by Jonathan Lethem

Random House


464pp/$27.95/November 2011

The Ecstasy of Influence
Cover by Ben Wiseman

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

The Ecstasy of Influence is the follow up collection to Jonathan Lethems 2005 collection The Disappointment Artist. While that relatively thin collection contained only nine essays, the new volume contains nearly nine times as many essays. Lethem has conveniently grouped the essays thematically in The Ecstasy of Influence to allow the reader to focus on related essays, some of which do offer a sense of redundancy when read in proximity to each other.

The Disappointment Artist, I noted the distinction between Lethem and the narrative voice he is using in his essays. In The Ecstasy of Influence, Lethem, himself, points out that for his essays he invents a character, Lethem who provides the voice for his essays. He doesn't disown the essays, or their seemingly autobiographical bits, but this invention does allow Lethem to stray from his own reality if there is a point to be made, or allow for the vagaries of memory when Lethem is discussing the actions of the 13 year old Lethem.

The essays included are varied. Naturally, Lethem includes several essays on pop culture, films, and comics, all areas about which he has written numerous times and which infiltrate his novels. His background as an author comes into play with some frequency as well. Bookstores, in New York and Berkeley, played a formative role in his literary identity, as did a brief period when he was at school with authors such as Donna Tartt and Bret Easton Ellis. The focal point on writing, however, comes to a head in the titular essay, The Ecstasy of Influence, in which Lethem points out the referential existence of writers. As John Donne wrote, "No man is an island entire in himself," and Lethem just as clearly points out that no work of literature can be read, or indeed written, as if it exists in a vacuum. Both author and reader bring knowledge of other works to the literature which will affect the understanding of the work, which, according to Lethem is as it should be.

At times, Lethem comes across as pompous, a trait which Lethem acknowledges in his own essays, however he also notes that pomposity is not always a negative trait, especially in an essayist who is trying to make a point and who should use every tool at his disposal. And Lethem does. Lethem's voice changes from essay to essay, a fact that is clear when reading several essays in a row (which also tends to make the occasional redundancy more evident). These changes strengthen the essays as Lethem is able to make use of a variety of tropes and themes.

Readers who only know Lethem from his excellent novels will discover that when he tackles specific topics in his essays he can be just as entertaining and even more informative. The slender The Disappointment Artist can almost be seen as a prelude to this much larger collection of essays. One of the beautiful things about The Ecstasy of Influence is that most of it can be enjoyed at a leisurely pace, although there are a few essays which tie together so closely that they should be read sequentially.

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