Conceptual ambition, sense of purpose and a fan’s evangelical devotion distinguish this collection from the typical novelist’s gathering of nonfiction miscellany.
If this is a closet-clearing exercise by Lethem (Chronic City, 2009, etc.), his is an impressively rich closet. In addition to being a writer who blurs the distinction between genre fiction (sci-fi, detective, western) and postmodern literature (a term he questions), Lethem writes with a commitment to sharing his enthusiasm for whatever obsesses him—underdog novelists such as Paula Fox and Thomas Berger, under-acknowledged rock bands such as the Go-Betweens, seminal inspirations such as Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard. “I began writing in order to arrive into the company of those whose company meant more to me than any other: the world of books I’d found on shelves and begun to assemble on my own, and the people who’d written them, and the readers who cares as much as I did,” he writes toward the conclusion of this collection. While the results illuminate his formative influences and artistic development, they also cast considerable light on the culture at large, which is both reflected in Lethem’s work and has profoundly shaped it. His personal pantheon extends from popular music (he writes at incisive length about both Bob Dylan and James Brown) to the international literary alchemy of the late Roberto Bolaño, enlisting the reader as an accomplice in his quest. Intensifying that intimacy, he shares his complicated relationships with two college buddies, Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt, who both achieved precocious literary success well before he did, and he recalls his bitter response to James Wood after the latter wrote a mixed review of Lethem’s breakthrough, Motherless Brooklyn.
Inevitably a mixed bag, but with high ambitions and a strong sense of purpose.