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

The novelist riffs on human nature, how his mind works, plagiarism and more in a terrific, eclectic collection.

November 06, 2011|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Novelist Jonathan Lethem.
Novelist Jonathan Lethem. (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

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."

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