The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, etc

The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, etc
Jonathan Lethem
Jonathan Cape, 464pp, £20

In 2000, just when he had completed "lifelong preparations to be a neglected artist", Jonathan Lethem won the National Book Critics Circle Award for his fifth novel, Motherless Brooklyn. For someone who had long identified with "termite art", he found himself, "willingly", shoved into "a white elephant suit".

The distinction between termite and white elephant art (the latter of which Lethem defines as "big, ungainly, awards-season stuff") was formulated in the 1960s by the film critic Manny Farber. "Termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art," Farber wrote, "goes always forward eating its own boundaries and, like as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity."

Elephants, on the other hand, are expected to have views on 9/11 and Kosovo. Nowadays, says Lethem, "I show up too often and say too much." He can't go back - and he doesn't want to go back - to the margins but he can think a little about what it means to be in the mainstream.

The Ecstasy of Influence uses an assemblage of essays, reviews, radio broadcasts, introductions and other short pieces to present a composite portrait of the artist as a young and then middle-aged man. Although the trajectory it presents is personal and in some ways unusual (for example, he never went to writing school), Lethem also addresses and attempts to demystify expectations of the novelist's role in American society. Many of the pieces here undercut familiar authorial "postures": that it's vulgar to respond to reviews; that it's bad manners to belittle one's contemporaries or mention the tedium of book tours; that it's crass to talk of careers and almost compulsory to adopt "the pretence-of-no-power". The "agonies of Franzen" get short shrift. Lethem's model for this compendium of reflections, annotated with anxious reservations, is Norman Mailer'sAdvertisements for Myself. He wanted to use Mailer's title for the book but his editor wouldn't let him.

Lethem has always liked to present auto­biography as a series of "relationships" with various artists, writers, film-makers and musicians. Even the more personal "disclosures" - a childhood among the Brooklyn counterculture, time at Bennington College with "Bret" (Easton Ellis) and "Donna" (Tartt) and 15 years working in second-hand bookshops - mostly serve to explain how Lethem came upon his cultural enthusiasms.

We learn a little about Lethem's parents but more about Superman and Batman, who "were pretty much like my parents"; a little about his college friends but more about Philip K Dick, who's like a "brilliant older brother". One of the themes of this book is that art is an (extended) family affair. Other unexpected cousins include James Baldwin, Graham Greene, Kings­ley Amis and James Thurber. Nation, race, language, historical period - none of these matter when it comes to "infatuation" or, indeed, "breaking up".Lethem is a postmodern mishmash artist, a breaker of outmoded boundaries: between vernacular subcultures and big literature; between literature and other art forms; between ideas of originality and those of appropriation. Yet, for all his interest in flow - in the "propa­gation of cultural stuff by automatic or viral processes" - he retains an almost structuralist interest in social and formal distinctions.

Just as his Brooklyn classmates policed the fine line between "green" and "cool", he thinks we should attend to the precise differences between, say, "Dickian" and "Ballardian" prose. Lethem relishes sorting, dividing and grouping, right down to "the category of things I can't help thinking, despite having sometimes tried not to, thinking it was my duty to do so".

He's also a "fiend for canons", as long as they're not imposed by "authoritarian fiat", like the Mount Rushmore of Bellow, Roth, Mailer and Updike, but develop "out of urgent personal voyaging" towards "abundance". "Construct your own and wear it," he writes, "an exoskeleton of many colours." Elsewhere, Lethem has described himself as a magpie, on the lookout for shiny things to steal, like a laid-back T S Eliot. He knows that traditions are "ongoing" matters of personal and social negotiation but he loves them anyway.

Where Lethem differs most from both Eliot and Mailer is in the creation and continual refurbishment of what he calls the author's "public avatar". Eliot issued weighty encyclicals on the urgent political and spiritual matters of the day; Mailer ran for mayor of New York City. Times have changed. Lethem's politics seems to be of the familiar liberal Ameri­-can kind and his least interesting essays are the cluster produced after 9/11 - there's the usual imagining-the-unimaginable with an added dose of "self-castigation" as "self-indulgence". Enough already. Being a novelist is not in itself, Lethem admirably concludes, a qualification to "weigh in on this or that": "When I make a remark about politics, my qualification is that I'm a citizen . . . When I make a remark about culture . . . my qualification is that I'm a fan."

So while he remains uneasy about elephantine pronouncements, Lethem has consolidated his position as the guru of cultural magpies and "the biggest termite in the room". As soon as he found himself in a position to do so, Lethem began hustling on behalf of numerous out-of-print authors of "short and strange" books. The Ecstasy of Influence includes introductions for new editions of (among others) Paula Fox, Thomas Berger and Shirley Jackson; and Dick is now available in three hard-covered Library of America volumes. What a writer most needs, Lethem suggests, is "a world of other selves" - termite, elephant and magpie - in which to feel at home. Did I mention that he likes animal stories?

Kasia Boddy is the editor of "The New Penguin Book of American Short Stories, from Washington Irving to Lydia Davis" (Penguin, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of socialism