stilted critical study (comparing Flann O’Brien’s 1940 novel “The Third Policeman” with the work of Philip K. Dick) highlight the role Dick’s fiction played in framing, or re-framing, Lethem’s inner world.

Were “The Ecstasy of Influence” a traditional collection, none of this would be here, but that’s also part of the point — that it is less of a collection than a collage, a cut-and-paste self-portrait in which we see Lethem as he sees himself. On the one hand, that’s a neat solution to the problem of a project like this, which might otherwise seem vestigial, less essential than the author’s “real” (read: more constructed) work. But even more, it offers Lethem a way to bring a novelist’s sensibility to these essays, to find a through line, to approximate a narrative. It offers a way, in other words, to rethink the collection as a book in its own right — and not just that, but a book about a big idea.

That big idea emerges most directly in the title essay, originally published in Harper’s in 2007; you might call it the excuse for the book. An extended meditation on the role of plagiarism, or borrowing, in creative culture, it is itself constructed out of passages that have been lifted and massaged from other writers’ work. Depending on your point of view, this is either brilliant or disingenuous (I fall on the side of brilliance), but either way, it does what not just criticism but also literature means to do. At the heart of the essay is the issue of connection, the ongoing conversation we have with art and art has with itself.

For Lethem, this is key: "[C]onsider,” he demands, “the remarkable series of ‘plagiarisms’ that link Ovid’s ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ with Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and Leonard Bernstein’s ‘West Side Story,’ or Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra, copied nearly verbatim from Plutarch’s life of Marc Antony and also later nicked by T.S. Eliot for ‘The Waste Land.’ If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism.”

Or no, not only for Lethem, since, we learn in an endnote, the line has been lifted from Richard Posner, who wrote it in the Atlantic Monthly and on his blog. And yet, Lethem suggests in a short follow-up called “The Afterlife of Ecstasy,” this is the ecstasy of influence, since after Posner’s ideas have been assimilated the line between him and Lethem blurs. “I’d said it all,” Lethem explains, “except what might matter most: that I felt influence, and thrilled to it, with my body, and did so before I knew it had a name.”

The challenge is how to make it hang together, how to keep us invested in this “impossible book.” For his part, Lethem encourages skipping around, employing Manny Farber’s formulation of “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” suggesting that we burrow deeply, making our own termite holes through the work. Still, of the 80 pieces here, there’s not much I would do without. Maybe some of the Brooklyn stuff, and there’s too much about music probably — or maybe it’s just his lengthy 2005 profile of James Brown, which doesn’t connect to the main thesis of the book as much as I wished it did.

Still, without the piece on Brown, we would lack the context for its counterpoint, a two-page riff on the late Jim Carroll and his song “People Who Died,” which Lethem discovered in 1980 as a 16-year-old who was “unpersuasively cool.” Carroll, after all, is the anti-Brown and an avatar of the very back-and-forth Lethem means to trace here: a Beat-influenced poet-turned-punk rocker, whose song was an homage to the Ted Berrigan poem of the same name. Not only that, but he pushes Lethem to one of his most stirring declarations and another argument for including everything: “Punk — or pop, or life — isn’t always about keeping the promises you make, but daring to make them in the first place.”

In that sense, perhaps a closer analogue for “The Ecstasy of Influence” is not “Advertisements for Myself” but a later Mailer collection, “The Time of Our Time,” a career-spanning grab-bag published in 1998 to mark its author’s 75th birthday and the 50th anniversary of “The Naked and the Dead.” Only Mailer would claim, as he did there, to have “had the good fortune to be able to write about my time as if it were our time”; who else would see history as a reflection of himself rather than the other way around?

Yet more to the point is the intention to put everything in, the significant and the inconsequential, because it all feeds back to the same essential core. If Lethem’s purpose is somewhat different — “There’s something embarrassing about knowing what you know, after a while,” he writes late in the book, a line I can’t imagine Mailer understanding — it’s also equally self-revealing: to wear its influences giddily, gloriously, on its sleeve. “This whole story really is a naked egalitarian dream, isn’t it?” he asks in “The Fly in the Ointment, and the answer is yes.