The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc.

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9780385534956: The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc.

What’s a novelist supposed to do with contemporary culture? And what’s contemporary culture sup­posed to do with novelists? In The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan Lethem, tangling with what he calls the “white elephant” role of the writer as public intellectual, arrives at an astonishing range of answers.

A constellation of previously published pieces and new essays as provocative and idiosyncratic as any he’s written, this volume sheds light on an array of topics from sex in cinema to drugs, graffiti, Bob Dylan, cyberculture, 9/11, book touring, and Marlon Brando, as well as on a shelf’s worth of his literary models and contemporaries: Norman Mailer, Paula Fox, Bret Easton Ellis, James Wood, and oth­ers. And, writing about Brooklyn, his father, and his sojourn through two decades of writing, Lethem sheds an equally strong light on himself.

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About the Author:

JONATHAN LETHEM is the New York Times bestselling author of eight novels, including Chronic City, The Fortress of Solitude, and Motherless Brooklyn.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

 
Postmodernism as Liberty Valance

Notes on a Ritual Killing

1.   Spoiler alert. John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an allegorical Western that I am now going to totally pretzel into an alle­gory for something else entirely. Actually I’ll reverse it: The original allegorizes the taming of the western frontier, the coming of moder­nity in the form of the lawbooks and the locomotive, and memorializes what was lost (a loss the film sees as inevitable). My version allegorizes the holding at bay, for the special province of literary fiction, of con­temporary experience in all its dismaying or exhilarating particulars, as well as a weird persistent denial of a terrific number of artistic strat­egies for illuminating that experience. The avoidance, that’s to say, of any forthright address of what’s called postmodernity, and what’s lost in avoiding it (a sacrifice I see as at best pointless, an empty rehearsal of anxieties, and at worst hugely detrimental for fiction).

2.   The chewy center of TMWSLV is a gunfight. A man stands in the main street of a western town and (apparently) kills another man. The victim—for this is, technically, murder—represents chaos and anxi­ety and fear to all who know him, and has been regarded as unkill­able, almost in the manner of a monster or zombie from another movie genre; his dispatch is regarded by the local population with astonished relief and gratitude, such that they will shower the killer with regard (he’s destined to become his party’s nominee for vice president of the United States). The secret the movie reveals: The killer was not the man in the street, but another.
 
3.   The three persons in TMWSLV: James Stewart a.k.a. “Ransom Stoddard,” the upstanding, even priggish young lawyer from the east, defined by his naïve sincerity and dedication to the rule of law; John Wayne a.k.a. “Tom Doniphon,” cynical veteran of the frontier, who tends to an isolationist-libertarian approach toward civilization but is essentially lovable and will become heartbreaking by film’s end; and Lee Marvin a.k.a. “Liberty Valance,” a sadistic, amoral thug who delights in sowing chaos and exposing the fragility of social convention (by terrorizing family restaurants, newspaper offices, elections, etc.).

4.   Stewart/Stoddard believes he’s “the man who killed Liberty Valance” (he stood, after all, in the center of town, visible to all, with a gun in his hand). More important, the witnesses believe he’s the one. In fact, it was Wayne/Doniphon who did the deed, while hidden in a shadowy alley, after having elaborately conspired to goad the helpless and paci­fistic Stewart/Stoddard into his public role as a gun-toting defender of public peace against the savage anarchy of Marvin/Valance.

5.   Liberty Valance, i.e., “Free Persuasion”—what an absurd, obvious, Pynchonian name! But then, the characters in Dickens and Henry James have odd names, too.

6.   “Venturing back in time isn’t the only option for novelists loath to address the mass media that most Americans marinate in. There are also those populations cut off from the mainstream for cultural rea­sons, such as recent immigrants and their families. And then there are those at the geographical margins . . . It’s remarkable how many recent American literary novels and short stories are set on ranches . . . The American novelist is buffeted by two increasingly contradictory imper­atives. The first comes as the directive to depict ‘The Way We Live Now’ . . . Cliché it may be, but the notion that no one is better suited to explain the dilemmas of contemporary life than the novelist per­sists . . . [The] other designated special province of the literary novelist: museum-quality depth. The further literature is driven to the outskirts of the culture, the more it is cherished as a sanctuary from everything coarse, shallow and meretricious in that culture. If these two missions seem incompatible, that’s because they are. To encompass both . . . you must persuade your readers that you have given them what they want by presenting them with what they were trying to get away from when they came to you in the first place.”
Laura Miller, The Guardian

7.   Let’s wade into the unpleasantness around the term “postmodern­ism”: Nobody agrees on its definition, but in literary conversations the word is often used as finger-pointing to a really vast number of things that might be seen as threatening to canonical culture: author-killing theories generated by French critics, collapsings of high and low cultural preserves into a value-neutral fog, excessive reference to various other media and/or mediums, especially electronic ones (ironically, even a Luddishly denunciatory take on certain media and/or mediums may be suspect merely for displaying an excess of familiarity with same), an enthusiasm for “metafiction” (a word that ought to be reserved for a specific thing that starts with Cervantes, but isn’t), for antinarrative, for pop-culture references or generic forms, for overt (as opposed to politely passive) “intertextuality,” for unreliable narration, for surre­alism or magic realism or hysterical realism or some other brand of “opposed- to- realism” affiliation, for “irony” (another term that’s been abused out of its effective contour and function, and its abusers have fewer excuses than do those of postmodernism), etc. etc. etc. Now, any writer espousing, let alone employing, all of the above things would be a gorgon-headed monster, surely deserving rapid assassination for the safety of the literary community in general. (Or maybe not, maybe they’d be splendid.) But—and I present this as axiomatic—such a person, and such writing, is impossible to consider seriously because all of the modes denounced under the banner of “postmodernist” are incompatible: You can’t, just for instance, exalt disreputable genres like the crime story and also want to do away with narrative.
 
8.   The reverse person, a literary person inclined toward or at least com­pelled by none of the above-named modes or gestures—and I present this not as axiomatic but as an obnoxious opinion—would be dull beyond belief. They basically would have declined the entire twentieth century (and interesting parts of several others). You’ve read our entire menu, sir? And nothing was of interest? Really, nothing?

9.   “ . . . as a phenomenon, postmodernism is either specifically aes­thetic or more generally cultural; it is either revolutionary or reaction­ary; it is either the end of ideology or the inescapable conclusion of ideology . . . It is expressed in architecture, art, literature, the media, science, religion and fashion, and at the same time it is equivalent to none of these. It is both a continuation and intensification of what has gone before and a radical break with all traces of the past. It is, above all, simultaneously critical and complicit.”
Kathleen Fitzpatrick, The Anxiety of Obsolescence
“Critical debates about postmodernism constitute postmodernism itself.”
Stephen Connor, Postmodernist Culture
 
10.   I suggested that abusers of the word “postmodernism” had excuses. I offer the above quotes as exculpatory evidence. The serious use of the term manifestly propagates bewilderment. But the quotes are also a reminder that the term has serious uses. It means more than “art I don’t like.”

11.   What postmodernism really needs is a new name—or three of them.

12.   The first “postmodernism” that requires a new name is our sense— I’m taking it for granted that you share it—that the world, as presently defined by the advent of global techno-capitalism, the McLuhanesque effects of electronic media, and the long historical postludes of the transformative theories, movements, and traumas of the twentieth century, isn’t a coherent or congenial home for human psyches. Chuck Klosterman details this suspicion in his essay on the Unabomber, called “FAIL” (though it might as well be called “Sympathy for Theo­dore Kaczynski”). His conclusion, basically, is that in the teeth of con­temporary reality we’d all be a little bit crazy not to sometimes wish to kill that sort of postmodernism. I speak here as one who’s spent loads of his own good faith hurling tiny word-bombs at the rolling edifice of the triumphalist Now. This postmodernism we’ll call Kaczynski’s Bad Dream.
 
13.   The second substitute term I’ll offer is for the avowed, self-declared postmodernist school of U.S. fiction writers: Robert Coover, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Stanley Elkin, William Gass, John Hawkes, a few others, many of them one another’s friends, and many of them influential teachers. A few non-teachers—Pynchon, of course (unless he was teaching high-school social studies or geometry somewhere). This clan, when Barth and Pynchon were scooping up major prizes, rode high enough that they seemed worth knocking down. This is the epoch John Gardner tilted against in On Moral Fiction. True, this tribe once had the effrontery to imagine itself the center of interest in U.S. fiction, but if you still hold that grudge your memory for effrontery is too long. To go on potshotting ...

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