First published on 27 Jan 2012. Updated on 3 Feb 2012.
Celebrated novelist Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence is a volume of remarkably thoughtful musings on a wide swathe of contemporary culture, frequently refracted through the lens of autobiography.
The 450-page book of essays spans more than a decade of work. The highlights are too many to recount, but among Lethem’s triumphs are an essential interview with Bob Dylan (as Dylan entered his artistic third act with Modern Times) and a brief, elegiac and strangely moving discussion of the film McCabe & Mrs. Miller. He has a particularly dextrous touch in wedding his personal experience with art to its significance in society.
Lethem operates with enormous scope, making juxtapositions that can at first seem strained, if not out-and-out goofy: his series of essays on music, for example, begins with a long quote from Nietzsche and is immediately followed by a loving exegesis on funk godfather James Brown. What is remarkable about this approach is how frequently the author is able to make these connections – which could feel gimmicky in lesser hands – pay off.