The critic as memoirist

The critic as memoirist

PHOTO AP, Pat Wellenbach

June 18, 2012, Monday/ 17:03:00

Jonathan Lethem’s new book, “Fear of Music,” is a collection of 23 short essays about Talking Heads’ album of the same name. It’s essentially a work of music criticism, but David Byrne isn’t the only artist the book concerns itself with.

Lethem repeatedly returns to a figure he refers to as “the boy in his bedroom.” The boy is Lethem himself, aged 15, listening to “Fear of Music” for the first time, shortly after its release in 1979. While it’s primarily a critical exploration of a single album, the book is also a dialogue between the teenager obsessively listening to that album and the writer writing about it more than 30 years later. Early in the book, Lethem explains that he can’t write about “Fear of Music” without writing about the boy in his room, “not only because he knows what it’s like never to have heard ‘Fear of Music’ and then to have heard it for the first time, but because he thereupon arranged himself in a posture of such abject identification with ‘Fear of Music’ that he can no longer imagine who he’d be had he never heard it. ‘Fear of Music’ wrote the boy, in other words.”

The book, part of the 33 1/3 series, is full of long, brilliant passages of music criticism interspersed with riffs on topics such as science fiction, paranoia, fame and Asperger’s syndrome. But it’s at its most interesting at those moments when Lethem tilts the mirror of autobiographical reflection at just the right angle to reflect both himself and the music of Talking Heads in some new light.

At one point, he recalls the first time he saw the band play live, at a theater in New Jersey with his school friend Tom. Tom was the son of Rudy Burkhardt, a photographer and filmmaker who was heavily involved in the 1950s abstract expressionist scene.

“Though we were just two high school kids on a Greyhound bus going to sit in the rear section of that New Jersey theater,” Lethem writes, “Talking Heads would have liked to meet Tom’s dad, if they’d had the chance. Rudy was exactly the sort of person who was the reason the band had come to New York City in the first place.”

This is an oddly touching disclosure. Even as it reveals something of the wider cultural affinities of one of the great American rock bands, it reveals something even more crucial of the writer himself as a 15-year-old boy, yearning for some tangible connection with a band in which he has invested so much of his own developing identity.

Lethem is the latest writer to work within a hybrid form whose cultural moment seems to have arrived: criticism as memoir. In his recently published “Zona,” Geoff Dyer presents a comprehensive analysis of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker” alongside a haphazard analysis of his own life. It’s remarkable for the way in which it makes the crossover between memoir and criticism seem so unremarkable. Our cultural enthusiasms and aversions are central, after all, to our identities -- to how we see ourselves and to how we want others to see us. “The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography,” as Oscar Wilde put it in “The Critic as Artist.” To write about art is to write about yourself, even if only implicitly.

Lethem and Dyer aren’t the only contemporary writers whose work has hinted at a possible genetic mutation of literary criticism and memoir into a hybrid form. Nicholson Baker’s 1991 book “U and I,” about his lifelong obsession with John Updike, makes a mockery of Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence theory by turning it into a controlled creative panic attack. At one point, in fact, Baker admits that he’s never read any Bloom, and that therefore “all the way through writing this essay so far I have been experiencing bursts of anxiety about my ignorance of ‘The Anxiety of Influence’.” (Regardless of whether it’s true, this is a pretty nifty ironic inversion of Bloom’s idea.)

The beautiful innovation of Baker’s book is that it isn’t really about Updike at all. It’s about the version of “Updike” as an idealized literary figure that Baker holds near to his skittishly ambitious heart, and it’s about the way in which his memories of reading and thinking about Updike are woven into the fabric of his own identity.

Throughout “U and I,” we are given glimpses of Baker’s relationship with his mother via their shared obsession with Updike. During one of their Sunday-afternoon phone conversations, she tells him that he should continue to work at nonliterary day jobs because Updike, in her opinion, “would have benefitted from the same necessity.” And although she finds her son’s reluctance to air their family’s dirty laundry admirable, she insists that his writing ultimately suffers because of it; he should follow Updike’s amoral example, she says, and ignore the possibility of hurting people’s feelings.

More recently, Elif Batuman’s memoir, “The Possessed,” about her years as a graduate student in Russian literature at Stanford, demonstrated the grace with which writing about literature and writing about a life devoted to it can be part of a single enterprise. Batuman is a gifted critic, but her book is charged with her own anxious determination to be more than that. She seems to vacillate between not wanting to be an academic and not wanting to belong to any culture of “creative writing,” but it’s a productive kind of vacillation. “For many years,” she writes, “I gave little thought to the choice I had made between creative writing and literary criticism.”

This might well be because she hasn’t really made any such choice. She never says so straightforwardly, but she doesn’t have to; her writing itself is evidence of the fact that she has chosen neither (or both).

At its best, criticism is itself a form of indirect self-expression. To read, say, Walter Benjamin or Susan Sontag or Roland Barthes is to encounter a sensibility as distinctive, and a voice as powerful, as any in 20th century literature. “The motive of the critic who is really worth reading,” as H.L. Mencken put it, “is not the motive of the pedagogue, but the motive of the artist.” Mencken certainly regarded himself as a critic worth reading, so he was referring at least as much to his own work as he was to criticism generally. Books like Batuman’s, Lethem’s, Dyer’s, Baker’s and Wilson’s bear out Mencken’s claim, while also revealing the motive of the critic as the motive of the autobiographer. Our experience of art can, after all, never be anything but subjective. To write about that experience in an explicitly autobiographical way might therefore be the most natural form of criticism, even if at the same time it is the most artful.

“Fear of Music,” by Jonathan Lethem, published by Bloomsbury

* Mark O’Connell is a staff writer for the Millions and an IRCHSS postdoctoral research fellow in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin. © Slate 2012

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