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.


The End of the Tour

On some level I’m over white men talking about literature, or movies about white men talking about literature, but in reality, I really like David Foster Wallace, and enjoyed this movie a lot. It’s about his Midwestern book tour promoting Infinite Jest, where he’s joined on the road by a reporter.

Do you think Jesse Eisenberg ever gets tired of playing assholes? He plays the journalist here, and he’s good, but he’s definitely playing to type. Jason Segel as Wallace is really good, I didn’t realize he was this good. I hope it doesn’t make him into a serious/boring actor though — he can be more interesting than that. I know Mamie Gummer is acting royalty, but she looks so perfectly midwestern. Of course she’s the City Pages book editor. It’s perfect.

The parts that take place in the Twin Cities kind of weird me out, but in a good way. This is a very good fake of a past version of my hometown. I didn’t really live through these years, not that I was aware of, but there are parts that are still recognizable — the Mary Tyler Moore statue, the nice lady who offers to show them the Mary Tyler Moore statue, a certain breed of Midwestern literary hipsters. There’s a part where they go to the Mall of America, and eat in the food court there. If you look past them the amusement part is clearly Nickelodeon World, not Camp Snoopy, and the anachronism kind of pisses me off. Like, I know it’s really nothing, and they’re not going to use special effects to fix it, but it’s still wrong. This is rooted in a deeper philosophical truth about how Camp Snoopy was awesome, while Nickelodeon World is kind of terrible, but this isn’t the space to really make that argument.

It’s a good movie. It’s very talky. It’s based of a book that’s based of tapes of conversation, it’s all about talking about writing. It’s sort of funny to watch them talk about the dangers of television as a brain suck while watching it streaming. Nothing in the movie really made me want to go read the book it’s based on. I feel like I’ve gotten enough of it from the film, I don’t need to see any of the words on the page. This was satisfactory.

It kind of made me want to start reading Infinite Jest, but I’m only allowed to be in the middle of one ridiculous huge book at a time, and I’m still bogged down in Dahlgren. Maybe I will just reread his tennis essays instead.

David Foster Wallace is this hugely important writer, the kind of literary figure that I think is supposed to be unapproachable and confusing? I think that’s a common impression of him, and that this movie is supposed to help you get to know him? Which it does, but I don’t get the underlying idea that he’s mysterious. I feel like he’s very present in his essays, which is part of what I appreciate about them. He won’t just write about tennis or cruise ships, it’s about him. Hearing the conversations he has in the movie just adds another layer. It makes him even more real, a guy with a messy house and some cool dogs.

The dogs in the movie are really cute. I made a note to myself about how cute the dogs are, so they must have been great. Even if David Foster Wallace isn’t your jam, maybe you’ll enjoy the cute dogs.