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.


Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

September 28, 2009

Brooklyn is an elegant novel. Toibin efficiently tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a young woman from the Irish countryside, as she matures from girl to woman. In beautiful, but never overwrought, prose, Toibin tells the story of Eilis’s maturing.

As other reviewers, like KfC and John Self, have pointed out, Eilis is a very passive character. If you have not read the book, I would suggest that you consult those (relatively short) reviews, as this post will contain spoilers. I want to discuss Brooklyn rather than review it.


Eilis is a light character. By light, I means she lacks substance. She is too often what Rose, her mother, Mrs. Kehoe, Miss Kelly, Father Flood, or Tony or Jim make of her. As KfC and John Self have pointed out, she tends to take the path of least resistance with almost no regard for who is pushing her. We see this tendency of Eilis’s early when, trying to be a dutiful employee and neighbor, she tells Miss Kelly well in advance of her departure for America that she is leaving. Miss Kelly sacks her on the spot. Eilis takes it without complaint. In fact, she actually thanks Miss Kelly. For what she is thanking her is not clear. As she leaves, she wants to say goodbye to her co-worker, Mary, but does not because Mary has not made the effort to turn and look at her. Eilis, apparently, does not want to risk putting herself or Mary in an awkward situation, so “Eilis quietly left the shop and went home.” Eilis is a wallflower, thanking people for sacking her and lacking the courage to say goodbye.

BrooklynAt first, we can dismiss this as youth and immaturity. After all, she is still young enough that her mother, her older sister (Rose), and Father Flood arrange for her to go to America without consulting her until after the decision has been made. Eilis, again, does not resist. She seems to have little will of her own.

There is another strand too, which is related to Eilis’s passivity. We first see it most clearly when Eilis, having been in America a short while, gets homesick. She longs for her Irish home and the familiar. In describing the feeling of homesickness, she likens it to the passing of her father:

She kept thinking, attempting to work out what was causing this new feeling that was like despondency, that was like how she felt when her father died and she watched them closing the coffin, the feeling that he would never see the world again and she would never be able to talk to him again.

She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything. The rooms in the house on Friary Street belonged to her, she thought; when she moved in them she was really there. In the town, if she walked to the shop or to the Vocational School, the air, the light, the ground, it was all solid and part of her, even if she met no one familiar. Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty, she thought.

Eilis defines herself by her relationships and surroundings. But, even so, there remains an emptiness to Eilis, as if she is waiting to be filled with others’ desires. She has no “will to power”.

She ultimately deals with homesickness as she does with most problems when they do not resolve themselves or are not resolved by another:

She would try to put those two days behind her. No matter what she dreamed about, no matter how bad she felt, she had no choice, she knew, but to put it all swiftly out of her mind. She would have to get on with her work it if was during the day and go back to sleep if it as during the night. It would be like covering a table with a tablecloth, or closing curtains on a window; and maybe the need would lessen as time went on, as Jack had hinted it would, as Father Flood had suggested. In any case, that was what she would do.

Eilis herself almost hits on her tragic flaw, though not quite, fairly early in her stay in America. When one of the lodgers (Miss Keegan) leaves the boarding house where Eilis is staying, the best room in the house becomes available. Mrs. Kehoe, the landlady, arranges for Eilis to move into the room despite Eilis being the most recent boarder. When Eilis asks why she is being given the best room, Mrs. Kehoe explains:

”You are the only one of them with any manners.”

After the move is accomplished, Eilis avoids the other lodgers for as long as she can. The inevitable meeting occurs on a Friday evening. Miss McAdam, another lodger, sits Eilis down and gives her an alternate explanation for Eilis ending in the room. According to Miss McAdam, a man was stalking Miss Keegan and, at one point, exposed himself to her on the steps of the boarding house. Miss Keegan was afraid to identify the man to the police and left for the relative safety of Long Island.

…And then, to make matters worse, the Kehoe woman wanted to move me down to Miss Keegan’s room. She went on about it being the best room in the house. I put her in her place. And Miss Heffernan is in a terrible state. And Diana has refused to stay in the basement on her own. So she put you down there because none of the others would go.”

Eilis noticed how pleased with herself Miss McAdam seemed. As she watched the older woman sipping her tea, it occurred to Eilis that this could easily be her revenge on Eilis and Mrs. Kehoe over the room. On the other hand, she reckoned, it could be true. Mrs. Kehoe could have used her, the only lodger who did not seem to know why Miss Keegan had left.

Eilis is ultimately unable to determine which of these very different versions of reality to believe.

She studied their faces as they addressed her, but nothing became clear. She wanted to allow for the possibility that everyone’s motives were good, but it was unlikely, she thought, unlikely that Mrs. Kehoe had genuinely given her the room out of pure generosity and unlikely also that Miss McAdam and the others really did not mind this and had merely wanted to warn her about the man who had followed Miss Keegan so that she would be careful. She wished she had a real friend among the lodgers whom she could consult. And she wondered then if she herself were the problem, reading malice into motives when there was none intended. If she woke in the night, or found time going slowly at work, she went over it all again blaming Mrs. Kehoe one moment, Miss McAdam and her fellow lodgers the next, and then blaming herself, eventually coming to no conclusion except that it would be best if she stopped thinking about it altogether.

And this is the solution with which Eilis is all too comfortable. It is not only that Eilis avoids confrontation, but she tends to shield herself from the truth and, if she glimpses it despite her best efforts, to hide it away somewhere away from her conscious mind. She finds that if she does not think about something, it fades.

This sense of fading and unreality is related to her passivity and is repeated throughout the novel. Earlier, of course, Brooklyn and her life there seemed unreal. Her solution to homesickness works. In fact, it works so well that she has the following epiphany:

Later, during the week, as she was making her way from Bartocci’s to Brooklyn College, she forgot what she was looking forward to; sometimes she actually believed that she was looking forward to thinking about home, letting images of home roam freely in her mind, but it came to her now with a jolt that, no, the feeling she had was only about Friday night and being collected from the house by a man she had met and going to the dance with him in the hall…She thought it was strange that the mere sensation of savouring the prospect of something could make her think for a while that it must be the prospect of home.

Her fresh engagement with America comes, of course, with a new romance. There is a particularly telling scene, after Tony has told her he loves her but before she has reciprocated, in which she watches Tony:

There was something helpless about him as he stood there; his willingness to be happy, his eagerness she saw, made him oddly vulnerable. The word that came to her as she looked down was the word “delighted.” He was delighted by things, as he was delighted by her, and he had done nothing else ever but make that clear. Yet somehow that delight seemed to come with a shadow, and she wondered as she watched him if she herself, in all her uncertainty and distance from him, was the shadow and nothing else. It occurred to her that he was as he appeared to her; there was no other side to him. Suddenly, she shivered in fear and turned, making her way down the stairs and towards him in the lobby as quickly as she could.

Eilis manages, as she does with every other uncomfortable truth, to ignore her uneasiness. She and Tony are secretly married just before she goes back to Ireland. The decision to marry, of course, was Tony’s. Tony was afraid Eilis would not return if they were only promised rather than married. Eilis simply goes along to avoid unpleasantness.

When she returns to Ireland, she finds that her feelings are somewhat reversed. Instead of feeling that her life in America is meaningless, it is her old Irish life that seems to her alien and empty.

She was glad she did not have to write now from her bedroom, which seemed empty of life, which almost frightened her in how little it meant to her. She had put no thought into what it would be like to come home because she had expected that it would be easy; she had longed so much for the familiarity of these rooms that she had presumed she would be happy and relieved to step back into them, but, instead, on this first morning, all she could do was count the days before she went back. This made her feel strange and guilty; she curled up in the bed and closed her eyes in the hope that she might sleep.

And, of course, she does not tell anyone in Ireland about her marriage.

She wished now that she had not married him, not because she did not love him and intend to return to him, but because not telling her mother or her friends made every day she had spent in America a sort of fantasy, something she could not match with the time she was spending at home. It made her feel strangely as though she were two people, one who had battled against two cold winters and many hard days in Brooklyn and fallen in love there, and the other who was her mother’s daughter, the Eilis whom everyone knew, or thought they knew.

Eilis senses that one of these two selves will necessarily pass. When she, Nancy, George, and Jim head off to the beach, Eilis examines the surroundings as they go. Toibin uses language that echoes his description of her feeling when her father’s casket closed from earlier:

This was where Eilis had come with Rose and her brothers and her parents when they were children, but she had not been there for years nor thought about it. As they drove through Blackwater village she almost pointed out the places she knew, such as Mrs. Davis’s pub where her father had gone in the evenings, or Jim O’Neill’s shop. But she stopped herself. She did not want to sound like someone who had come back home after a long time away. And, she thought, this was something that she might never see again on a Sunday like this, but for the others it was nothing, just a decision.

The echo here of her memory of her father’s funeral is beautifully haunting. Her next departure from Ireland is a death too. She knows this and feels alone because no one else understands how one of her two selves will necessarily die.

Of course, her decision to return to America, like almost every decision Eilis makes is an acquiescence to the demands or desires of someone else. For instance, when they get to the beach and, eventually, Jim asks if she will go into the water with him, she “had already planned to say no.”

But his tone, when he spoke, was unexpected in its humility. Jim spoke like someone who could easily be hurt. She wondered if it was an act, but he was looking at her with an expression so vulnerable that she, for a second, could not make her mind up what to do. She realized that, if she refused, he might walk alone down to the water like someone defeated; somehow she did not want to have to witness that.

“Okay,” she said.

And this is the problem with Eilis. It is not that she does not have her own desires. Rather, Eilis lives too much in the present, too little in the future. She does not want to hurt Jim at the beach, so she agrees to go into the water, deepening his attachment to her. She is already married to Tony, so things cannot work for both. But she ignores the future consequences. She agrees to go with Jim because it is the easiest path for her at that moment, because the present Jim is more real to her than the absent Tony.

Eilis recognizes this feeling later when looking at two letters from Tony.

She looked at the two envelopes, at his handwriting, and she stood in the room with the door closed wondering how strange it was that everything about him seemed remote. And not only that, but everything else that had happened in Brooklyn seemed as though it had almost dissolved and was no longer richly present for her – her room in Mrs. Kehoe’s, for example, or her exams, or the trolley-car from Brooklyn College back home, or the dancehall, or the apartment where Tony lived with his parents and his three brothers, or the shop floor at Bartocci’s. She went through all of it as though she were trying to recover what had seemed so filled with detail, so solid, just a few weeks before.

All of this putting out of mind thoughts of the future and people absent can only lead to problems. Eilis’s short-term compromises will have long-term consequences. She has drifted her way into a corner.

The answer was that there was no answer, that nothing she could do would be right. She pictured Tony and Jim opposite each other, or meeting each other, each of them smiling, warm, friendly, easygoing, Jim less eager than Tony, less funny, less curious, but more self-contained and more sure of his own place in the world. And she thought of her mother now beside her in the church, the devastation and shock of Rose’s death having been softened somewhat by Eilis’s return. And she saw all three of them – Tony, Jim, her mother – as figures whom she could only damage, as innocent people surrounded by light and clarity, and circling around them was herself, dark, uncertain.

Again, Toibin returns to earlier imagery. This time the echo is of the scene where Eilis watches Tony from afar and sees herself a shadow. These two scenes are telling revelations of how Eilis sees people and her relation to them. Though she is passive, she sees herself as a shadowy actor. She avoids acting to avoid damaging them. There is a self-centeredness to her passivity. She is unwilling to contradict others because she sees them as fragile, helpless before her dark, uncertain power to damage.

And she will damage either Tony or Jim, or both. Each moment along the way she was enjoying herself and did not want to hurt their feelings. By doing this, Eilis encouraged each of the men to love her. She, however, does not return the love of either with anything approaching the same intensity. She simply burrows further into a situation that she knows will not bring her long-term happiness. Nothing about her feelings suggests that her marriage to Tony will be fulfilling to her. Her method of communicating those feelings and making difficult decisions suggests that she will continue to drift into lose-lose situations, waiting only until a damaging choice is required. Her uncertainty is a menacing, foreboding shadow over the people in her life.

Toibin’s use of recurring imagery and language to emphasize these themes is outstanding technique. One of my frustrations with the novel was that Eilis seemed so often an empty vessel. But I think this is part of the point. Eilis’s essential trait, her tragic flaw, is her unwillingness to make choices, particularly difficult choices. Her pleasantness, her industriousness, her intelligence are all undermined and overshadowed by her unwillingness to confront and shape her own future. Toibin exploits this by giving us so little of Eilis besides her seeming pliability. By the end of the novel, we see Eilis for what she is. We realize more than ever how accurate she was when she saw herself as a sinister shadow in Tony’s life.

As always, Eilis manages to put the final consequences of her choice out of her mind too. The closing paragraph is outstanding:

[H]er mother would stand watching Jim Farrell with her shoulders back bravely and her jaw set hard and a look in her eyes that suggested both an inexpressible sorrow and whatever pride she could muster.

“She has gone back to Brooklyn,” her mother would say. And, as the train rolled past Macmine Bridge on its way towards Wexford, Eilis imagined the years ahead, when these words would come to mean less and less to the man who heard them and would come to mean more and more to herself. She almost smiled at the thought of it, then closed her eyes and tried to imagine nothing more.

[P.S. Please check out ANZ LitLovers Blog for additional analysis that captures references and elements I missed.]