Lethem’s book doesn’t induce ‘ecstasy,’ but it comes close

At what point did I fall out of love with Jonathan Lethem’s writing? I was an early, enthusiastic supporter of his debut novel, Gun, With Occasional Music (1994) and his follow-up, Amnesia Moon (1995). By the time Motherless Brooklyn (1999) appeared, to great acclaim, I couldn’t have been happier. Here was a former bookseller who’d made good, a writer who’d outgrown his science-fiction roots and matured into a serious novelist. Bully for Lethem.

At some point—I can’t really say when— I lost interest. I picked up his last collection of essays, The Disappointment Artist (2005), from a bargain book display a few years ago and read about half of it, promising myself I’d finish it some day. That day still hasn’t come.

Needless to say, it was with some trepidation I approached his latest effort, The Ecstasy of Influence (Doubleday, $28), a collection of mostly nonfiction pieces: essays, book reviews, autobiographical sketches and meditations on art, fiction and pop culture. Lethem makes no secret of his influences (Norman Mailer pops up frequently, for instance) or his vast interests (Philip K. Dick, Ernie Kovacs, pop music, film, comic books, etc.). Truth is, I’m interested in many of the same things Lethem writes about, which is probably why I was drawn to his writing in the first place.

At the heart of The Ecstasy of Influence is the titular essay, originally published in Harper’s in 2007. In it, Lethem addresses a serious issue near and dear to every artist: the theft (whether innocent or deliberate) of creative ideas. Lethem points to work by Nabokov, T. S. Eliot, Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin, all of which contain elements written (but not necessarily attributed to) others. Lethem contends these “plagiarisms” are innocent enough, and goes on to examine copyright laws and intellectual property. Interestingly, the essay is itself a collage, a pastiche of other people’s work and ideas, all of them properly acknowledged by Lethem. I remember reading the essay when it first appeared, and it remains an excellent and provocative conversation starter.

Still, not everything works here. Book reviews and reactionary essays are ephemeral by nature; for me, the best reading in The Ecstasy of Influence are the autobiographical confessions: Lethem as a young bookseller, his teenage experience with the nude models that frequented his father’s art studio, his recollections of 9/11, his angst over a mediocre book review from a critic he respected.

Some of Lethem’s pieces feel self-indulgent or slight, but there’s no denying the enthusiasm or emotion he brings to his subjects. When Lethem writes about the Go-Betweens’ music or the short stories of Italo Calvino, he’s doing a real service to those readers who find the names unfamiliar. Seek out this music. Read these books. Watch these movies. For that alone, The Ecstasy of Influence is a worthwhile investment. ★★★☆☆

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