Phantoms of the author

The Ecstasy of Influence: Non-fictions, etc, by Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Cape, RRP£20, 437 pages

While reading the title essay of Jonathan Lethem’s new collection, I was forced to put down the book and look uneasily around the room, my neck-hairs bristling. This chill is remarkable given that the piece is about cultural copyright, an important but not especially gothic subject. Meditating on authenticity, Lethem examines the twisted ways in which ownership operates in the public sphere. He draws from an incredible variety of sources: surrealism, Disney, the musician Muddy Waters, Dickens’s Bleak House. This sophisticated, erudite essay, first published in 2007, appears to showcase Lethem reaching new levels of range and insight. That is, until you come to the appended section of notes, which, without giving too much away, opens a trapdoor beneath your chair.

Lethem is an award-winning American novelist and cultural commentator whose body of writing spans genres and forms. One of his main projects in The Ecstasy of Influence, a catholic mix of reviews, commissioned essays and interviews, short fiction and memoir, is to experiment with our own irrational attachment to authorship. In the introductory note to his story “Always Crashing in the Same Car”, he admits that the work is a collage of other stories, a literary “mashup” of, among others, Italo Calvino, JG Ballard and Julio Cortázar. Like Frankenstein collecting “bones from charnel-houses”, Lethem cobbles a new story from the scraps of others but, unlike Frankenstein’s creation, this piece remains lifeless on the table. Knowing about its composition before reading it, being put on alert for the seams and the stitches, kills any chance of animation. However, this story’s failure is also its triumph, since it reveals the superstitious importance of having the ghostly presence of an author, any author, looking over our shoulders as we turn the pages.

Reviewing the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Lethem writes, “It may seem that every human name appears there, and that Bolaño’s book is reading your mind as you read it.” Lethem’s equivalently crowded collection played such a trick on me. The more spooked I became, always half-afraid of being duped by one of Lethem’s postmodern experiments, the more insistently did spectral images recur. Such eeriness arises because, in these works, influence is a sort of haunting, a state of being possessed. For Lethem, how we move to music is an embodiment of this idea: “Other ghosts rustle in my dancing these days ... Elvis Costello intentional-awkward heel-scoots and kicks, a kind of sideways bunny hop and mechanical stop and restart that I appropriated from my friend Sari, and which always reminds me of the B-52’s.”

Lethem’s account of Bob Dylan describes a man who “seems to feel he dwells in a body haunted like a house by his bardlike musical precursors”; the unwritten books of Nathanael West, who died young in a car crash, are “the greatest phantom-limb oeuvre in American fiction”. As you travel through its rooms, the collection begins to echo with Lethem’s writerly tics, his preferred adjectives and go-to metaphors, giving an uncanny familiarity to the later pieces. Essays corralled artificially are bound to repeat themselves in this way; by nature they form a slightly senile, slightly crazed whole. Some pieces are grouped together as the offspring of the same inspiration, sharing genetic traits in parallel images, ideas or even phrasings. In the later incarnations, earlier attempts become faces at the window.

The centrepiece of the collection is its longest essay, “The Genius of James Brown”, which supplies this haunted work with its principal monstrosity. As a journalist for Rolling Stone, Lethem was given access to Brown’s recording sessions with his band. Brown is portrayed as an intensely sinister figure, as a man who smiled in every staged public photograph while wielding fanatical, humourless control over his band. Lethem brilliantly records the dynamic between Brown and his entourage, the singer being “both their idol and their jester, their tyrannical father and ludicrous child”. Occasionally Brown would remember Lethem’s presence, addressing him, with the bully’s blend of intimacy and menace, by the nickname “Mr Rolling Stone”. Since we have colluded in his trespassing, Lethem’s nervy replies feel like our own, and we wish for nothing more than for the monster to forget us again, to retreat back into the self-absorbed frenzy of his genius.

While the young Quentin Tarantino was working in a Manhattan video store, having his mind blown by Asian martial arts films, across town the young Lethem was conducting similar love affairs as a clerk in various bookshops. These wonderful essays have the garrulousness and range of reference of the smitten, Tarantino-esque nerd, as well as box-checking the nerd’s interest in the marginalised: comic book superheroes, unpopular sci-fi writers, a host of what Lethem himself terms “fifth Beatles”.

His influences appear in gushing lists and yet, for all this populousness, a lonesome note resounds. He believes his works are “surely destined” to be out-of-print, literature being a “dark sea” of forgotten words, on the surface of which the writers of the moment foam and gleam. If he is proved right, we should hope that something of Lethem’s seriousness, intellect and generosity returns to lend its shine to the sentences of the future.

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