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57-Mar-Apr-2012
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A-The-Ecstasy-of-InfluenceJonathan Lethem is one of the best-known and most innovative literary writers of his generation, with a handful of novels that kick in the doors of genre: As She Climbed Across the Table (1997), Girl in Landscape (1998), Motherless Brooklyn (1999), Fortress of Solitude (4 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2003), Chronic City 3 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2010), and, of course, the classic science fiction mash-up Gun, with Occasional Music (1994). The Ecstasy of Influence collects 80 pieces--primarily nonfiction with some fiction mixed in--that revel in challenging readers and exploring big ideas.

The Topic: "I was aware of my own impulses to beguile, cajole, evoke sensation, and even to manipulate," Jonathan Lethem writes in The Ecstasy of Influence, a homage to just about every imaginable cultural signpost and an ode to the shared genius inherent in literature and art. The book, like much of Lethem's work, transcends easy classification. The author's reviews and essays read like catalogs of our time, with pieces on fellow writers, iconic musicians and films, geography, and comic books, among dozens of topics. A cultural gadfly, Lethem explores his ambivalence at being both an A-list novelist and the kid from Brooklyn who, like Norman Mailer before him, dreamed one day of becoming a writer. Crawling out from under the outdated notion that influence can hamper a writer's attempts at originality--an idea he explores in depth in the book's central essay--Lethem advocates for more open copyright laws and a community of shared ideas.
Doubleday. 464 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 9780385534956

Globe and Mail (Canada) 4.5 of 5 Stars"The Ecstasy of Influence is a thrilling codec for Lethem's fictions, while the fictions themselves are a codec for his myriad enthusiasms and influences, including Philip K. Dick, Marvel Comics, John Cassavetes, John Ford, Paula Fox, James Brown, Bob Dylan, Franz Kafka, Brooklyn's streets, subways and sandwich shops, and, touchingly, his parents--his father, a painter, his mother, a true bohemian wild child, who died young." Zsuzsi Gartner

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars"Lethem encourages skipping around, employing Manny Farber's formulation of ‘White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,' suggesting that we burrow deeply, making our own termite holes through the work. Still, of the 80 pieces here, there's not much I would do without." David L. Ulin

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars"I--as a detective guy and a full-time critic as well as a Queens-born East Villager for whom Lethem's Brooklyn-bohemian biography resonates--find both The Disappointment Artist and The Ecstasy of Influence more exciting than any of his interesting-to-terrific fiction except his most realistic novel, Fortress of Solitude. But it could just be that he's such an openhearted, unconventional critic." Robert Christgau

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars"Jonathan Lethem's fat, hip and garrulous new essay collection, The Ecstasy of Influence, is self-consciously in the tradition of books like Norman Mailer's Advertisements for Myself and John Updike's Hugging the Shore, brilliant grab-bag volumes that blended criticism, journalism and introspection." Dwight Garner

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars"The book's structure--thematic sections, individually introduced and book-ended by chapters titled ‘My Plan So Far' and ‘What Remains of My Plan'--allows Lethem to annotate his own work and note when it ‘irks' him. ... It's a grand performance (Lethem favors the word ‘Kabuki'), and delivered with a wink." Jenny Hendrix

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars"Some second-rate fiction is thrown in for good measure, but the reader should look elsewhere if she is interested in that side of his shelf-filling output. ... Other delights to be found: an interview with Bob Dylan (‘the greatest artist of my lifetime,' Lethem squeals); appreciations of, among others, Ernie Kovacs, Rick James and Marlon Brando; and a number of book reviews that show the keenness and intelligence we have come to expect from this reliably unpredictable author." Ariel Gonzalez

Cleveland Plain Dealer 2.5 of 5 Stars"[The title essay] is the book's most compelling piece--but he undercuts it by publishing it in a new book containing about 80 percent material freely available on the Web. ... [Lethem] wants to kiss our hand, and, despite myself, I want to kiss him back." Anne Trubek

Critical Summary

The title piece of Jonathan Lethem's collection, echoing critic Harold Bloom's famous treatise The Anxiety of Influence (1973), comes from an essay on plagiarism and shared creativity published in Harper's Magazine in 2007. The thrown-together feel of this collection, then, won't surprise readers, nor will it put them off. The difference between Lethem and most of his contemporaries: when Lethem throws stuff against the wall, quite a bit of it sticks. Even on cruise control, his prose can be a force of nature. To be compared to Norman Mailer (Lethem's literary father) and John Updike is always more compliment than indictment, though any of Lethem's novels would be a better place to discover the writer (begin with Gun, with Occasional Music, and prepare to be blown away). If it's criticism--cultural, literary, and otherwise--you're looking for, jump right in. There's plenty to go around.