The Essay In Essayist

Jonathan Lethem’s last novel, Chronic City, is about an aging, self-conscious child star and pop culture icon, Chase Insteadman, who befriends a faded pop culture critic, Perkus Tooth. Tooth once wrote for Rolling Stone but now issues his judgments on paste-up broadside collages that range across genres and generations. He smokes copious amounts of high-grade marijuana while chasing the meaning-of-it-all through obscure films, celebrity conspiracies and forgotten music.

That there’s something of Lethem in both characters is apparent reading his collection of essays, The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. The author of Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, those slow-to-fade glories of nearly a decade and more ago, once wrote a feature for Rolling Stone comparing James Brown to Kurt Vonnegut’s time-lost Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse-Five. In that act, he joined Brown’s band members in a hazy cloud of hemp. His collected non-fictions, much like Tooth’s broadsides, are collages that considers everything from G.K. Chesterton’s detective fantasy The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare to Donald Sutherland’s buttocks. Along the way, not coincidentally, we learn quite a bit about Jonathan Lethem.

Like Tooth, the 47-year-old Lethem spends a lot of time looking back. In a 2007 piece reprinted from The New York Times Magazine, he marvels at Keith Carradine’s death scene in Robert Altman’s 1971 film McCabe & Mrs. Miller. In a 2009 piece for ultra-trendy literary monthly The Believer, he compares characters in Nathaniel West’s 1933 novella Miss Lonelyhearts  to the brick-chucking Ignatz Mouse in George Herriman’s long-running comic strip Krazy Kat (1913-1944). In each case, to quote a hipster friend, his insight is “totally now.”

The most thoughtful pieces are the mostly previously-unpublished ones that consider his presence inside the essays. He worries that these, “so-called ‘non-fictions’ were themselves artful imposters…” His voice, he says, is a matter of conscious invention: “I’ve never managed a routine book review, let alone an essay I thought worth reprinting, without first having to invent a character who’d be issuing the remarks…” This confession comes on the book’s very first and second pages under the clever heading of “Undressing ‘Me,’ Addressing ‘You’.” Readers have to wonder:  Who or what is really of interest here?

The answer, of course, is everything; Lethem included. Many of the essays, even when considering Italo Calvino or Marlin Brando, are self-reflecting. These bits of absorption facilitate Lethem’s ability to link everything. The things we learn about him —  his difficulties as a book store clerk, that at the age of 12 he joined his father drawing nude models,  that he’d “sooner drown in books than die in space where I can hear only myself scream” — are never presented as stand-alone, fun facts, like which dessert a Kardashian sister favors, but in a context relevant to larger cultural issues.

In the title essay reprinted from Harper’s, subtitled “A plagiarism,” Lethem makes an argument that art inspires art, sometimes word for word. Along the way he cites examples from Nabokov, Bob Dylan, The Flintstones, Leonard Bernstein and Muddy Waters. It’s fascinating to explore culture with one who knows so much of it, someone who travels easily between genres and generations. Sample at random from the book, as he suggests, and be rewarded. But his broad knowledge, while impressive, isn’t the point. With Lethem, it’s the thought that counts.–Cabbage Rabbit

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