Jonathan Lethem is becoming extremely prolific and is on a bit of a roll with this collection of essays coming on the back of the excellent novel 'The Fortress of Solitude' (one for book groups & the novel Jay McInerney failed to write) and the stories 'Men and Cartoons.' This collection takes many of the obssessions apparent in those books, and Lethem's associations with music-writing and offers up a great non-fiction diversion that fits nicely between the prolific oh-so clever prose of Dave Eggars, Rick Moody's bold-failure 'The Black Veil' & something like Paul Morley's playful-heartbreaker 'Nothing' (the parts around Lethem's mother's death and the way it was contextualised against certain books, films and records reminded me of the kind of thing Morley was doing around his father's suicide in 'Nothing'). The first piece I read from this was in a weekend paper about three years ago, entitled 'You Don't Know Dick' it's a concise overview of the work of Philip K. Dick. For anyone who hasn't read Dick and is curious, or someone who has read a few books, or for someone who has read most...this is required reading on PKD! Lethem gets the Richard Yates quality to Dick's non-SF work and points out the fact that Dick might have been prolific, but there's lots of mulch out there ('Vulcan's Hammer' is his example - a book I now want to read to see if it's as bad!). The PKD books he picks are probably his best - so a good critical voice in a book about critical voices (there are arguments and changes of mind on things like 'The Searchers' and Talking Heads and Don DeLillo). The rest of the book is as great and will give you insights not only into criticism and pop-culture, but also elements of Lethem's fiction - 'Lives of the Bohemians' and parts of 'The Beards' certainly has a symbiotic relationship with 'The Fortress of Solitude.' This book is literally packed, touching on John Ford, Arthur C. Clarke, Eno, John Cassavettes, Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd & a whole lot more. The chapter on 'Star Wars' even made me feel less bad about the franchise...though I'm sure this will pass!
This is a particularly apt title, as I find Lethem's fiction either completely exhilarating (Gun With Occasional Music, Motherless Brooklyn, half his short stories) or completely disappointing (Amnesia Moon, The Fortress of Solitude, the other half of his short stories). This slim collection of nine essays (all but one previously published in various magazines) falls into my disappointing camp. To be fair, I simply saw "Lethem" and "Essays" on the cover and thought "sweet!". What I failed to realize is that the essays are less about their ostensible topics than they are about Lethem. And since I'm not particularly fond of memoir or biography, it follows that most of the essays did very little for me. "Defending The Searchers" is about Lethem's relationship with the 1956 John Ford and John Wayne film The Searchers. This is an excellent film which often appears on "Top 100" of all time film lists, and yet is problematic in some ways. Even though the essay is really about Lethem's obsession with a cultural artifact, it's probably best read after you've seen the film. I only read a page or two of the title story before moving on, as I wasn't particularly interested in the writer Edward Dahlberg. In "13, 1977, 21" Lethem examines his obsession with the first Star Wars film (21 viewings) and how that interacted with his mother's cancer-related decline in health. He writes well about the experience of going to the films, the physical details of the environment, but the larger theme of his use of the film never really connected with me. My favorite essay was "Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn", about Lethem's childhood Brooklyn subway station. Again, here he writes very well about place, and the essay is enjoyable simply on that level alone. Those who read his last novel, "The Fortress of Solitude" will find many familiar themes in "Identifying With Your Parents", which delves deep into Lethem's obsession with comics and the childhood friends who shared this obsession. Again, one's connection with the writing is probably enhanced if one is well-versed in the intricacies of the Jack Kirby/Stan Lee relationship and the cast of '60s comic book characters. Another good essay is "You Don't Know Dick", which examines another Lethem obsession, the collected works of prolific science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick. I skipped over "Lives of the Obsessives", which is about Lethem's father, who is a painter. The most traditionally critical essay (that is, least corrupted by Lethem's own life) is "Two or Three Things I Dunno About Cassavettes", and again, is best read by those with a knowledge of John Cassavettes' film oeuvre. The final piece is "The Beards", in which Lethem attempts to relate his pop-culture obsessiveness -- and if the collection makes nothing else clear, it's that when Lethem's fancy seizes on something, he becomes obsessive to the point of autism -- to his own work. But ultimately I don't really care about Lethem the person, or how his mind works, or how that relates to his fiction, I'm only interested in the final product of his creative mind -- and so this collection of essays had little to offer me, although I'm sure others will find it much more enjoyable.