The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

The title of this book is, if you do not know, a reference to Superman. Superman’s Fortress of Solitiude has been a physical stronghold of varied significance and geographic location. My sense is that Lethem was probably making the reference to John Byrne’s Man of Steel miniseries comic book in which the Clark Kent persona is described as “The Fortress of Solitude”. I am not, nor have I ever been, a comic book fan, so this speculation is based on Wikipedia. Take it for what it is worth.

It is worth next to nothing, by the way. Because the Fortress of Solitude could also be Dylan Ebdus’s house on Dean Street in Brooklyn. The Dean Street house, like the Fortress, is occupied by The Parents. Occupied is selling it too strongly. Their spirits inhabit the place even if, technically, they do not exist there is a fully real and alive sense. Abraham spends most of his time working in his studio. Rachel becomes an even more ethereal presence. Superman’s parents are but statues, reminders. This parallel is equally compelling and also dervied from the Wikipedia articles on Superman and his lair, if you had not guessed.

Besides comic books, the fully prepared reader will be well versed in the music of the 1970s and 1980s, R&B and rap particularly, but not exclusively. Lethem’s alter ego and the narrator of the novel is Dylan, named after Bob Dylan (legendary folk singer, of course), a hero of his parents. His best friend for a time is Mingus Rude who is, presumably, named after Charles Mingus. Charles Mingus was a legendary jazz musician (the Kindle dictionary, rather than my own knowledge of music history, gave me that one). While Dylan Ebdus’s parents are not musicians, Mingus Rude’s father, Barret Rude, Jr., is a former soul vocalist. An entire section separating Dylan’s and Mingus’s childhood from their adulthood consists of fictional liner notes to an album collecting music by Barret Rude, Jr. Lethem has a deep appreciation for R&B music of the time and it shows through multiple references and an awareness which suffuses the work.

Finally, the cultural aspect that most gripped me: Lethem and I grew up at roughly the same time. The Fortress of Solitude is absolutely dazzling in yanking the reader back in time to a palpably real New York childhood. The games kids play, both psychological and ball-oriented, have you feeling like someone just outside the ring, watching. Maybe you’ll get picked, or picked on, next time. In the meantime, it is great fun watching Dylan make his way in this new world.

For, Brooklyn is new to Dylan. Abraham and Rachel decided to attempt a social experiment of some sort. They move to a rather blighted area of Brooklyn and enroll Dylan in the local public school. He is very nearly the only white child in the school. Even in the neighborhood, white children make only a brief, if potent, appearance:

And Dylan wondered guiltily why the white girls on skates hadn’t called to him instead. Knowledge of this heretical wish was his second wound. It wasn’t like the dead kitten: this time no one would judge wwhether Dylan had understood in the first place, whether he had forgotten after. Only himself. It was between Dylan and himself to consider forever whether to grasp that he’d felt a yearning preference already then, that before the years of seasons, the years of hours to come on the street, before Robert Woolfolk or Mingus Rude, before “Play that Funky Music, White Boy,” before Intermediate School 293 or anything else, he’d wished, against his mother’s vision, for the Solver girls to sweep him away into an ecstasy of blondness and matching outfits, tightened laces, their wheels barely touching the slate, or only marking it with arrows pointing elsewhee, jet trails of escape.

The opening section is told in the third person with access to Dylan’s thoughts, but not others’. Dylan is precocious and bright and not entirely unlike the young Coetzee of Boyhood. I would be surprised if Lethem had not read Coetzee’s work prior to writing his own. And, too, he probably was influenced by Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. It is no light thing, my comparing this work to those two masterpieces. Lethem is extremely talented, a standout of his generation. However, weeks after finishing this work, I am still unsure whether it will end up in my top ten reads of this year, much less that it is deserving as a spot on a list of twenty best novels of the 2000s. Its strong start is not enough for all that.

I am not from Brooklyn, so part of the strength of the start, for me, was the fascinating look at a childhood that was chronologically parallel to my own. The life of city kids was always mysterious to me, a different way of living. And so Dylan’s proves to be far removed from my own. While I would not trade my memories of herding cattle or playing in the hay barn for them, I am envious of street ball, block parties, and walking to school. But my particular, or peculiar, fascination with the lives of urban kids does not explain all of the appeal of the first half of the book.

Adult idealism hovers in the background of the child’s-eye Brooklyn. Gentrification, Rachel’s determination to raise Dylan in a racially enlightened manner, and Abraham’s commitment to art are all interesting and important sidelines. Each is essential, if not as thrilling as a well-tossed spaldeen. The beauty and success of the first half of the novel is that these larger, more political, themes are woven into the story of Dylan’s boyhood. They never overpower, only accentuate his experiences. In other words, this first half is never didactic.

The first third of the novel swings between Dylan’s perspective and several others in the neighborhood, including Isabelle Vendle (a prime mover in the gentrification process of Gowanus Hill), Barrett Rude, Jr., and Dylan’s parents. Lethem styles prose with the best of them while deftly managing these varying perspectives and the story. I was always disappointed to put the book down while reading this first section. This is despite the fact that some comic book powers may or may not seep out of the panels into Dylan’s world. I am not really into superpowers in my bildungsromans, but, as with the politics, they are used to enhance the richness of the world without being overly intrusive.

For one example, and on a theme that recurs throughout:

His mother had instilled this doubleness: there were things Rachel and Dylan could say to one another and then there was the official language of the world, which, though narrowed and artificial, had to be mastered in the cause of the world’s manipulation. Rachel made Dylan know that the world shouldn’t know everything he thought about it. And it certainly shouldn’t know her words – asshole, pothead, gay, pretentious, sexy, grass – nor should the bearers of nicknames know the nicknames: Mr. Memory, Pepe le Peu, Susie Cube, Captain Vague, Vendlemachine.

His father’s nickname was The Collector.

Dylan spends the entire book trying to navigate between the various worlds he is forced or chooses to inhabit. Not to belabor the quotes, but there is another, this one occuring in a scene involving a confrontation between two neighborhood rivals, “each kid” being the observers of this confrontation:

Each kid wondered and had to consider the possibility that he alone didn’t know, that the lines of force were visible to the others. The Dean Street kids were widened in that instant, a gasp of breath went in and out of the lung of summer just then. It made you dizzy to taste the new air.

I have hardly mentioned the plot at all, but, with a reclusive artist as a father, a drug-addicted sort-of-ex-singer for a neighbor, and a racial identity to grapple with, there is plenty of story for the first half. Lethem writes it so well, you’ll feel almost as if you’ve lived it too.

Then came the liner notes. It is a fairly short section, interesting enough. It ties the first and last pieces together, gives a nice interlude between childhood and young adulthood.

Part Three is ominously entitled “Prisonaires”. The reference is to a group of prison singers who hit the charts from prison, it’s a story grown-Dylan is pitching movie execs. The scene opens with Dylan packing to go to California for his father, and to pitch the movie. Dylan Ebdus is older, but hip. He is comfortable moving between worlds now.

Entry points between zones are hidden until they aren’t, until they become as obvious as a lit kitchen door in a club’s alley, behind which three young women from Walla Walla pool an evening’s tips. And as so often in my experience, passage between was eased by alcohol or marijuana or cocaine, those boundary medicines. Line, Mr. Mildly Weird Older? Of course I’d like a line, and to cross one too, please.

He is haunted by his past, though. He moves between worlds, but never feels fully part of any of them. On Dean Street he was the white kid, at college he was the public school kid, and in life he is struggling to make sense of his own life.

The weakness of the second half is in the fact that Dylan spends it trying to understand his life, explain it, come to terms with why Dean Street was the way it was. His musings leave a number of excellent snippets of prose for the reader. But the story loses momentum. It frustates partly because Dylan is frustrated, which is a good thing, but, and this is the less good, party because exposition does the work in the second half where the story carried the first. Dylan struggles almost as much with his own life as he does with “The Prisonaires”, a musical group whose lead, rather than ending in a fiery crash or cocaine-fueled heart attack or familial bullet, simply fades into, not death, but a quiet, non-descript existence. Dylan wants explanation, the reader wants a story.

I am rambling, but this is a huge book which, frankly, ambles over much territory. Lethem deserves credit for trying to talk about race in a novel, in a way that doesn’t insultingly patronize its readers and its characters. Yes, I am talking about a recent bestseller that shall not be named. There are not easy answers here. That is Dylan’s and Lethem’s problem. They both flail about, trying to find answers, but, both are still a little afraid because this is dangerous territory. Just as there are codes on the street by which Dylan knows both that he will be yoked and how to play his role in the yoking, there are rules in society for talking about race. Dylan and Lethem both struggle a bit. It is probably one reason they spend so much time in the second half trying to explain. But, for all that effort, I don’t think the second half is either as engrossing or as enlightening as the first half of the novel.

Now I am rambling. The book is good. I have struggled with what to say. I am going with this first draft. Part of my problem is that I wanted the novel to mean more to me than it does. Another part is that the first half was so outstanding, the grown Dylan could only disappoint. My disappointment should be gauged against my expectations and my first half experience. Oh, and if you like books set in New York, this one gives a look with depth at particular moment in time. In all, the novel is outstanding.

Lethem is for real.

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10 Responses to The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

  1. A definite maybe for me this one. It’s an interesting review, clearly there’s huge breadth to the book but I feel your frustration with the second half coming through.

    Out of passing interest I grew up myself as a white kid in a mixed race area, though nothing as pronounced as you describe here.

    The first half sounds much more interesting to me than the second. Have you read any other Lethem? I’m not familiar with his work. I can see myself potentially reading this, but it’s not going immediately on the TBR pile.

    Now I’m rambling 🙂

  2. Kerry says:

    Max,

    I would recommend starting with Motherless Brooklyn if you are interested in trying Lethem. It has the advantage of being much shorter than this one and much less frustrating. It has a detective story and an interesting lead character that will pull you through whatever your final opinion of the book.

    Chronic City is probably the weakest, but I could be entirely wrong about that. It just did not feel terribly cohesive or essential. Lethem writes extraordinary sentences and scenes, but the book did not come together as something I would unreservedly recommend.

    If you like Motherless, then consider this one. You can also try some of Lethem’s short stories in the New Yorker. I believe Goat Man (or something like that) and The King of Sentences will give you some idea of his writing style, though the story of Motherless has nothing in common with these shorts, other than being compelling.

    Thanks for asking.

  3. Chronic City! I remember thinking that sounded really exciting. That said, I’ll try Motherless Brooklyn first. I’m a sucker for brevity when it comes to new (to me) writers.

    Plus I like detective stories, so that should help it slip down.

    Lack of cohesion sounds a common fault, both in Chronic City and Fortress of Solitude.

  4. Kerry says:

    I do think you’ll like Motherless.

    As for the lack of cohesion, it could, of course, just be me. And that lack, as I perceive it, expresses itself in different ways in the two novels (Chronic City and Fortress). Notwithstanding that, both are worth reading, though not for everyone, I imagine. Based on your tastes, I think you might like them both, as I did, maybe more.

  5. Wilson Knut says:

    Fortress of Solitude is his masterpiece from what I’ve read of his work so far. Motherless Brooklyn is good, but I found it a bit gimmicky. This is his Paris Review interview. He talks about his earlier work.

  6. Kerry says:

    Wilson,

    I expected Fortress to be his masterpiece based on what I have heard others say. Perhaps my expectations are part of my disappointment. Fortress is very good, particularly the first half (which according to the excellent Paris Review interview (thanks!) was originally intended as book one of at least two books). And there is more literary heft and more philosophical heft to Fortress than Motherless. So, I would agree that Fortress is Lethem’s best, just, I am not entirely sure I would count it a masterpiece.

    However, I think Motherless is a better introduction for someone unsure about trying Lethem altogether. It is shorter and it does have a more accessible plot.

    Thanks for your comment!

  7. Wilson Knut says:

    Motherless is definitely more accessible. That was the first Lethem book I read. I also agree that the second part of Fortress loses focus and momentum, but it is his best so far. I guess that is what I meant by “masterpiece.”

    I was hoping Chronic City would build on the potential greatness in the first half of Fortress, but I’ve read several disparaging reviews. I’m afraid I’ll be disappointed, so I haven’t picked it up yet.

  8. Kerry says:

    Wilson,

    I agree, and I leave open the possibility that Fortress is a masterpiece (I am noncommittal that way), because maybe I just don’t see it. I loved the first half.

    On Chronic City, if you like Lethem’s writing and enjoyed Fortress, I think it is definitely worth reading. You probably have seen my review, but if not, I was generally favorable, if not glowing. I would love to hear what you think, not least because, again, I am worried that maybe I have undersold it. But go in with low expectations, and you cannot be disappointed.

  9. Andy says:

    Having read Chronic City and Fortress in the past few weeks (and Gun, With Occasional Music earlier this year), I have to say I enjoyed Chronic City a fair bit more (though Fortress is also pretty good). It just has a much more cohesive plot–a lot of the things in Fortress don’t feel like they are very important to anything. And I found it much more funny.

  10. Kerry says:

    Andy,

    Good points. I definitely think that is a legitimate position to take. I enjoyed Chronic City. In fact, I enjoyed Chronic City more than the second half of Fortress. The first half of Fortress was so good, I still give my personal nod to Fortress. But Lethem does have an excellent sense of humor and Chronic City shows it off (in a good way).

    Thanks for the comment and the different perspective. I will say, Chronic City is improving in my memory.

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