Jonathan LETHEM’S hefty and remarkable new miscellany, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” is his fifth book since his best-selling breakthrough of 2003, the hefty and remarkable bildungsroman “Fortress of Solitude.” It follows the fanciful story collection “Men and Cartoons” (2004), the memoiristic criticism collection “The Disappointment Artist” (2005), the rock novel “You Don’t Love Me Yet” (2007), and the, well, hefty Manhattan novel “Chronic City” (2009). There have also been side projects, including “They Live,” a book-length critical essay about the John Carpenter film, and “Believeniks,” a pseudonymous collaboration about the 2005 Mets. And that’s not counting the five ’90s novels (and two story collections). The man writes a lot.
“The Ecstasy of Influence” reminds us that he also reads a lot. As those movie and baseball projects indicate (and by the way, a Talking Heads monograph is due shortly), Lethem is not strictly a literary man. Even when he sticks to literature he’s not strictly a literary man. He championed the canonization of Philip K. Dick, and is given to mixing genre fiction, particularly science fiction, into putatively belletristic projects. His extraliterary enthusiasms are all over “The Ecstasy of Influence,” which takes its name from a notorious defense of open sourcing that Lethem constructed from other people’s work and published in Harper’s. The new book includes sections headed “Film and Comics,” “The Mad Brooklynite,” “Wall Art” (his father’s calling) and “Dylan, Brown and Others” (mine). Published just months before James Brown’s death in 2006, Lethem’s Rolling Stone profile stands as the best writing ever about the greatest musician of the post-World War II era.
These byways, all of which make room for eccentric flights as well as proper essays, augment the charm and impact of what Lethem prefers to call an “autobiographical collage,” a phrase he lifts from Vonnegut. This influence seems only natural, for dominating all is Lethem’s prime concern always: the novel. In the preface Lethem discloses that he’d proposed the subtitle “Advertisements for Norman Mailer,” and an essay of that title describes how Mailer’s brawling 1959 miscellany “Advertisements for Myself” enthralled Lethem as a teenager and impresses him as an adult. Mailer’s definition of and claim to greatness as a novelist is a model here. But as a fellow fan of Mailer’s disreputable manifesto, let me point out that Lethem knows more fiction than Mailer did, and pumps his own prowess less.
At 47, Lethem is 11 years older than Mailer was in 1959, so he’s had time to get more reading in. But that’s hardly the biggest advantage of an omnivore who devoured a book a day on the subway in high school and has spent 15 years working in bookstores. While watching “The Searchers” 12 times and immersing himself in Dylan bootlegs, he’s read thousands upon thousands of volumes with but one thing in common, which is that eventually they’ll go out of print. Where Mailer aims to be, if not “president” or some Hemingwayesque “champion,” then at least a “major writer,” Lethem concludes: “I began writing in order to arrive into the company of those whose company meant more to me than any other: the world of the books I’d found on shelves and begun to assemble on my own, and the people who’d written them, and the readers who cared as much as I did, if those existed.”
Lethem reports that “The Ecstasy of Influence” comprises a quarter of his uncollected work, with enough literary reviews and introductions left over to make another volume. A good hunk of it has never seen print, and not just the Mailer-style italicized interstitials — crucial stuff like “Advertisements for Norman Mailer” itself; “Zelig of Notoriety,” about his Bennington classmates Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt; “My Disappointment Critic,” his argument with James Wood; and best of all “Rushmore Versus Abundance,” his argument with novelists who want to be president. This argument Lethem frames by extending rhetorical aid to noncanonical writers inside and outside the belletristic drawing room, and (elsewhere in the collection) to the likes of Ernie Kovacs, Stan Lee, Rick James and Drew Barrymore.
He also frames it by conceiving rhetoric itself so permissively. A critical foray I admire as much as any of the straighter essays, for instance, is “The Drew Barrymore Stories,” a two-page trifle knocked off for a glossy biannual in what Lethem designates “a mode I’d call ‘ecstatic,’ ” where Barrymore’s saucy mischief and fondness for chocolate deflect the ill spirits of Alfred Hitchcock, Miles Davis, Howard Hawks, Dustin Hoffman and a hot tub of bitchy novelists. Equally post-essayistic is a diptych made up of “Top-Five Depressed Superheroes” (Ragman, Deadman and others I knew naught of) and a Playboy sketch about Lethem’s own fabrication, the Epiphany, whose archenemy is named Le Petit Mort and whose acolytes are Eureka!, Tour de Force and Non Sequitur. Lethem believes any deviser of nonfictions is ipso facto a fictional creation. In these two pieces, that creation reads like Robert Benchley’s favorite grandson giving art snobs what for.Continue reading the main story
All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. . . .—John Donne
love and theft
Consider this tale: a cultivated man of middle age looks back on the story of an amour fou, one beginning when, traveling abroad, he takes a room as a lodger. The moment he sees the daughter of the house, he is lost. She is a preteen, whose charms instantly enslave him. Heedless of her age, he becomes intimate with her. In the end she dies, and the narrator — marked by her forever — remains alone. The name of the girl supplies the title of the story: Lolita.
The author of the story I’ve described, Heinz von Lichberg, published his tale of Lolita in 1916, forty years before Vladimir Nabokov’s novel. Lichberg later became a prominent journalist in the Nazi era, and his youthful works faded from view. Did Nabokov, who remained in Berlin until 1937, adopt Lichberg’s tale consciously? Or did the earlier tale exist for Nabokov as a hidden, unacknowledged memory? The history of literature is not without examples of this phenomenon, called cryptomnesia. Another hypothesis is that Nabokov, knowing Lichberg’s tale perfectly well, had set himself to that art of quotation that Thomas Mann, himself a master of it, called “higher cribbing.” Literature has always been a crucible in which familiar themes are continually recast. Little of what we admire in Nabokov’s Lolita is to be found in its predecessor; the former is in no way deducible from the latter. Still: did Nabokov consciously borrow and quote?
“When you live outside the law, you have to eliminate dishonesty.” The line comes from Don Siegel’s 1958 film noir, The Lineup, written by Stirling Silliphant. The film still haunts revival houses, likely thanks to Eli Wallach’s blazing portrayal of a sociopathic hit man and to Siegel’s long, sturdy auteurist career. Yet what were those words worth — to Siegel, or Silliphant, or their audience — in 1958? And again: what was the line worth when Bob Dylan heard it (presumably in some Greenwich Village repertory cinema), cleaned it up a little, and inserted it into “Absolutely Sweet Marie”? What are they worth now, to the culture at large?
Appropriation has always played a key role in Dylan’s music. The songwriter has grabbed not only from a panoply of vintage Hollywood films but from Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza. He also nabbed the title of Eric Lott’s study of minstrelsy for his 2001 album Love and Theft. One imagines Dylan liked the general resonance of the title, in which emotional misdemeanors stalk the sweetness of love, as they do so often in Dylan’s songs. Lott’s title is, of course, itself a riff on Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, which famously identifies the literary motif of the interdependence of a white man and a dark man, like Huck and Jim or Ishmael and Queequeg — a series of nested references to Dylan’s own appropriating, minstrel-boy self. Dylan’s art offers a paradox: while it famously urges us not to look back, it also encodes a knowledge of past sources that might otherwise have little home in contemporary culture, like the Civil War poetry of the Confederate bard Henry Timrod, resuscitated in lyrics on Dylan’s newest record, Modern Times. Dylan’s originality and his appropriations are as one.
The same might be said of all art. I realized this forcefully when one day I went looking for the John Donne passage quoted above. I know the lines, I confess, not from a college course but from the movie version of 84, Charing Cross Road with Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft. I checked out 84, Charing Cross Road from the library in the hope of finding the Donne passage, but it wasn’t in the book. It’s alluded to in the play that was adapted from the book, but it isn’t reprinted. So I rented the movie again, and there was the passage, read in voice-over by Anthony Hopkins but without attribution. Unfortunately, the line was also abridged so that, when I finally turned to the Web, I found myself searching for the line “all mankind is of one volume” instead of “all mankind is of one author, and is one volume.”
My Internet search was initially no more successful than my library search. I had thought that summoning books from the vasty deep was a matter of a few keystrokes, but when I visited the website of the Yale library, I found that most of its books don’t yet exist as computer text. As a last-ditch effort I searched the seemingly more obscure phrase “every chapter must be so translated.” The passage I wanted finally came to me, as it turns out, not as part of a scholarly library collection but simply because someone who loves Donne had posted it on his homepage. The lines I sought were from Meditation 17 in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, which happens to be the most famous thing Donne ever wrote, containing as it does the line “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” My search had led me from a movie to a book to a play to a website and back to a book. Then again, those words may be as famous as they are only because Hemingway lifted them for his book title.
Literature has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time. When I was thirteen I purchased an anthology of Beat writing. Immediately, and to my very great excitement, I discovered one William S. Burroughs, author of something called Naked Lunch, excerpted there in all its coruscating brilliance. Burroughs was then as radical a literary man as the world had to offer. Nothing, in all my experience of literature since, has ever had as strong an effect on my sense of the sheer possibilities of writing. Later, attempting to understand this impact, I discovered that Burroughs had incorporated snippets of other writers’ texts into his work, an action I knew my teachers would have called plagiarism. Some of these borrowings had been lifted from American science fiction of the Forties and Fifties, adding a secondary shock of recognition for me. By then I knew that this “cut-up method,” as Burroughs called it, was central to whatever he thought he was doing, and that he quite literally believed it to be akin to magic. When he wrote about his process, the hairs on my neck stood up, so palpable was the excitement. Burroughs was interrogating the universe with scissors and a paste pot, and the least imitative of authors was no plagiarist at all.
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