Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Nonfictions, Etc.
By Jonathan Lethem
437 pp. Doubleday, $27.95

Jonathan Lethem's hefty and remarkable new miscellany, The Ecstasy of Influence, is his fifth book since his best-selling breakthrough of 2003, the hefty and remarkable bildungs­roman Fortress of Solitude. It follows the fanciful story collection Men and Cartoons (2004), the memoiristic criticism collection The Disappointment Artist (2005), the rock novel You Don't Love Me Yet (2007), and the, well, hefty Manhattan novel Chronic City (2009). There have also been side projects, including They Live, a book-length critical essay about the John Carpenter film, and Believeniks, a pseudonymous collaboration about the 2005 Mets. And that's not counting the five '90s novels (and two story collections). The man writes a lot.

The Ecstasy of Influence reminds us that he also reads a lot. As those movie and baseball projects indicate (and by the way, a Talking Heads monograph is due shortly), Lethem is not strictly a literary man. Even when he sticks to literature he's not strictly a literary man. He championed the canonization of Philip K. Dick, and is given to mixing genre fiction, particularly science fiction, into putatively belletristic projects. His extraliterary enthusiasms are all over The Ecstasy of Influence, which takes its name from a notorious defense of open sourcing that Lethem constructed from other people's work and published in Harper's. The new book includes sections headed "Film and Comics," "The Mad Brooklynite," "Wall Art" (his father's calling) and "Dylan, Brown and Others" (mine). Published just months before James Brown's death in 2006, Lethem's Rolling Stone profile stands as the best writing ever about the greatest musician of the post-World War II era.

These byways, all of which make room for eccentric flights as well as proper essays, augment the charm and impact of what Lethem prefers to call an "autobiographical collage," a phrase he lifts from Vonnegut. This influence seems only natural, for dominating all is Lethem's prime concern always: the novel. In the preface Lethem discloses that he'd proposed the subtitle "Advertisements for Norman Mailer," and an essay of that title describes how Mailer's brawling 1959 miscellany Advertisements for Myself enthralled Lethem as a teenager and impresses him as an adult. Mailer's definition of and claim to greatness as a novelist is a model here. But as a fellow fan of Mailer's disreputable manifesto, let me point out that Lethem knows more fiction than Mailer did, and pumps his own prowess less.

At 47, Lethem is 11 years older than Mailer was in 1959, so he's had time to get more reading in. But that's hardly the biggest advantage of an omnivore who devoured a book a day on the subway in high school and has spent 15 years working in bookstores. While watching The Searchers 12 times and immersing himself in Dylan bootlegs, he's read thousands upon thousands of volumes with but one thing in common, which is that eventually they'll go out of print. Where Mailer aims to be, if not "president" or some Hemingway­esque "champion," then at least a "major writer," Lethem concludes: "I began writing in order to arrive into the company of those whose company meant more to me than any other: the world of the books I'd found on shelves and begun to assemble on my own, and the people who'd written them, and the readers who cared as much as I did, if those existed."

Lethem reports that The Ecstasy of Influence comprises a quarter of his uncollected work, with enough literary reviews and introductions left over to make another volume. A good hunk of it has never seen print, and not just the Mailer-style italicized interstitials--crucial stuff like "Advertisements for Norman Mailer" itself; "Zelig of Notoriety," about his Bennington classmates Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt; "My Disappointment Critic," his argument with James Wood; and best of all "Rushmore Versus Abundance," his argument with novelists who want to be president. This argument Lethem frames by extending rhetorical aid to noncanonical writers inside and outside the belletristic drawing room, and (elsewhere in the collection) to the likes of Ernie Kovacs, Stan Lee, Rick James and Drew Barrymore.

He also frames it by conceiving rhetoric itself so permissively. A critical foray I admire as much as any of the straighter essays, for instance, is "The Drew Barrymore Stories," a two-page trifle knocked off for a glossy biannual in what Lethem designates "a mode I'd call 'ecstatic,'" where Barrymore's saucy mischief and fondness for chocolate deflect the ill spirits of Alfred Hitchcock, Miles Davis, Howard Hawks, Dustin Hoffman and a hot tub of bitchy novelists. Equally post-essayistic is a diptych made up of "Top-Five Depressed Superheroes" (Ragman, Deadman and others I knew naught of) and a Playboy sketch about Lethem's own fabrication, the Epiphany, whose arch­enemy is named Le Petit Mort and whose acolytes are Eureka!, Tour de Force and Non Sequitur. Lethem believes any deviser of nonfictions is ipso facto a fictional creation. In these two pieces, that creation reads like Robert Benchley's favorite grandson giving art snobs what for.

Finally, however, the deviser of these nonfictions is a novelist. Although novelists do carp about one another, Lethem's inclusiveness extends to his own clan--he even defends American Psycho. Its parameters are established in a rich new essay called "Postmodernism as Liberty Valance," in which Lethem sides with the postmodernists he links metaphorically to John Ford's chaos-sowing gunman without belittling designated upholders of the old order like Alice Munro, Cormac McCarthy and Jonathan Franzen. Lethem believes that like all novelists, such traditionalists are just following their druthers, "whether consciously or in merry obliviousness to the range of options available." How well they succeed can be decided only on a case-by-case basis. Tie goes to the runner.

The fiction section begins with Lethem's evangelistic (and convincing) Times review of Roberto Bolaño's 2666 before taking up advocacy proper, reprinting introductions to novels by Paula Fox, Thomas Berger, Shirley Jackson, G. K. Chesterton and Nathanael West. As is Lethem's generous habit, all six essays honor writers who, except for the then-ascendant Bolaño and of course West ("the great precursor to Heller, Pynchon, Philip K. Dick, Colson Whitehead and so much else"), have been underpraised. As "Rushmore Versus Abundance" puts it: "How on earth can abundance damage anything for anyone, unless what's damaged is some critic's pining to control what shouldn't be controlled, or to circumscribe boundlessness?"

But poking around among his fiction choices, three of whom I'd never read a whole book by, I was struck by how fabulistic all save Fox tended to be--even Chesterton in The Man Who Was Thursday, which is subtitled A Nightmare. Although Lethem is always discreet and perhaps even genuinely humble about his own prowess, he still manages to valorize his fictional practices by comparison. He's pro-genre, absolutely. But he clearly prefers Ballard to Mosley, say, and within science fiction is drawn to the fanciful and quasi-surrealist, a penchant that pertains in his own novels right through Chronic City. Probably that's why I--as a detective guy and a full-time critic as well as a Queens-born East Villager for whom Lethem's Brooklyn-bohemian biography resonates--find both The Disappointment Artist and The Ecstasy of Influence more exciting than any of his interesting-to-terrific fiction except his most realistic novel, Fortress of Solitude. But it could just be that he's such an openhearted, unconventional critic.

New York Times Book Review, November 25, 2011

Postscript Notes:

Introduction published in the same issue, by "The Editors" (link here):

Up Front: Robert Christgau

Illustration by Tina Berning

Reviewing Jonathan Lethem's new essay collection, The Ecstasy of Influence, on Page 15 this week, the eminent rock critic Robert Christgau lets on that he favors Lethem's nonfiction over most of his fiction. "I love novels," Christgau said in a recent e-mail. "I was an English major like so many rock critics, and I bonded with my fiction-writing wife over Sister Carrie and The Man Who Loved Children. But though I read a few dozen novels a year, I don't 'keep up.' In 2011 I preferred Eudora Welty's Losing Battles and Colm Toibin's Brooklyn to Jennifer Egan's Visit From the Goon Squad, some old Martin Beck mysteries to a recent Henning Mankell."

Has Christgau--who spent nearly four decades as the pop music critic at The Village Voice--ever tried his own hand at a novel? "I gave up writing fiction in 1964, when I was 22," he said. "Just before the dawn of the 'nonfiction novel,' my hot idea was that reporting on real-life events would compensate neatly for my deficiencies in imagination." Even then, Christgau didn't intend to write criticism. "That was, you know the cant, 'parasitic.' A few years later, however, I grabbed the chance to write a short, infrequent popular music column for Esquire, and a few years after that had dubbed myself the Dean of American Rock Critics. Done right, rock criticism requires listening, reporting, research, stylistic acuity, more listening, and you bet imagination. I pity contemporaries who believe all good pop music is in the past--an ancient cliché that betrays a serious failure of imagination itself." The Editors