(Jonathan Cape, £20 stg, H/B)
Jonathan Lethem is a 48-year-old American novelist and short story writer, who began his career mixing the science fiction and detective genres, and has latterly achieved more mainstream success with novels such as Motherless Brooklyn (1999), The Fortress of Solitude (2003), You Don't Love Me Yet (2007) and Chronic City (2009). The Ecstasy of Influence is a collection of his essays, journalism and reviews. However, unlike many books of this kind, it is not just a ragbag thrown together when a writer’s cuttings drawer gets too full, but also sporadically follows the trajectory of an argument about contemporary life and culture, even if the main cohesive force or binding agent is the author’s sensibility itself.
He sets out his stall in the Preface: ‘This preface, the title essay, and several of the newer ones (“Against ‘Pop’ Culture,” “White Elephant and Termite Postures,” ‘Advertisements for Norman Mailer,” “Postmodernism as Liberty Valance,” “My Disappointment Critic/On Bad Faith,” “Rushmore Versus Abundance,” and some of the interstitial remarks) makes a sporadic argument about the contemporary intellectual situation for fiction’s writers and readers, but with implications, I hope for other kinds of public thinking and talking. They’re more tendentious than the rest. If you’re in no mood to see me skirmish with injustices less ultimately urgent than hunger, disease, and discrimination you might just want to skip them. (Now he tells us.) There’s plenty else.’ Personally, I don’t find them tendentious at all, but rather the key to that ‘plenty else’. He’s also smart and humble enough to acknowledge that the fact of his being a published novelist means that what for most other people would wind up on blogs gets to reside between hard covers issued by a major corporate publisher.
“Postmodernism as Liberty Valance” has the air of a manifesto. Essentially it argues that no one can define what postmodernism is because PoMo has lots of different, sometimes incompatible characteristics, and so is all things to all people. ‘You can’t, just for instance, exalt disreputable genres like the crime story and want to do away with narrative.’ (Er, sorry to nitpick Jonathan, but Paul Auster, a fellow Brooklynite conspicuous by his absence from these pages, does just that.)
Lethem sketches out three main areas that have all been labelled ‘postmodern’, but which he believes are entirely different things, requiring different names. The first is our sense ‘…that the world defined by the advent of global techno-capitalism’ is not ‘a coherent or congenial home for human psyches.’ He denominates this Kaczynski’s Bad Dream, after the Unabomber. The second substitute term he offers ‘is for the avowed, self-declared postmodernist school of U.S. fiction writers: Robert Coover, John Barth, Donald Barthelme…Pynchon.’ These guys he calls ‘Those Guys’. Lastly, we have ‘…the postmodernism consisting simply of what aesthetic means and opportunities modernism and an ascendant popular culture left in their wake (or not their wake, since both, or at least popular culture, are still around).’ Lethem calls this third principle, for the sake of his allegory, ‘Liberty Valance’, ingeniously imagining this much vilified artistic modus operandi as Lee Marvin's amoral, brutalising character in John Ford’s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, who everyone thinks is shot by Jimmy Stewart (representing every orderly ‘realist’ writer from Raymond Carver to Jonathan Franzen), with the critic as John Wayne's hidden, real assassin.
Yet, avers Lethem, ‘The persistence of the ritual disproves the ostensible result: Liberty Valance is shot, but never dies’, the reason being that ‘…postmodernism isn't the figure in the black hat standing out in the street squaring off against the earnest and law-abiding 'realist' novel.’ Rather, ‘Postmodernism is the street. Postmodernism is the town. It’s where we live, the result of the effects of Liberty Valance’s stubborn versatility and appeal, and the fact of Kaczynski’s Bad Dream.’ But never fear, because ‘…Liberty Valance and Kaczynski’s Bad Dream aren’t the same “postmodernism.” The freedom and persuasiveness of the full array of contemporary stances and practices available to the literary artist aren’t something to renounce even if the Full Now makes us anxious to the verge of nervous breakdown. At its best, one is a tool for surviving the other – the most advanced radiation suit yet devised for wandering into the toxic future.’ It’s an exemplary piece, a high-wire juggling act where all the balls are kept spinning perfectly.
The title essay, which cocks a snook at Harold Bloom’s ‘The Anxiety of Influence’, argues for the virtues of plagiarism. I looked askance when I recognised that Lethem had ripped an anecdote almost verbatim from the late David Foster Wallace’s essay ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction’, and was ready to adjudge it a step too far. But he had me fooled, as it turns out the entire piece is a patchwork of quotations, all of which are credited at the end. His practice demonstrates his theory, in a feat of imitative form. Odd, though, that he doesn’t mention Kathy Acker, who based her own writing on an extension of Burroughs’ cut-up method which she called plagiarism. (Incidentally, Lethem now does Wallace’s old job at Pomona College, California.)
‘My Disappointment Critic’ is a response critic James Wood’s unfavourable review of The Fortress of Solitude. While Lethem previously regarded Wood as ‘the most apparently gifted close reader of our time’, he now marks him as ‘an unpersuasive critic whose air of erudite amplitude veiled – barely – a punitive parochialism.’ His skewering of Wood’s strictures, viz: ‘We never see him (the book’s protagonist) thinking an abstract thought, or reading a book…or thinking about God and the meaning of life, or growing up in any of the conventional mental ways of the teenage Bildungsroman’, are brilliantly lacerating. On ‘God’, for example: ‘As for “thinking about God,” was there ever a more naked instance of a critic yearning for a book other than that on his desk? Can Wood’s own negative capability not reach the possibility that in some life dramas “God” never made it to the audition, let alone failed to get onstage? Pity me if you like, but I can’t remember even considering believing in either God or Santa Claus. The debunking was accomplished pre-emptively, preconsciously. Hence, not a subject in my Bildungsroman. Sorry!’
Elsewhere, the ‘plenty else’ consists of autobiography and literary gossip – financial aid case Lethem, the son of bohemian hippy parents, was a contemporary of Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt at posh Bennington College, and enjoyed tense, competitive friendships with both before falling out with them. His sense of ‘the blithe conversion of privilege into artistic fame’ alienated him, and he dropped out, hitchhiking across the U.S. to Berkeley, where he worked as a bookstore clerk for ten years, a voracious autodidact writing in his spare time. There are adulatory pieces on his formative influences, literary and non-literary: Marvel comic books, Philip K. Dick, Italo Calvino, J.G. Ballard; and less well-known novelists, mostly American, like Paula Fox, Thomas Berger, Shirley Jackson and L.J. Davis, plus the Chilean exile Robert Bolano. He also writes about music (there are profile/interviews of James Brown and Bob Dylan), sometimes irritatingly subjectively. The fact of his being a mid-’60s kid, reaching musical awareness in the ’80s, leads him to some of the more arcane corners of the Dylan and Stones back catalogues: Under The Red Sky or Emotional Rescue as underrated, anyone? However, my single favourite piece in the book is probably ‘The Fly in the Ointment’, a brilliant meditation on singing in the post-Elvis rock and soul era, where the vocal performance became more idiosyncratic, striving to unearth something the song itself never quite could, rather than obey the pre-rock Sinatra standard of how perfectly the lyric is served.
Since his elevation, Lethem has become a kind of anti-Pynchon in terms of gregariousness vs. reclusiveness, hitting the conference and book tour circuit with gusto. In this regard he is emulating another of his unlikely enthusiasms, Norman Mailer. Indeed, Lethem tells us that he toyed with the idea of calling this collection Advertisements for Norman Mailer, in homage to the title of that Brooklynite forebear’s collected non-fiction, Advertisements For Myself. The self-aggrandising dangers of such excessive garrulousness are obvious. But the best critical pieces here are a valuable addition to, and elucidation of, his own enjoyable fiction.
First published in The Sunday Independent.