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
Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing
Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 East 17 bandmember Brian Harvey in 'very desperate situation’
- 2 Is this bridge haunted by the ghost of nu rave?
- 3 Woman filmed launching racist tirade against men on the Tube for speaking in 'own lingo'
- 4 The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
- 5 Scientists have discovered a simple way to cook rice that dramatically cuts the calories
Britain's first cinema flickers back to life following £6m refurbishment
A historian gave the most British look of despair when someone screwed up Richard III's birthday at his reburial
James May hints Top Gear days are over following Jeremy Clarkson's BBC exit
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
James May hints he will not continue on Top Gear without Jeremy Clarkson
Ukip supporters are 55 or older, white and socially conservative, finds British Social Attitudes Report
JK Rowling responds to fan tweeting she 'can't see' Dumbledore being gay
Jeremy Clarkson sacked live: Alan Yentob 'wouldn't rule out' ex Top Gear host's BBC return
David Cameron calls Labour 'hopeless, sneering socialists' while announcing 7-day NHS plans
The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
Revealed: Putin's army of pro-Kremlin bloggers