Jonathan Cape, £20, 437pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Ecstasy of Influence, By Jonathan Lethem

 

Twice in Jonathan Lethem's volume of non-fiction the Mannerist painter Arcimboldo is used as a point of comparison, latterly in a review of Roberto Bolaño's 2666, whose five sections "interlock to form an astonishing whole, in the same manner that fruits, vegetables, meats, flowers, or books interlock in [Arcimboldo's] unforgettable paintings...to form a human face." A similar comparison might be made with Lethem's book. Long and (by the novelist's admission) uneven as it may be, this collection of essays and criticism departs from the miscellaneousness of its influences in favour of something more purposive, more "centrifugal": that is, a form of self-portrait.

Of the 79 pieces here, most of which run to a few pages, a heftier handful set out Lethem's stall. The title essay cocks a snook at Harold Bloom's famous argument, in The Anxiety of Influence, that to be truly original an artist must be antagonistic towards his forebears. To Lethem, by contrast, originality is inseparable from appropriation. In the face of "journalistic hyperventilation about literary plagiarism", the artist should feel free to quote and poach at will. A work of art is the reformulation of its influences.

The more scattershot those influences, the better. In "Rushmore Versus Abundance", Lethem rails against the complacency and authoritarianism of a literary culture content to let the mantle of "greatness" pass from "Hemingway-Faulkner-Fitzgerald-Steinbeck" to "Bellow-Mailer-Updike-Roth" – and thenceforth, God forbid, to Wallace-Moody-Chabon-Franzen ("-or-even-sometimes-Lethem"). Why submit to such "aesthetic starvation" when there are a thousand unsung voices to be savoured? It's this anti-canonical celebration of the obscure that informs the rest of the collection.

Readers of Lethem's fiction will be familiar both with his love of comic books, and his efforts to "unite the divided realms" of science fiction and the literary postmodernism of DeLillo and Barthelme. So it's no surprise to see pieces on Marvel superheroes and Philip K Dick, or to learn of his enthusiasm for Lem, Calvino and Ballard. He likes GK Chesterton, Bob Dylan, Barbara Pym, Kingsley (more than Martin) Amis, Johns Wain and Braine, and unjustly neglected authors like Shirley Jackson and Thomas Berger.

What's alternately disarming and disconcerting about his "Autobiographical Collage" is its unguardedness. Whether you think applying the heavy machinery of critical analysis to DC and Marvel characters refreshingly unsnobbish or the height of pretentiousness, it's hard not to be charmed by the ardency of Lethem's fanship. Elsewhere, nursing ancient wounds inflicted by his contemporaries at Bennington, Donna Tartt and Bret Easton Ellis, or breaking a taboo by bleating about James Wood's negative review of his novel The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem invites the suspicion that he is letting on more than necessary. It's a pity, because in places this impassioned, voluble book is illuminating about much more than its author.

Nat Segnit's 'Pub Walks in Underhill Country' is published by Penguin

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
    RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

    RuPaul interview

    The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
    Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

    Secrets of comedy couples

    What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
    Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

    Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

    While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
    The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

    The best swimwear for men

    From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
    Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

    Mark Hix goes summer foraging

     A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
    Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

    With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

    Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
    Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

    Aaron Ramsey interview

    Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
    Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

    Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

    As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
    The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

    Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

    Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms