One of the reasons that Jonathan Lethem attracts such passionate devotion is that he expresses such passionate devotion, such persuasive advocacy. He has done so implicitly in the novels that built his loyal fan base—from his debut, Gun, With Occasional Music (1994), through his popular breakthrough with Motherless Brooklyn (1999), through his most recent and debatably his best novel, Chronic City (2009).
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Though Lethem is no polemicist in his fiction, it is difficult to read his novels without recognizing the arguments he makes for blurring conventional categories, for transcending the limits of the genres he subverts, for ultimately obliterating all distinction between pop culture and high culture. At the very least, he consistently bridges what was once considered a chasm, even a canyon, between the entertainment pleasure to be found within pulp genres and subcultures (sci-fi, detective, comic books, rock ’n’ roll) and the more serious literary art placed on the pedestal of high culture. For Lethem, as for so many of his and my generation, the former both informs and profoundly shapes the latter.
Part of the joy from the aptly titled The Ecstasy of Influence—a career-spanning collection of nonfiction pieces that is far more revelatory than most—is that 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. For Lethem, sharing his enthusiasm is more than a campaign—it’s a crusade.
The author served his literary apprenticeship as a clerk in used book stores, where he saw so much writing that meant so much to him languish in obscurity. “I began writing in order to arrive in the company of those whose company meant more to me than any other,” he writes. “The world of the books I’d found on shelves and began to assemble on my own, and the people who’d written them, and the readers who cared as much as I did, if those existed.”
This is a book for those people, the ones who care that much. Here, Lethem pledges his allegiance not only to the usual suspects, such as Philip K. Dick (he recently co-edited The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick) and J.G. Ballard, or less predictable passions such as Paula Fox, Thomas Berger and especially Norman Mailer (Lethem confesses that he wanted to subtitle this volume “Advertisements for Norman Mailer,” in acknowledgment of the debt it owes to Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself). His omnivorous appetite extends from underappreciated rock bands such as Australia’s the Go-Betweens to the resurrection of the legacy of Ernie Kovacs.
A motley collection of previously uncollected nonfiction is typically a closet-cleaning affair, a stop-gap between big books, an opportunity to wring a few more dollars from what was originally work for hire. And while there are a few pieces here that read as if Lethem wrote them for the paycheck, in many more he appears as fully invested as he does in the best of his fiction. Not only does he seem to care deeply about whatever he’s writing about, but what he writes, what he reads, what he loves, is who he is.
As for those who would subdivide literary culture into categories and hierarchies, he responds, “ ‘You fools, don’t you understand, we’re all in this together?’ That shout is this book.”