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Jonathan Lethem
The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc.
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Doubleday / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-385-53495-6
Publication Date: 11-08-2011
440 Pages; $27.95
Date Reviewed: 12-24-2011
Index:  Non-Fiction  General Fiction  Fantasy

Reading is a peculiar experience, one that consists entirely of thought but during which we do not experience thought; instead, find ourselves immersed in and directed by the language of another to follow where their language leads our thoughts. The words may be "mere entertainment," personal philosophy, or new facts that we can then employ to manipulate the world around us — once we stop reading.

Jonathan Lethem knows exactly what his words are capable of doing, and he deploys them with deft expertise to make 'The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc.' a superb, rich and rewarding reading experience. You may think, you will be entertained and you may learn a thing or two you can use after you finish the book, but Lethem's synthesis blends genres usually seen as incompatible into a work new and unexpectedly exciting.

'Ecstasy,' which lives up to its title, begins with a scene-setting "Preface" that is best read before any other part of the book. In it, Lethem himself suggests you can wander through the rest of the book in any order that suits you. But more importantly, he points out that every time he sits down to write, he takes on a new persona.

The upshot is that even what looks to be "non-fiction" has a sort of fictive content, a perceptual bent that results when Lethem slips into the self required to write the piece. Even though the title suggests you're getting some sort of grab-bag of reviews and essays, 'The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc.' is in fact a sort of meta-fictional short story collection, written by the flesh-and-blood Jonathan Lethem in a chorus of voices all claiming to be "Jonathan Lethem," all of whom are but pretenders to the throne.

That's his story, or at least a story. Readers can take it any way they want, but it gives us just a hint of where Lethem is capable of going. After that, you're on your own, at least until you start reading each piece and get lost in Lethem's enjoyably blithe and pithy prose.

'The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc.' includes reviews, essays, memoir, arts criticism and hairy-eyed weirdness; for example, the central essay, "The Ecstasy of Influence: A plagiarism," that forms one of the major theses of this work of meta-fiction. In it, Lethem goes mano-a-mano with the cult of the Creative Individual, the "man in the wilderness" who crafts out of whole cloth something never before seen in this world and brings back that work of art to a world stunned by its originality.

Hogwash that is, a rare example of anything pure and unadulterated in this copycat world. We are born into a world of art and culture that marks us from day one, and we're better off admitting our unoriginality and reveling in our influences rather than trying to hide and deny them.

Lethem's essay is a brilliant exercise in combining opposing notions, an original work comprised entirely of rip offs. In a digital world where anything can be copied by merely pressing "CMD-C," then edited and tweezed into something new — or not — the ecstasy of influence is an essential tool to understand the creative process. We can no longer hide behind tools and processes that allow us to claim originality, not in this copy-and-paste future that has, without our noticing, become the present, and now even the past.

Lethem the character pulls off lots of fun in this collection, whether he's meeting Bob Dylan, reviewing J. G. Ballard, hanging out with James Brown, remembering his feckless youth as a used bookseller or writing, I guess I am going to be forced to call it, "real fiction," as a response to visual art.

And so the review of the book of book reviews and other non-fiction finally finds itself consuming its own tail. With one suggestion, Jonathan Lethem cleverly transforms collection into a complicated work of fictional non-fiction, a single-author anthology written by a chorus of Jonathan Lethem characters. Reading is, after all, a peculiar experience.

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