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Writing Under The Influence

In an ingenious Harper's article and a new novel about a rock band in search of lyrics, Jonathan Lethem makes a provocative argument.
In an ingenious Harper's article and a new novel about a rock band in search of lyrics, Jonathan Lethem makes a provocative argument. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)

Yet he couldn't resist ending his published response with a continuation of his argument.

"There are no quotation marks around the elements in a Robert Rauschenberg collage or around Quentin Tarantino's swipes from lesser-known movies," he wrote. And T.S. Eliot's immortal "The Waste Land," famous for its highbrow literary liftings, "has only end-notes -- which, I suspect, are much less often read than the poem itself."

'Searchers' on Mars

He's a harmless-looking fellow, this novelist-provocateur, especially compared with the brooding youth featured on the front cover of "You Don't Love Me Yet." Body stiff, no hint of a smile, shirt buttoned in the neck-choking fashion that inexplicably took hold a couple of decades back, the younger Lethem stares out at potential purchasers as if to say: Don't read this book, it's your loss. I'm too cool to care.

The midlife version -- at 43, he's "not a young writer anymore, but I'm not that old" -- has rounder features and a bit more bulk on his compact frame. Over lunch at Cafe Atlantico, Lethem (pronounced "Leethum") radiates seriousness about his work. But he also laughs easily and seizes the occasional opportunity to make fun of himself.

Was he ever part of a musical group, he is asked, when he was his characters' age?

"Barely," he says. "For just a minute, I was a kind of pathetic frontman for a band. My vocals could best be described as sub-Lou Reed mumblings."

His preoccupation with artistic influence, he says, really began with "a completely personal instinct or leaning, which is that I've always liked collage art." He likes seeing "chunks of recognizable things in a new matrix," whether in a painting or a Bob Dylan song. And because he believes this kind of aesthetic borrowing is "very near the center of the impulse to create in the first place," he finds it strange that some artists appear embarrassed by influences and feel the need to "overstate their originality."

Take, for example, his own first novel.

"Gun, With Occasional Music," Lethem says, was reviewed as being "a cross-fertilization of Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick." People would tell him, thinking it's what he wanted to hear, that his work was far more original than such a simplistic comparison could possibly convey.

"And I felt like saying: 'Well, actually, I was kind of trying to do Chandler meets Dick! I'm really glad it was clear what I was doing!'"

Or take "Girl in Landscape," the 1998 novel Lethem calls "a very deliberate attempt to rewrite John Ford's movie 'The Searchers' in an interplanetary context."

When plotting "Girl in Landscape," he used what he calls a "traditional kind of literary appropriating move, which you could call the 'Mary Reilly' move." He's referring to the Valerie Martin novel that retells the story of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" from the point of view of the maid.

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