Jonathan Cape, £20, 437pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Ecstasy of Influence, By Jonathan Lethem
Friday 23 March 2012
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
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