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Lethem shares ‘The Ecstasy of Influence’ at reading

Published: November 11, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.

I’ve never been the biggest fan of author readings. This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy them but you have to admit they’re strange things. Whenever an author stands up to speak, I’m always taken by the thought that those of us in the audience are like spectators at a zoo. And, just as zoos desperately try to simulate natural habitats, we expect writers to say something earth shattering and new, as though readings are like reiterations of the writing process in miniature.

When I heard that novelist Jonathan Lethem would be speaking at the Brattle Theater this week (as part of an event organized by the Harvard Book Store), I knew I had to go. It’s not just that I’m a big fan of his work; each month it feels like dozens of literary luminaries pass through Cambridge, yet I always manage to talk myself out of seeing them. No, Lethem was different. You see, at the moment I’m writing my senior essay about three of his works. I’ve spent the last few months consumed by his works.

Needless to say, I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.

Lethem was at the Brattle to promote his new collection, “The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, etc.” The 437-page tome contains roughly a quarter of his uncollected works, the majority of them essays. The most famous is the eponymous “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism,” originally published in Harper’s Magazine in 2007, which serves as a rallying cry for the open source arts movement.

Lethem began the evening by reading several selections from the collection. He first read the essay “Stops,” in which he describes the interlude in which a book has been completed but not yet published as “a version of Schrödinger’s cat, unchangeably neither dead nor alive” and details all the self-doubt that fosters.

He followed this with “The Drew Barrymore Stories,” five short vignettes that all revolve around Lethem and Drew Barrymore encountering a series of living and dead celebrities. In each, Barrymore’s trademark perkiness alleviates tense, wonderfully absurd situations. One involved Lethem and Barrymore in a hot tub in Sausalito with Jack Keruoac and Truman Capote (Capote famously described Keruoac’s writing as “typing”).

After Lethem finished reading, he took questions from the audience. At first, there was that moment of silence in which everyone secretly hopes that someone, somewhere, will have a question.

Who are his favorite writers? Lethem listed Roberto Bolaño, Christina Stead and Raymond Chandler, who heavily influenced his first novel “Gun, with Occasional Music.”

He also spoke especially highly of Jorge Luis Borges.

“Borges is terribly important to me … ‘Chronic City’ is like a giant Borges story,” he said.

Lethem described his fifth novel, 1999’s “Motherless Brooklyn,” as a major breakthrough, because it was his first novel to use a real, contemporary city as its backdrop. He described it as “a kind of Valentine to Brooklyn.”

Most importantly, perhaps, the novel allowed him to get a better grip on incorporating the real into his writing, allowing him to transition into essays. He described it as learning how “to put a character named Jonathan Lethem into them.”

He also discussed the effects of the collection’s title essay. After its publication, Lethem started the Promiscuous Materials Project. He posted several of his short stories online and gave permission for anyone to use them as part of their own art projects.

“It’s for everyone and no one, and no one has to pay me,” he explained.

So far, he estimates 15 to 20 short films have been based upon these stories. One theater group in Chicago renamed themselves The Plagiarists and staged several of the stories.

Lethem also spoke about Occupy Wall Street. He is one of the hundreds of writers who signed the Occupy Writers pledge in support of the movement.

He said the movement’s “genius” lay in its “demandless demand,” its refusal to allow itself to be condensed down to any one talking point.

Lethem concluded the evening by reading a final selection that discussed his own feelings about readings and interviews. There’s the joy of discovering all the “secret readers” who come together to hear one writer speak, but also the acknowledgement that “nothing that I do makes me qualified to talk on this or that.”

After a few more questions, Lethem left the stage to begin signing copies of the book. Before the reading began, I told myself I wouldn’t buy it just yet—after all, by the time I’ll be able to read it, it’ll be available in paperback. Glancing at the well-appointed table covered with copies, I couldn’t help myself. I bought it and got in line.

As someone who’s only done this kind of thing once—and then only to get a book signed that I hated, that I’d only bought for a class—I was vaguely terrified. Should I mention my essay? Would that be weird?

Ultimately, I didn’t—it was over before I’d even really thought about it. I handed my copy to the lady assisting him and asked him how he was doing.

“Doing great,” he said.

“I really like your books,” I responded, using the generic as a crutch. Then I paused.

“Especially when they involve Truman Capote in a hot tub.”