Is Jonathan Lethem too smart?
Yes, he is. That’s what I’ve gleaned from his splendid new collection of essays, The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, etc.
Lethem, one of my favorite novelists, is a brilliant storyteller whose fictional narratives abound with outlandish characters, absurd plot twists, unorthodox wit, and manifold pop culture references. Yet I lose myself in Chronic City or The Fortress of Solitude without contemplating Lethem’s intellect: I become a hostage of his elaborate fictional constructs.
I find myself thinking, however, as I read the essays in The Ecstasy of Influence, “He’s too smart.”
I’m grateful that I didn’t interview Lethem in my freelance days, because, in this collection influenced by Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself, he interviews himself better than I ever could.
Writers usually interview themselves well. That’s what I learned in the ’90s when I interviewed every writer who came to town. [YOU CAN SKIP THE NEXT FIVE PARAGRAPHS OF THIS LONG SELF-INDULGENT DIGRESSION IF YOU WANT.] I was a freelancer, enthusiastic about promoting novelists and poets, and deemed nothing more important, in the cycle of cobbling together features about the city’s Top 10 hot dog stands, the pros and cons of betting on thoroughbreds vs. trotters, and the joys of winter camping, than interviewing writers. I was crazed on the subject, and I filled space for editors who really weren’t that keen on books but needed “evergreen” articles.
I taped all my interviews, and would you believe I was so careless I didn’t hang onto the tapes? Some brilliant anecdotes and stories were lost: the Library of Congress would have loved them. Newspaper articles are more than story, though, and great quotes get sacrificed to formulaic questions. When did they write? Usually the answer was morning, four hours a day. Did they write every day? Yes. Did they write by hand, or on a computer? Usually it was on a computer.
By the end of the interview, the writer usually lost the wild, desperate, or bored look, and asked me a few questions. At an urban literary event, one writer was suffering culture shock. “Is there a grocery store somewhere?” She hadn’t been able to find any vegetables for days. Another writer, whose “minder” was trying to keep him off the booze, asked if please, please, please could he have dinner with my husband and me? It would have entailed frenzied housecleaning, figuring out something to cook, and infuriating my husband, who really, really didn’t want to entertain an internationally famous writer on a weekday. I realize in retrospect that the internationally known writer just wanted to get away for a few hours, and I was his best chance. Was there any reason we couldn’t have included an internationally famous writer in our plans to do nothing?
We said No, and politely added that we would attend his event the next day.
At one of these literary events, perhaps the one where the writer couldn’t find vegetables, Jonathan Lethem gave a talk. I vaguely remember being introduced to a bunch of guys hanging out in the lobby while I waited for the writer I was there to interview, and Lethem was the boyish one…I think. Or was that Andre Dubus III? I had heard of neither of them at the time, and both were there.
Then a few years later, Lethem was famous. Suddenly my book group was reading Motherless Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Then we discovered The Fortress of Solitude, and it became one of our favorite books.
I am amazed and amused by the eclecticism of The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc., a collection of likable, if sometimes self-indulgent, autobiographical vignettes, essays, reviews, and criticism. There’s a rich texture, a reined-in meandering, and a strangely casual feel to the obviously careful architecture of his nonfiction–characterized by intellectualism, self-consciousness, self-mockery, humor, and self-apology. But sometimes the point is obstructed by loopy, elaborate, digressions or tacked-on endings that don’t quite work.
His short autobiographical pieces are idiosyncratic, funny, and eccentric. Born in Brooklyn to hippie parents–his father was an artist–Lethem grew up reading everything, and he became a strong proponent of and expert on literary science fiction. He praised Samuel Delany, J. G. Ballard, and Ursula K. Le Guin, but Philip K. Dick, a writer best known for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the novel that inspired Blade Runner), was undoubtedly Lethem’s strongest influence. Lethem has done everything to boost Dick’s reputation over the past several years, and even persuaded The Library of America to devote three volumes to him (yes, Lethem edited them). And many of his stories tip the hat to Dick. He includes some here.
The Dick influences are there when he is very young. In “Crazy Friend,” Lethem writes about his adolescence in Brooklyn, and is startled when a very cool girl he is trying to impress apparently makes a weird allusion to Philip K. Dick. When Lethem says he has to go to meet someone,
“Who–Eldridge Palmer?” Deena didn’t mean anything important by it, was just amusing herself, I think, by acting as if I was hiding something. It might provoke something funny along the lines of defensiveness from me–couldn’t hurt to try.”
It turns out that Deena is just goofing around, maybe thinking of Eldridge Cleaver, but Lethem had recently read Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and Palmer Eldritch is a character “who’s become a monstrous god, a kind of living drug or cancer. In the end, everyone and everything shows Palmer Eldritch’s face, like evil DNA.”
So of course this incident seems fraught with meaning, because the young Lethem believes “the novel was..testament to cosmic conditions!” It means that Palmer Eldritch is everywhere.
It IS a very odd event.
In my least favorite essay so far, he writes about college. After three semesters at Bennington, Lethem angrily dropped out and moved to San Francisco to work in bookstores. He expresses his ambivalence toward this expensive school, and his feelings of inferiority to Donna Tartt and Bret Easton Ellis, who were both in his class and published before he did. His fellow students were a very privileged group, and Lethem knows he might have succeeded as a writer earlier if he’d stayed…but, I ask you, would he have been Lethem? He might have been a more Bret Easton Ellis-un-Elysian Lethem, and we wouldn’t have read him.
I couldn’t care less about Bennington, and couldn’t help think if he’d gone to an egalitarian university, he wouldn’t have worried about Ellis and Tartt. But when Lethem returned to give the commencement speech at Bennington, he said he had to hold back tears. Dropping out, even if it’s followed by a return or homecoming, is a part of every bildungsroman.
I have enjoyed his series of pieces about working in bookstores. He writes about a famous bookstore on Telegraph Hill:
“We were famous ourselves, in a way, famous for our clerkly arrogance. In friendly California, we dared to sniff and snap like New York bookstore clerks. Our totemic founding father was still present in the store, usually at the front counter, looming like Pere Ubu, spitting cigar-flavored droplets as he frowned and swore at the inferior wares offered to him at the store’s buying counter, eating dim sum with his stained fingers and wearing hot sauce on his chin and collar for the rest of the afternoon.”
Some of these articles are serious literary criticism, despite humor–I don’t mean to say it’s all amusing. I am now reading about Calvino.
I’m nowhere near done with this book, but it is an excellent essay collection, something you can dip in and out of.
I do feel this is very male writing, though–elements of Mailer indeed–and plan to take a few days off, to read something really girly–like maybe a novel by Joyce Carol Oates.