The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan Lethem

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The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, etc., Jonathan Lethem, 2011, Doubleday, ISBN 978-0-385-53495-6, $27.95, 437pp.

It is probably presumptuous of me to claim that my career could have been similar to Jonathan Lethem’s. After all, he’s won a National Book award and published a good half dozen books while I’ve managed to barely eke out one novel. But there was a time—1988 to be exact—when our paths crossed and we weren’t that dissimilar. The occasion was the World Science Fiction Convention in New Orleans held that year, where we met at the Hugo Losers Party. Neither of us were up for any award that year as neither of us had published anything at that point; instead, we had finagled invitations from author friends. In the course of a couple of hours, we discovered that we both idolized Philip K. Dick, loved Marvel Comics, ordered obscure books from Mark Ziesing, quoted Talking Heads, had a mutual friend in Andy Watson, and enthused over movies like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

Within the next couple of years, we had both sold our stories to the same small press magazine (New Pathways, published out of Plano, Texas, not Austin as Lethem recalls it herein). But even then our paths had already begun to diverge greatly. Lethem made a number of sales to the larger SF magazines while my second was to an original anthology whose editor happened to be a friend. By the time of my third sale, Lethem was already writing his first novel, which appeared a few years after, then preceded to publish a book a year and make his name as one of the hip new writers.

I wrote code.

The truth is that even before that chance encounter in 1988, Lethem and I were nothing alike. He grew up in the Northeast in a very liberal Jewish household. His first love, following in his father’s footsteps, was painting. I can’t draw a thing, and my background was in a conservative Christian home in small town Texas. By the time he had entered college, he had already decided that a career in writing was a possibility. I dallied in it, writing enough to learn the craft, but never dedicating myself to the pursuit. He worked low-paying jobs in bookstores as a clerk; I leveraged my computer knowledge in successively more remunerative jobs that far outpaid what I could get from fiction.

But that’s the beauty of writing and the community of writers. From two varied backgrounds we met and connected for a brief discussion that still lingers in my memory, although I doubt Lethem recalls it. In this memoir, he reflects on his past—the things he thought and wanted as a young man in his mid-20s and the likely reality of his then-situation, able to reflect on it with that clarity of hindsight two or three decades later. He’s extremely honest about his ambition and how lucky he’s been. But as someone who was there, I can tell you that while he may have been lucky in some ways, he also had more drive and more perseverance to accomplish what he did.

In addition to memoir, this non-fiction collection also contains some essays and interviews he did for various publications. The one on James Brown written for Rolling Stone is outstanding, a glorious portrait of both the man’s incredible flaws as well as what made him special, a good compliment to the biopic on Brown released a few years ago. The interview with Dylan is almost as good.

I find reading Lethem exceedingly strange, not just for the chance encounter that I’ve detailed above. While not all of his interests coincide with mine—for instance, I’ve grown weary of people extolling the virtues of New York and I’ve never cared for Bob Dylan—there’s enough correspondence in off-mentions that I constantly have a feeling of frisson (for example, the mentions of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time novel sequence and W. M. Spackman’s novel An Armful of Warm Girl). Reading this was like rejoining a conversation that started back in 1988; I just wish I could have engaged in it during those years rather than having to catch up to it this late in life.

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