Review of Jonathan Lethem’s novel The Fortress of Solitude. Was in the Toronto Star, fall 2003. The generalization in the first para makes me wince on rereading, but what are you gonna do?
The author Louis Begley, who took to fiction late in life, has said he waited so long because as a young man he felt he had no milieu to document. As far as excuses for creative inactivity go, that’s a pretty good one. Surely the most compelling novelists are the ones who draw on a strong sense of their corner of the world, whether Faulkner’s secession-haunted south or Richler’s hardscrabble Montreal. A writer without that sense is, at the very least, starting from a disadvantage.
Jonathan Lethem has lived in Berkeley and in Toronto, but his real corner of the world is Brooklyn, New York. You’d never know it, though, from his first several novels, which include Amnesia Moon, As She Climbed Across the Table, and Girl in Landscape. Those were gene-spliced genre pieces that mixed science fiction with the tropes of the western, the detective yarn, the campus comedy. Fun stuff, and often intriguing, but when Lethem turned his fiction to his home streets for the first time, with Motherless Brooklyn in 1999, it felt like a breakthrough.
Like Lethem’s other novels, Motherless Brooklyn leaned toward the high-concept: it was narrated by a Tourettic would-be detective looking to avenge the murder of his thug boss. Funny and readable, the book was distinguished by an affectionate but unsentimental portrait of the titular borough and, not coincidentally, by fuller and warmer characterization than that of its predecessors. Lethem builds on that with The Fortress of Solitude. His love of quirk, his devotion to premise, are still in place: this may be the world’s first rock-and-roll superhero urban-jungle coming-of-age prison drama. But it’s also the author’s most expansive and emotionally ambitious novel yet.
It’s the story of Dylan Ebdus, a white kid who grows up in a black-and-Hispanic area of Brooklyn in the 1970s. Ignored or patronized by his emotionally removed parents, Dylan settles into an uneasy relationship with his ’hood; at best the other kids tolerate him, and at worst they bully and rob him. Eventually an ally arrives in Mingus Rude, the black son of a burned-out soul singer who moves onto the block. Mingus navigates his new world effortlessly, and becomes Dylan’s confidante and sometime protector. But as they grow older, their friendship is strained by Dylan’s growing alienation from his surroundings, his gradual awareness of the opportunities his skin colour affords him.
The first half of this long novel covers Dylan’s childhood and adolescence, and the jittery third-person narration manages the nice trick of relating a child’s discoveries in an adult’s voice and vocabulary. Lethem’s descriptions tend to be showy and self-conscious – an abandoned house “wore cinderblock bandages over the windows and doorway like a mummy with blanked eyes and stilled howling mouth” – but usually end up seeming more apt than contrived. And while the perspective is mainly Dylan’s, it occasionally shifts to others, deepening our sense of the community. Like Isabel Vendle, a rich white woman bent on gentrifying the neighbourhood. Or Barrett Rude Jr., Mingus’s father – a sort of amalgam of soul greats, modelled most obviously on Marvin Gaye but with a personality of his own.
In its second half, the book fast-forwards to Dylan’s thirties and takes on a first-person narration. The tone becomes more conversational and accessible, but the switch also deliberately tests our sympathies. The adult Dylan – living in California, scraping by as a music journalist but dreaming of selling a movie pitch – turns out to be selfish and standoffish, less than likable. It’s a risky but laudable move: for those readers who need reminding that we need not admire someone to appreciate their internal struggles, Lethem offers it here.
All of this makes The Fortress of Solitude sound like a 500-page character study, but it has other charms, too. One is the tension between the naturalistic setting and an overlay of supernatural whimsy. At one point, Dylan discovers a mysterious ring that grants its wearer the power of flight, and he and Mingus, their fantasies fed by comic books, become a sort of superhero team, breaking up the odd mugging and small-time drug deal. But the device doesn’t overwhelm the book: superpowers turn out to be not all that life-changing, and the ring drops in and out of the story.
More important to the novel is Lethem’s love of lore, social and cultural. The narrative is crammed with information: on Marvel comic books, kids’ street games, science fiction book-jacket illustration, graffiti technique, avant-garde art, and above all pop music. (The two main characters are, of course, named for musical icons, one white and one black.) But while the Brit James Wood has led a critical campaign against this kind of thing – having coined the term “hysterical realism” to describe it – Lethem convincingly shows that such accoutrements can delineate character, not just obscure it.
This is most apparent in the hinge of the book, the bridge between the first and second sections. It’s an essay composed by Dylan for inclusion with the liner notes to a Barrett Rude Jr. compilation CD, and the piece perfectly nails the smug, pseudo-intellectual condescension of rock criticism at its worst, made creepy by Dylan’s (unacknowledged) relationship to his subject. “It’s odd to consider that Marvin Gaye, Philippe Wynne and Barrett Rude Jr. were all, by choice or upbringing, weird black jews,” goes one typical flourish of rhetorical excess. Without ever addressing Dylan’s life directly, the liner note makes its points – about his complicated views on race, his relationship to art and his childhood and Mingus – so well that the second half of the book seems to merely amplify them.
Still, the narrative holds attention throughout, and Dylan’s climactic reunion with Mingus, set against an attempted prison break, is adequate payoff. Here and throughout the novel, Lethem’s treatment of racial dynamics is earnest but nuanced. And while Lethem has already drawn not-quite-fair charges of political correctness from some reviewers, The Fortress of Solitude still shows him to be bolder than many young novelists.