A Writer’s Debts: Jonathan Lethem Examines His Influences

Italo Calvino, Robert Altman, J.G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Don DeLillo, H.P. Lovecraft, James Baldwin, Vivian Gornick, Lester Bangs, Raymond Chandler and Nietzsche among them

So, who are Mr. Lethem’s influences? To name a few, in no particular order: Italo Calvino, Robert Altman, J.G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Don DeLillo, Shirley Hazzard, Thomas Berger, H.P. Lovecraft, L.J. Davis, James Baldwin, Muriel Spark, Vivian Gornick, Lester Bangs, Raymond Chandler and Nietzsche. Mr. Lethem also pays homage to the visual artists who have influenced his work, never forgetting that his first ambition was to be a painter, like his father. A love of music is evident throughout The Ecstasy of Influence, and in a long profile of Bob Dylan, Mr. Lethem brings new insight to an artist whose work has been discussed prodigiously by others. Although Mr. Dylan’s influences are as transparent as Mr. Lethem’s, his relationship to them is less tormented. Interviewing Mr. Dylan, Mr. Lethem asks him what Alicia Keyes did to deserve mention in the song “Thunder on the Mountain.” Mr. Dylan’s laid-back answer is, “There’s nothing about that girl I don’t like.” The exchange reveals everything about these two artists’ different approaches.

Mr. Lethem also discusses more general influences: his father, Brooklyn and the culture of used bookstores, which he worked in for many years as a clerk before being able to support himself as a writer. He’s most confessional, though, on the subject of his career trajectory. He refers self-deprecatingly to his “plan” to become a writer, one that led him to drop out of college, hitchhike across the country, and even get a tattoo inspired by Dick’s Ubik. He’s not entirely proud of the tattoo, or of the fact that he never managed to complete his degree, and chides himself for clinging to bohemian ideals more appropriate to his parent’s generation. He’s also aware of the ways his romanticism became muddled with his love of sci-fi, writing with irony about his desire to legitimize a community that couldn’t care less about the ivory tower. “I needed to come from Pulpland, an underdog script someone should have talked me out of.” When his own work received mainstream notice, he was as bewildered as he was relieved. Suddenly, his writing was being solicited from mainstream quarters he had long assumed were out of reach. A MacArthur Fellowship gave him the luxury of time, and he found himself unable to turn down queries from even the tiniest publications. “For 10 years I said yes to everything.”

The Ecstasy of Influence is, more than anything, a record of Mr. Lethem’s life as a public novelist, a role for which he is obviously well suited. If admitting that embarrasses Mr. Lethem (and it seems to, at times), he should turn to Mailer as a counterexample. After publishing The Naked and the Dead to great acclaim, Mailer found himself ill-equipped for a life in the spotlight. In Advertisements for Myself, he admits, “I spent … years trying to gobble up the experiences of a victorious man when I was still no man at all, and had no real gift for enjoying life. Such a gift usually comes from a series of small victories artfully achieved.” Mr. Lethem has such a gift, and The Ecstasy of Influence is evidence of it.

editorial@observer.com