The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem

Something supremely satisfying in knowing that a writer that you like likes the same things as you, thinks about the world the same way. Jonathan Lethem is one of my favorite contemporary novelists, and I really enjoyed this collection, which is mostly essays with a few pieces of short fiction tossed in. It’s has a structure that makes a point, but is still a bit all over the place, but not in a bad way. It covers a lot of ground as many of Lethem’s different interests are included.

Lethem is into comics and records. He’s a square. He cares a lot about science fiction, and wants to see it respected as literature, but at the same time admires the way it exists now, the rich world it has built in the margins.

The idea that science fiction is literature is something that I feel passionately about, and can talk about at length given the opportunity. Writers like Lethem are part of what shaped my worldview here. His own work has a lot of sf inspiration, in elements, or in its obvious appreciation for sf, or just its general relationship to reality. His fiction is an argument that “gene” shouldn’t be a bad word — it isn’t a leap to essays explicitly saying that. I really enjoyed his writing about Philip K. Dick, an author I appreciate but don’t always enjoy.

The title essay is a collage piece that I read for course about progress and madness. I like what he’s saying, and I like the essay as a piece of writing, but mostly thinking about it makes me want to go back to David Shields’s Reality Hunger, which gets to a lot of the same ideas, in a similar method, but somehow hangs together better. Some of that may be scale — you have more space to make a point in a book than in an essay. They’re both definitely worth reading if questions of authorship and factuality are something you’re interested in.

I don’t know if I’d recommend this book to someone who doesn’t like Lethem’s fiction, but if you do, then it’s definitely worth checking out. If you’re new to him as a writer I’d start with Fortress of Solitude, which is one of my all time favorite novels.

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