Most of the essays included in the collection are culled from previous publications, but a few, like the much discussed essay “My Disappointment Critic/On Bad Faith,” where he goes head-to-head with preeminent critic James Wood, are new. The essays are a strange mix of reviews, introductions to books, interviews, and rambling musings (“The Drew Barrymore Stories” is but one prime example) and the effect often left me from disoriented and mildly amused to intrigued. Lethem is at his most convincing however when he leaves behind his experimental affectations and digs deeply into the heart of pop culture to unearth gems of observation. In "Donald Sutherland’s Buttocks," he writes affectingly about the film Don’t Look Now, starring Sutherland and Julie Christie, and how it’s celebrated and contested love scene still moves him years after his first viewing. He extrapolates even deeper by yearning for a cinema that can address sexuality with an honesty and forthrightness as expressed in that film. “Am I calling for a return to reticence, to mystery? No. I’m calling for what I don’t know to be calling for, I’m calling for surprise, for complicity delivered in an instant, I’m calling for filmic moments that lure and confuse me the way sex can, at its best.” Having seen Don’t Look Now, I was especially moved by his argument, not only in my response to and observations of this film but of my own work as well. In “Dancing About Architecture or Fifth Beatles,” he takes his memories of learning to dance and goes further to explore pop culture’s egalitarian pretenses both glorious and ridiculous. In “The Ecstasy of Influence,” he argues in favor of pop cultural piracy and how every artist in a way plagiarizes from other sources and influences. As he writes:
If nostalgic cartoonists had never borrowed from Fritz the Cat, there would be no Ren & Stimpy Show; without the Rankin/Bass and Charlie Brown Christmas specials, there would be no South Park; and without the Flintstones---more or less The Honeymooners in cartoon loincloths---The Simpsons would cease to exist. If those don’t strike you as essential losses, then consider the remarkable series of ‘plagiarisms’ that link Ovid’s ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, or Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra, copied nearly verbatim from Plutarch’s life of Mark Antony and also later nicked by T.S. Eliot for The Waste Land. If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism.
He ends the essay with a bibliography of sorts of mishmashed ideas or outright lifting of previous sources to make his point. Written in 2007 for Harper’s, it’s an interesting argument, especially in light of SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act that has been winding through Congress as of late. Whether such an argument is compelling or not (and I’m not entirely convinced of it myself, though SOPA is an outright vulgarization of the original intent of copyright law), ought to have little bearing. Lethem makes you think and that is at best what a good writer ought to do.
While not all of his essays work, Lethem nonetheless writes compellingly and passionately about his subjects. His love and knowledge of literature is inarguable and his desire to elevate pop culture to the realm of high art, successfully or unsuccessfully, is certainly admirable. The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfiction, etc. could have used some more tight editing (leaving out some of the more nonsensical pieces that interrupted the flow of thought from one essay to the next) and there were a few typographical errors that were unfortunate glitches in otherwise well-written arguments. However the best of his essays far outweigh the weaknesses in the collection and I encourage anyone who is a fan of Lethem’s work or who simply wants to read and think about culture should pick up this collection.