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The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. (Vintage Contemporaries) Paperback – October 2, 2012
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“I love this book. . . . Less of a collection than a collage, a cut-and-paste self-portrait in which we see Lethem as he sees himself. . . . A book about a big idea.” —David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times
“Begins with this idea of writer-as-magpie and takes it on a communitarian-artistic romp. . . . It’s a grand performance. . . . And delivered with a wink.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Like almost everything Lethem has written, The Ecstasy of Influence is a reflection of, and a pixilated homage to, those whose work he fetishizes. If this book has a thesis, it’s this: For an artist, influence is everything.” —The New York Times
“[An] exuberant whiz-bang of an essay collection.” —The Daily Beast
“Hefty and remarkable. . . . Dominating all is Lethem’s prime concern always: the novel. . . . More exciting than any of his interesting-to-terrific fiction.” —Robert Christgau, The New York Times Book Review
“[Lethem is] as sharp a critic as he is a novelist. This collection shows you why.” —Austin American-Statesman
“Lethem takes a boldly different tack on the matter of mentors, gurus, fathers, shapers and sources. . . . He not only acknowledges his literary and psychological progenitors; he insists upon them, celebrates them, and invites the reader to join in an exhilarating if sometimes baffling deconstruction of the very idea of influence.” —The Dallas Morning News
“Lethem’s inspired miscellany is ardent and charming. . . . His essays are zippy and freewheeling.”—Chicago Tribune
“Sharp and funny.” —The Plain Dealer
“Frank and boisterous. . . . The Ecstasy of Influence is, more than anything, a record of Mr. Lethem’s life as a public novelist, a role for which he is obviously well suited. . . . Mr. Lethem has such a gift, and The Ecstasy of Influence is evidence of it.” —The New York Observer
“This impassioned, voluble book is illuminating about much more than its author.”—The Independent (London)
“The Ecstasy of Influence is in part an attempt to discuss the things artists and writers rarely talk about—how much of their work is borrowed from other artists and how much they care about their critical reputations, among other things.” —Salon
“Smart and rollicking. . . . Brilliantly dissect[s] the various sulks, funks, and paranoias of being a writer who moans about doing writerly things—not least among them writing itself.” —The Millions
“A wide and wonderful series of subjects that are threaded together, mostly, as a kind of autobiography of a would-be writer becoming a struggling writer and then a successful writer while all the while remaining a voracious reader.” —National Post (Canada)
“The author invites us into the ecstasy of intertextuality, to the intertwining of thousands of words with ourselves.”—PopMatters
"The arguments implicit in his novels are not merely explicit here, but deliriously so, ecstatically so, as if the author is shaking you by the shoulders to show you what he loves, why he loves it and why you should love it, too.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
About the Author
JONATHAN LETHEM is the New York Times bestselling author of eight novels, including Chronic City, The Fortress of Solitude, and Motherless Brooklyn.. A recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, Lethem has also published his stories and essays in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and The New York Times, among others.
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Lethem generally chooses to write about subjects (authors, novels, genres, cultural margins) that resonate with a 40-something product of the United States, like me. "Tradition and the individual talent" has moved on and dissolved since T.S. Eliot posited it, and Lethem's compendium may be the ultimate update to and rebuttal of that premise, a cultural archaeology and mashup for the present day that doesn't pretend to be eternal. James Brown and Phillip K. Dick finally get to rub elbows and get their due at the cocktail party at the end of the universe, but it's up to the reader to imagine how the party will develop by 2 a.m., when discussion turns to which 24-hour breakfast joint is the best option for a collective relocation, requiring a designated driver. (That driver would be you.)
When I read "The Fortress of Solitude," I was ill-equipped to distinguish between its fiction and Lethem's autobiographical reality. I've spent enough time since digging more deeply to understand that difference now, but to some extent, "The Ecstasy of Influence" can be read as as an episodic treatise written by that novel's partially self-aware narrator. It's an autobiography by accident and a fiction by virtue of the fact that Lethem embraces a localized approach to truth. Clearly, he's not concerned with mediating the difference between a coherent master narrative of himself and the seductions of his many influences. Instead, he presents his meditations, mediations, and exhortations with just enough freshly mixed mortar connecting and contextualizing them to give you a sense of who he is and what he cares about, without meddling with the ecstasies his former selves dictated when he originally wrote the pieces he's chosen to include.
This is an important distinction, in my opinion. The book is a portrait of the artist as a work in progress, which I find to be a refreshing rejoinder to the hegemonic epitaph writing you'd expect from a book such as this.The artist in his prime is far more interesting than the artist preparing for his demise, managing his legacy. The book is a collection of non-album hit singles and cherished b-sides that leaves it to you, the reader, to distinguish between. And frankly, my favorites blur that distinction completely, which I'm guessing is exactly the result Lethem intended. He's nothing if not democratic in his partisanship, and he gives everything he's got to each and every subject. T.S. Eliot might be turning in his grave, but Lethem says, "F& tradition, let's dance."
This book is certainly an ecstasy of prose, a challenge to the conventions of non-fiction writing, and a provocation to anyone who thinks there are boundaries that need policing in the realms of literary and cultural significance. My only reservation after reading it is that it might signify some kind of hard stop in Lethem's career of embracing the heretofore marginal, eliding traditional distinctions, and disclosing the ways in which the official canon of literary significance conceals what is actually vital in the last 50 years of cultural production.