‘The Ecstasy of Influence’ by Jonathan Lethem
The question, for a writer like Jonathan Lethem, is one of timing. When does the novelist release his other work? Norman Mailer, a reference point Lethem considers within “The Ecstasy of Influence,’’ published his smorgasbord, “Advertisements for Myself,’’ in 1959, when he was in his mid-30s. Lethem is 47 and, I’d say, a far better writer than Mailer, though he will never approach the late author’s status as a cultural icon.
“Ecstasy’’ is a kind of literary throwback to a time when favorite writers didn’t hesitate to offer thought piñatas to loyal readers. If you believed that Kurt Vonnegut Jr. or Hunter S. Thompson were key voices - or if you couldn’t get enough of them - you were fine with a once-a-decade volume of other stuff. This wasn’t “Cat’s Cradle’’ or “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,’’ but these works did promise a kind of Secret Santa stash of your hero’s other, presumably lesser, material.
So we get “Ecstasy,’’ a book broken into 10 sections, each with an introductory essay. There are mainstream pieces (Rolling Stone, Playboy) but also works released first in smaller, more adventurous publications such as Black Clock. The writing ranges from memoir to short fiction to review. There’s revenge, as Lethem attacks James Wood, whose negative take - eight years ago! - still bugs him. In our Gawkerfied culture, that six-page self-indulgence has already garnered ample weblines.
It hopefully won’t distract the reading public from one of the big surprises of “Ecstacy’’: How wonderfully Lethem writes about music. His essays are cozy and personal and presented with a refreshing level of insecurity. “I was afraid to write about music for a long time,’’ he shares. “I felt the obvious reluctance to try what seemed destined to fail but also wondered if I wanted to see my writing brain colonize an area of such sheer joy.’’
Lethem is a rock geek’s rock geek. He mentions twice, in different pieces, how much it bothers him to have learned that Ringo Starr didn’t play on all of “The White Album.’’ He chooses to avoid interviewing the Go-Betweens due to his imagining a particular scheme involving the exit of drummer Belinda “Lindy’’ Morrison. He gives props to Lewis Shiner’s fantasy novel “Glimpses,’’ a wonderful and underappreciated book that contemplated the completion of rock’s greatest unfinished works.
Not everything Lethem writes is insightful.
“This next piece irks me,’’ he writes, as a simple way of introducing a piece about his hitchhiking trip after his freshman year at Bennington College.
That self-awareness is important, a sense that Lethem recognizes there’s some value, to his fans, in examining an essay about his formative years or simply exploring a work that was completed before he had honed his intellectual chops.
I loved his brief take on Rick James and his comic fantasy sequences involving Drew Barrymore in impossible scenarios. He and Drew share a hot tub with Jack London and Gertrude Stein in Sausalito, Calif. They run the New York City Marathon with Laurence Olivier and John Coltrane. In another, Drew helps make peace between a feuding Coltrane and Miles Davis.
In “Dancing About Architecture or Fifth Beatles,’’ Lethem explores the daydreams through which we build a bond to our favorite music. He talks of his personal history as a rock club dancer and considers his role as a sometime music writer, an activity derided by super-brain Frank Zappa, who famously described it as an act as natural as “dancing about architecture.’’
“There’s something pretentious about daring to get up on the dance floor in the first place, and something presumptuous, but those of us who do it take courage from the possibility that it is those very pretenses and presumptions that may bring us closer to the desired object, that in fact may give us, even if only briefly, something in common with the makers of the music themselves.’’
It’s a wonderful sentiment, a sort of acknowledgment of the unavoidable but uneasy role of the writer as intellectual performer.