tomemos on Everything Studies
I cannot recommend too highly that you check out tomemo’s outstanding new post, which responds to my last one and more significantly to Tim Burke, by way of a complex and rewarding examination of Jonathan Lethem’s novel The Fortress of Solitude and John Leonard’s review of the same.
The key to this dispute, I think—or more accurately, the key to Leonard’s misreading of Lethem’s book—is his use of the word “ephemera” to describe the kind of pop culture Lethem writes about. My take: of course it is. You would have to be extremely wide-eyed to claim that the song “Play That Funky Music, White Boy” (predictably used to torment Dylan in school) had some sort of lasting, vital effect on the larger world, and the same goes for all but a handful of the comics that Dylan, Mingus and Arthur collect, store in plastic sleeves, and eventually discard. But all of this is no more ephemeral—in fact, it’s a good deal less so—than the detail of what horse won the Gold Cup on June 16, 1904. Ephemera—cultural and otherwise—are the bulk of what make up ordinary life, particularly that of young people, and any modern novelist who tried to omit the ephemeral would be creating … something else.
The only way Leonard’s epithet would carry any sting would be if Lethem lost sight of this ephemerality, like people who talk about their role-playing characters as if they were real people. In fact, he is eminently aware of it. One example: two girls who live near Dylan are always singing lines from whatever song is popular at that part of the novel: a device that measures the passage of time by the brief, beautiful lives of radio hits.
Leonard’s misapprehension—that Lethem’s invocation of pop culture means he is convinced of its lasting importance—also manifests itself in his use of the term “New Dork” (bravo!) to describe Lethem and his contemporaries, the implication being that Lethem simply hasn’t been able to find anything to divert him but comics and thus is being hindered by them. Again, though, Lethem is aware of the difference between those who use popular culture to supplement and enrich their lives and personalities, and those who use popular culture as their personalities—who have, talk about, and think about nothing besides their pop culture interests.
Enjoy your Friday night!