When I Was A Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson; The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem

17/03/12, The Times

Reading Marilynne Robinson’s new book of essays, When I Was A Child I Read Books, I was consistently reminded of Clarence Darrow’s famous words, ‘I do not believe in God because I do not believe in Mother Goose’. In ‘Imagination and Community’, she writes that fiction is ‘an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.’ With her extraordinary novels, it is easy to enter into imaginative sympathy with the fiction that is God, but that faculty does not work in the domain of reason so the non-fiction must remain confined to speaking to the converted. Take the first essay in the collection, ‘Freedom of Thought’. Skating over some of the ground she covered in her previous collection, Absence of Mind, she posits God (or theology) in and for all kinds of shortfalls, gaps and unknowns. So wherever science cannot or has not been able to go (the manifold mysteries of the Universe), or when science cannot give a satisfactory explanation for how or why consciousness is greater than the sum of its parts, her default space-filler is God. One question: why?

The motivation for the book is odd: to chivvy Americans not to believe in talk about the twilight of American power and to rouse them out of their despondency. It’s beating that old, old drum of American exceptionalism, so solidly in the territory of ideology, yet Robinson somehow thinks that discourses, hers especially, can be made to stand outside and above ideology. How exactly? In the best essay in the collection, ‘Austerity as Ideology’, despite using the term in a severely truncated manner to be co-terminous solely with economic thinking, ie, capitalism and communism, she shows with a clear eye how the ‘supranational power, Economics Pantocrator’ and the dominance of free-market capitalism have eroded our lives. Her sustained criticism of rational-choice theory comes from a place of great humanity and is stringent and unimpeachable. Yet in ‘Wondrous Love’, the most overtly Christian of all the essays in the book, the rallying of Americans into a sense of national pride again, falls on an unwillingness or inability to engage with global politics and America’s supremely powerful position in it in the last century. How can any such argument leave out geopolitics? Isn’t that elision itself deeply ideological?

And yet all this reference to God leads her down the path of generous, humane, inclusionary thinking. She speaks of the dignity of man and the essential integrity and mystery of each human life. Her belief in and insistence on the best of human nature is humbling and her call to cultivate and deepen this is surely a vital need in our history now.

A different kind of inclusivity lies at the heart of Jonathan Lethem’s collection of essays, occasional pieces, musings, reviews, arguments, homage, and miscellanea, The Ecstasy of Influence. It’s a mixed bag, serious and seriously playful meditations on how there is no privileged outside from which leverage can be brought to bear on postmodernism nestling against an eloquently purple (and lovely) riff on Donald Sutherland’s buttocks in the famous sex-scene from Don’t Look Now. Mixed, yes, but in the sense of eclectic; every single piece is compelling, stylish, impassioned, even throwaway ones such as half a page on the use of furniture in fiction.

The virtuoso title piece, playful and complete with a Waste Land-style ‘Notes’ (except funnier), encapsulates Lethem’s strengths and weaknesses. It is witty, infectiously enthusiastic in celebrating allusions, debts and intertextuality, passionate in its defence of cultural ‘borrowings’, but the substantial core of it is familiar Eng Lit territory. And yet it makes a new shape out of Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence as if a jazz master had inverted the book then transcribed and played it.

His immersion in and championing of science fiction, notably the novels of Philip K. Dick, some kind of a lifelong obsession, is both refreshing and necessary; in fact, bright seams of his love for sci-fi turn up everywhere in the book. At times a kind of self-regard and hipness creep into the book but they’re easily brushed off; who cares if the mind on display is so thrillingly alive and electric? You can forgive him anything for the angry attack on James Wood, ‘an unpersuasive critic whose air of erudite amplitude veil[s] – barely – a punitive parochialism.’ Ouch; but also: wow.

Lethem is marked by a consuming cultural voracity, which, in no way, is a sign of indiscrimination: his essay, ‘Against “Pop” Culture’, tries to demolish the idea of pop culture as something monolithic and, in its place, construct something where individual choices and tastes give a wide latitude of freedom to opt out. At one point he calls Slavoj Zizek the ‘hipster-provocateur of contemporary political thought’. Hipster-provocateur – the term will do rather nicely for Lethem himself.