The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

August 26, 2010

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.

What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt

June 14, 2010

I am reviewing my most recent reads entirely out of order. I would have to go back to check when this started happening, and maybe I could not unravel the mystery even with the effort. The reasons are various. Sometimes, I want to wait and think about a book. Other times, I am excited about the book and want to get my thoughts down as quickly as possible. Sometimes, I am ambivalent about the book just finished, so I write instead about one that moved me in some way. Other times, this time, I feel almost sullied, so I write about it to purge myself.

I do not mean “sullied” as a negative. Siri Hustvedt is a poet and writes beautiful prose. The novel is engaging and has depth. And, yet, by the end I had a feeling of contamination. Perhaps, she writes too well, knows her subject too well, conveys the emotions of her characters too well.

Leo Hertzberg, an art historian and critic, narrates the novel and, from very early, it is clear that Hustvedt is intimately familiar with the New York art scene. On the opening pages, Leo recounts the contents of the fourth of five letters from Violet to Bill in which Violet declares her love for Bill. The power of the letters prompts Leo to write this book.

Leo then embarks on the chronological narrative, which begins with Leo buying from a gallery a painting that impresses him. The primary subject of the painting is a woman lying on the floor in an empty room.

It took me about a minute to understand that there were actually three people in the painting. Far to my right, on the dark side of the canvas, I noticed that a woman was leaving the picture. Only her foot and ankle could be seen inside the frame, but the loafer she was wearing had been rendered with excrutiating care, and once I had seen it, I kept looking back at it. The invisible woman became as important as the one who dominated the canvas. The third person was only a shadow. For a moment I mistook the shadow as my own, but then I understood that the artist had included it in the work. The beautiful woman, who was wearing only a man’s T-shirt, was being looked at by someone outside the painting, a spectator who seemed to be standing just where I was standing when I noticed the darkness that fell over her belly and her thighs.

Leo tracks down the artist of this “self-portrait”, William “Bill” Wechsler, and strikes up a friendship. Leo and his wife, Erica, end up living in the same building as, and directly beneath, Bill and his wife, Lucille. Both couples have sons at nearly the same time and become a close-knit group: “two families, one on top of the other.” Violet is the beautiful model in the painting.

This book is steeped in art, for that is what initially binds Bill and Leo. Many are the expositions on the meaning of art or the content of particular works, whether real or imaginary. This novel is so tightly constructed that each conversation is packed with meaning that, on a re-read, would undoubtedly multiply and reverberate.

In one of Bill and Leo’s early discussions, Bill is discussing medical drawings and Cezanne.

”That’s the problem with seeing things. Nothing is clear. Feelings, ideas shape what’s in front of you. Cezanne wanted the naked world, but the world is never naked. In my work, I want to create doubt.” He stopped and smiled at me. “Because that’s what we’re sure of.”

Little scenes like this take on new meaning after you have finished the work. Not unlike Bill’s painting, close examination reveals new and surprising details that deepen and complicate the work. Leo’s failing eyesight in late life has already been disclosed, but the completeness of the metaphor is not entirely revealed until the final pages. Early on, there are hints, like this one, of the ubiquity of doubt and its importance in our lives.

Closely related to doubt is duplicity and this novel fully explores dishonesty in its many manifestations. As that early letter reveals, Bill is not faithful to Lucille. His infidelity has far-reaching consequences for each of the primary characters in this book.

Duplicity is dishonesty, but the word calls to mind duplication and doubling as well, which is another pervasive theme in the novel. The two families are neatly symmetrical. Leo and Erica, Bill and Lucille. Later, they have sons: Matthew and Mark. M&M. Before this, though, Leo describes a conversation with Lucille, a writer.

She talked as if she were observing her own sentences, looking at them from afar, judging their sounds and shapes even as they came from her mouth. Every word she spoke rang with honesty; and yet this earnestness was matched by a simultaneous irony. Lucille amused herself by occupying two positions at once. She was both the subject and the object of her own statements.

Just as Bill was, in some sense, both the subject and the object of his “self-portrait.”

Despite the similarities of age, the two boys’ alliterative names, and their close relationship, Matt and Mark are quite different. While Bill is the visionary artist, it is Leo’s son, Matt, who shines with pen and paints. Bill and Matt bond over baseball too. “In a single body, Bill combined Matt’s two great passions.” And, yet, Leo does not seem to be threatened by their closeness and Matt loves his father. Bill, too, loves his own son. The close relationship between Bill and Matt is simply another confusing, complicating aspect of these two entangled families’ lives.

Violet is another. She and Bill have an affair that destroys Bill’s marriage to Lucille. Lucille moves out, Violet moves in, and the five adults and two children become more entangled than ever. Hustvedt is an extremely perceptive observer of human relations. Her depictions of intimate moments between lovers or friends or enemies have a quiet intensity that carries with it both truth and doubt, much like Lucille’s earnestness and irony. The reader both knows the characters and does not. Mysteries abound, both in personalities and events.

The novel is divided into three sections. By the end of the first section, Bill, Violet, Leo, Erica, Matt, and Mark are nearly a single unit. They vacation together, live in the same house, send their boys to the same camp to bunk together, and otherwise are as entangled as two families could seem to manage. Even Lucille unites them in a strange way. She has moved out of town, but is still relevant. She haunts each of the adults in a different way, her existence a shadow, for a time the only shadow, on their lives.

The second section opens with a punch to the gut. A character dies. The first third of the novel always had an ominousness to it, but that first section ends so happily that the shift is difficult to take. The raw emotion of the characters is difficult to read. Their grief is not only real but infectious. Hustvedt may write a little too well.

The grief never ends, but it does fade. The novel becomes something of a psychological thriller. The issues of duplicity and doubling take on greater and more unsettling urgency. One character, in particular, becomes something of a threat to the others, or seems to. Leo, for instance, is never quite sure whether the character is telling the truth or lying, sincere or fake, ally or foe.

Along with this potential menace, a shock artist, Teddy Giles, befriends one of the clan. Whether the friendship is based on a true connection or merely an attempt to undermine one or both of his detractors (Bill and Leo) is never quite clear to Leo or to the reader. Giles specializes in horror. Bill and Leo see his work as cliched, though Giles insists he is subverting cliched horror for more serious artistic purposes. Giles’ depictions of dismembered bodies and severed limbs are initially disturbing more for the attention they draw than for the truths they reveal about the mind that created them. Giles thrives on hype, rumors, and ambiguous history, never settling on an identity or a past. He embodies the worst of what plagues Leo and the surviving characters through the last half of the book.

To delve too deeply into the plot twists and turns of the second half would be resolve too much of the tension and ambiguity that is a necessary part of the novel. But I will try to convey my reaction.

I felt dirty. By the end of the novel, I had spent too much time with a seriously disturbed character and, more wearyingly, with those trying to help and those trying to exploit that character. I wanted to give up on the character, I wanted the others to give up too. But the families are too entangled for any of them to let the lost cause go. Leo says early in the book:

The longer I live the more convinced I am that when I say “I,” I am really saying “we.”

This is a story of a group and, however defective the one character is, the group cannot just push the character out. They have too much loyalty to each other, to the group, for that.

I have not addressed many of the novel’s complexities. Hustvedt did extensive research on eating disorders, hysteria, and psychopathy to supplement her apparently encyclopedic knowledge of art and literature. In addition to the themes I have already mentioned, she also examines the idea that people often “become what they [are] near” or, perhaps, merely emulate what they are near.

Despite this depth, the book was not entirely satisfying to me. I think that is primarily because of the character who is not only a liar, but seems unable to grasp the truth. The effect on the other characters is devastating. For me, I lost interest in what happened to the character. Next to violence, lying is the most destructive human behavior. And lying is more unsettling than violence. Hustvedt did a fantastic job conveying the full consequences and pathologies of compulsive lying, but the result is not an easy book. And yet, though it has only been a day since I finished, the trying aspects are fading while the strengths remain impressed in my recollection. I will seek out more of her work, only not too soon.

I will be reading something by Paul Auster soon. He is Hustvedt’s husband and the man to whom this work is dedicated. I am looking forward to comparing their styles. I have not yet read any Auster, but I am intrigued. Hustvedt is good, but there is room, in my opinion, for Auster to be better.

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

November 14, 2009

A list gave the final nudge. I had noted this book, its praise, its award, and the intriguing subject, but never picked it up. Something else was always more pressing. Then, over at The Millions, this book came in slotted as #2 on their list of “The Best Fiction of the Millenium (So Far)”. I took the hint.

While this is a very good book, a fine literary accomplishment, and an impressive feat of imagination, it is not a favorite book of mine. I can be a very finicky reader. I hold things against books. I probably did with this one. Discussing what things would reveal too much, but I can assure you they are likely my own personal quirks. The book is fine.

If you do not know, this book relates the history of black slaveowners in a fictional county in antebellum Virginia. Jones uses this intriguing setup to examine the effects of slavery and a racial caste system on human relations. The task Jones sets himself is a demanding one, but he manages to pull off a spin good yarn while having something interesting to say. He could have done much worse.

A slave, Augustus Townsend, manages to purchase his own freedom. He then works to purchase the freedom of his family. He purchases his wife, Mildred, first. Augustus and Mildred then save to purchase their son, Henry from William Robbins, the white plantation owner who, at one time, owned them all. Henry is a very smart boy and a dedicated servant to William Robbins. His industriousness leads him to have an atypically close relationship with Robbins. Further, he learns a skill, bootmaking, that earns extra money. Robbins is loathe to sell the boy and raises the price. Henry is well into his teens by the time Augustus and Mildred are able to purchase him.

Henry’s intelligence, ambition, and relationship with Robbins set the stage for Henry to purchase a slave to work for him. His parents are outraged that Henry, a former slave, would choose to own another human being. Henry’s rise and fall (death) provides the basic framework for the novel. (Lest you worry, the book opens with Henry already dead.)

Henry’s life is interesting enough, but Jones did not settle for the examination of a single man. The novel contains a large cast of characters, to almost all of whose thoughts we are privy at one point or another. Henry’s first slave and eventual overseer, Moses, is a more central character than Henry himself. The inner conflicts and turmoils of Sheriff John Skiffington, a man who wanted to move to the North and never own slaves, are often more compelling than those of Henry. Alice, “the Night Walker”, may be a more potently symbolic character. Elias and Celeste, too, are essential and as fully developed as Henry, perhaps more so. In short, this book is much more than an examination of what one black slaveowner may have been like. The novel contains a fully realized and populated Virginia county, however fictional it is.

The structure, too, is worth mentioning. The novel does not tell a linear story. Henry begins the novel dead, but Jones takes the reader backwards and forwards in time throughout the novel. TheKnownWorldOccasionally, time and location are shifted for seemingly unconnected or tangential digressions. Jones fits it all together, however, without leaving the reader stranded. In some ways, the approach feels unnecessary, but, by jumping around as he does, Jones does make connections for the reader that might otherwise be lost.

And Jones is sensitive to his reader. The cast of characters is sufficiently large that most readers would have at least some trouble keeping them all straight. Jones often reminds readers of information they should already know, such as that Alice is the slave who had been kicked in the head by a mule, several times throughout. Towards the end of the novel, this technique feels like a little too much hand holding, but I will admit it helped in the beginning.

Less intrusively, Jones helps orient the reader to the incongruity of black slaveowners in the American South by sharing the thoughts of the slaves:

Moses as the first slave Henry Townsend had bought: $325 and a bill of sale from William Robbins, a white man. It took Moses more than two weeks to come to understand that someone wasn’t fiddling with him and that indeed a black man, two shades darker than himself, owned him and any shadow he made. Sleeping in a cabin beside Henry in the first weeks after the sale, Moses thought that it was already a strange world that made him a slave to a white man, but God had indeed set it twirling and twisting every which way when he put black people to owning their own kind. Was God even up there attending to business?

Moses went into his cabin and met the darkness and a dead hearth. Outside, the light of Elias’s lamp leaned this way and that and then it dimmed even more. Elias had never believed in a sane God and so had never questioned a world where colored people could be the owners of slaves, and if at that moment, in the near dark, he had sprouted wings, he would not have questioned that either.

And, too, Jones provides us with some historical (fictionally historical) context. He gives the reader census statistics, information about the area, and introduces Anderson Frazier:

Beginning in the mid-1870s and continuing throughout most of the 1880s, a white man from Canada, Anderson Frazier, made a good living in Boston publishing two-cent pamphlets about America and its people, especially what he called their ‘peculiarities.’….

…It was in the South that Anderson came upon material he would later put in a new series of pamphlets he called Curiosities and Oddities about Our Southern Neighbors. The Economy of Cotton. Good Food Made from Next to Nothing. The Flora and Fauna. The Need for Storytelling. This series was Anderson’s most successful, and nothering was more successful within that series than the 1883 pamphlet on free Negroes who had owned other Negroes before the War between the States.

Anderson Frazier happens upon Fern Elston, a woman who taught free black children and, when he was grown, Henry Townsend. Jones uses their conversation to provide greater historical context, some perspective, and something of a postscript. The chronological hopscotch occasionally lands on Elston’s porch where Frazier is trying to find out as much as possible from Elston about Henry and the history of the county.

In all, I do think this is a very successful novel. As I noted, most of the “history” is actually fiction. The county itself is a fabrication, for instance. But it works in ways that The March did not. At least for me. Of course, I have my disappointments with the novel. There are things I would have preferred the author handled differently. There are some weaknesses both in the writing (very minor) and in the substance (my own opinion, no doubt). Finally, though, the novel achieves what I suspect the author set out to achieve. It is hard to give higher praise, particularly when the author’s goals were set high. While not my favorite of the decade, it may legitimately be included on a list of the best.