In his preface, Mr. Lethem acknowledges his debt to Mailer, describing Advertisements for Myself as “the template for throwing fiction, poetry, letters, etc., into the same collection, along with so much preening apparatus.” It’s that “preening apparatus” that made Advertisements interesting, and that Mr. Lethem imitates with aplomb. Mailer wasn’t content to gather up his miscellaneous short works and write a preface; he had to comment on his selections, too, providing context, analysis and even misgivings. One way to describe Advertisements is to call it a blog in book form, and at one point, Mr. Lethem apologetically refers to his own collection as “bloggish.” Both are cases of the kind of book that only a novelist with some degree of personal celebrity would ever dream of putting out.
Mr. Lethem’s fame was more gradually attained than Mailer’s, but both writers helped define a prevailing literary aesthetic. In Mailer’s case, it was the personal, first-person style of New Journalism, which he pioneered in The Village Voice, a paper he co-founded. Mr. Lethem’s aesthetic has been called, for lack of a better term, “genre-bending.” It’s a technique that mixes genres in unexpected ways, often elevating pulp fiction devices by deploying them in narratives otherwise driven by language and character. Mr. Lethem describes his first novel, Gun With Occasional Music, as “Philip K. Dick meets Raymond Chandler.” His breakthrough novel, 1999’s Motherless Brooklyn, also had Chandleresque elements, mixing detective novel tropes with a hyperrealistic narrator who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome. He followed this with his highly acclaimed novel The Fortress of Solitude, a Bildungsroman set in pregentrified, 1970s Brooklyn, whose plot hinges on a magic ring that grants superhero abilities.
Many contemporary writers have toyed with this genre-poaching method, Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz and Colson Whitehead among them. But Mr. Lethem disagrees with critics who suggest that writers of his generation are influencing one another directly. Instead, he argues, it’s the natural impulse of a generation whose formative influences come from comic books, movies and television. And in this, he may be too modest. Would Mr. Whitehead’s recently published novel, Zone One, which takes as its point of departure the 1970s zombie movie Dawn of the Dead, have been so quickly embraced if Mr. Lethem had not laid the groundwork with his comic book-infected The Fortress of Solitude? And without Mr. Lethem, would Jennifer Egan have described her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit From the Goon Squad as inspired, in equal measure, by Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and HBO’s long-running series The Sopranos? For better and for worse, Mr. Lethem is part of a vanguard of Gen-X writers whose M.O. is to put a literary gloss on their pop culture enthusiasms.
Mr. Lethem would quibble with “pop culture,” finding it snobbish. He prefers “vernacular culture,” since many of his pulp influences are not popular at all, but cultish and strange. “The science-fiction writers I knew functioned like poets, mining for tribal rewards, names unknown elsewhere, and no thought of quitting their day jobs—yet you’d still hear literary novelists slight ‘commercial writing.’” Mr. Lethem is charmed by sci-fi’s self-sufficiency and suspicious of his desire to be an ambassador to the genre, referring to his own efforts as a “gentrification campaign.” In a long, moving tribute to his literary hero, Philip K. Dick, he worries that his love, once simple, is now of a “colonizing, acquisitive variety.” Much of The Ecstasy of Influence, and perhaps Mr. Lethem’s sensibility in general, is about his struggle to reconcile his loyalties to both genre and literary communities.
At the heart of The Ecstasy of Influence is an essay by the same name, which was first published in Harper’s in 2007. Subtitled “a plagiarism,” the essay argued against unnecessarily restrictive copyright laws through the liberal use of unattributed quotations. When published, it was greeted with joy by information-wants-to-be-free Internet gurus and befuddlement by writers who wondered if Mr. Lethem was calling for the death of quotation marks. Four years later, Mr. Lethem admits the essay may have “contradicted itself internally,” as it “tried to occupy abandoned acreage in the middle of a battlefield, between the extremes of copyright-abolitionist anarchy and … the romantic notion of the capital-A Artist in a Promethean vacuum.” Ultimately, the essay led him to think more deeply about influence and to gather his writings about the subject into one volume.
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.