Jonathan Lethem’s prose is a magpie’s, even when not larded with cultural name-dropping, as his last four novels have been. Perhaps anyone’s writing is ultimately bricolage, a welter of borrowings. But, of the writers I know and love, Lethem has been the most eager to point out his influences, to spoil the illusion of originality by elucidating his fiction’s resemblance to his book collection.
Either that or the most honest. After all, the kernel, the soul, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances – is plagiarism. Bear with me. Substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously or unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he or she originated them. Consider the series of “plagiarisms” that link Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. And without The Flintstones – The Honeymooners in cartoon loincloths – The Simpsons wouldn’t exist. Wasn’t the whole 20th century a victory lap of collage, quotation and appropriation, from Picasso to Dada to Pop?
During the 1990s, Lethem amassed a cult following for novels in which genres didn’t so much bend or blur as gleefully copulate. Science fiction dirty-danced with academic satire ( As She Climbed Across the Table), speculative fiction shagged gumshoe-noir ( Gun, With Occasional Music), the western got busy with futurist-dystopia ( Girl in Landscape). He carried his heroes on his back, to prove that Patricia Highsmith and Charles Willeford and, especially, Philip K. Dick (“our homegrown Borges”) were the exact same thing as William Faulkner or Thomas Pynchon.
What Lethem’s underdog script mostly guaranteed, though, was that he’d appear to SF partisans as a caddish betrayer of an honourably self-sustaining subculture. Meanwhile, to sentinels of literature, he looked to having arrived at the dance in concrete overshoes.
After Pynchon, Don DeLillo and others had made ready use of the technological NOW that had swallowed the future, after Doris Lessing, Stanley Kubrick and Haruki Murakami, after J.G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Russell Hoban and others had etched their beauties into literary history, what did the quarantine mean to any thinking reader? But Lethem had underestimated the undertow of reaction against opening “literary fiction” to present realities: technology, jargon, vernacular cultural stuff.
With Motherless Brooklyn, winner of the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award, and 2003’s The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem did arrive, sans concrete booties. He also left behind his alternative landscapes for the more familiar, albeit weirder, home turf of Brooklyn. In 2007, he set You Don’t Love Me Yet in a slippery L.A. state of mind, and Chronic City (2009) in an even more dislocated Manhattan (as well as deep space). What has survived the travel through time and space is Lethem’s antic sense of plot and stylistic bravado – and the weird.
With his frequent referencing of comics and film, and in his probing of contemporary scientific theory and the creative impulse, he encompasses motifs associated with both high and low in a style wholly his own.
In this new essay collection, Lethem is a kind of superhero (at least to me), especially when he wades into the muck around “postmodernism”: “[In] literary conversations the word is often used as finger-pointing to a really vast number of things that might be seen as threatening to canonical culture … collapsing of high and low cultural preserves into a value-neutral fog, excessive reference to various other media and/or mediums, especially electronic ones, an enthusiasm for ‘metafiction,’ for pop-culture references or generic forms, for overt (as opposed to politely passive) ‘intertextuality,’ for surrealism or magic realism or hysterical realism or some other ‘opposed-to-realism’ affiliation . . .a.k.a. ‘Art I don’t like.’ ”
Lethem presses John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance into service as an allegory about postmodernism. In this gunfight, Raymond Carver stands in for Jimmy Stewart, although there are more recent comers, literary critics stand in for John Wayne, and Lee Marvin is postmodernism. If I didn’t love Lethem yet, this essay would’ve sealed the deal.
Also lovable is his willingness to appear vulnerable, but not whiny (unlike Jonathan Franzen). Eight years after a review of The Fortress of Solitude by New Yorker critic James Wood, Lethem is still troubled that “Wood, in 4,200 painstaking words, couldn’t bring himself to mention that my characters found a magic ring that allowed them flight and invisibility … these fantastic events hinge the plot at several points, including the finale – you simply couldn’t not mention this and have read the book at all.”
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. And his enthusiasms, a codec for this collection. A complete circle. A magic ring.
In the spirit of Lethem’s ode to bricolage and defence of plagiarism, most of the sentences above are borrowed – with seams tightened or let out – from Lethem on Lethem, from Lethem quoting Mark Twain consoling Helen Keller, from Lethem writing on Italo Calvino, and from myself on previous work by Lethem. But every word is true.
Contributing reviewer Zsuzsi Gartner's Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, a Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist, includes lines lovingly borrowed from Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.