The Fortress of Solitude
Jonathan Lethem has made a reputation for himself by writing fiction deeply rooted in genre, whether that stylistic hook be the dystopian science fiction of Amnesia Moon (1995) and many of his short stories, or the hard-boiled noir of Gun, With Occasional Music (1994). His most recent and, in many respects, his breakthrough novel, Motherless Brooklyn (1999), incorporated elements of Lethem’s borough-borne past and personal experience and shoehorned them into a bizarre tale of a grifter-cum-detective afflicted with Tourette Syndrome. Brooklyn’s profane protagonist, though embroiled in a shifty situation worthy of a further-through-the-looking-glass Chandler yarn, still managed to notice and expound upon the occasional stray nuances of Brooklyn life: abandoned warehouses, asphalt-covered playgrounds, wayward youth and shady dealings.
With the publication of Lethem’s new work, The Fortress of Solitude, Motherless Brooklyn’s traces of realism can now be seen as rivulets in advance of the flood. Fortress isn’t so much a change in direction for Lethem as it is a gigantic release. Rife with fly-on-the-wall detail and literary verite, it tells the story of a young child growing up in 1970s Brooklyn, and the 30ish music journalist the child becomes.
Anyone with a bare knowledge of Lethem’s life will see marks of autobiography all over the novel. Like the hero of Fortress, Lethem grew up in Boerum Hill with arty, leftist parents, writes about indie-rock bands and enjoys the Australian rock group The Go-Betweens. As Lethem takes the granular, palpable details of Brooklyn life and makes use of his own autobiographical material, Fortress becomes his first work to cross genres. He writes both about a situation more fantastic and absurd than any Kafkaesque future, and a problem more stupefyingly unsolvable than a Sam Spade whodunit. He succeeds mightily at times, and not so mightily at others.
Most Brooklyn and Manhattan-area readers will be drawn to Fortress’s lyrical, precise daguerreotypes of ’70s Brooklyn life. In a city that is still reeling from expansion, still dazed by the shock of greater coherence and civic improvement, this book’s summoning of Brooklyn’s squalid, chaotic, segregated past fills a valuable niche. And it is in this exploration that the books excels, especially as it examines the daily life in Brooklyn through the eyes of a small boy, Dylan Ebdus.
Living in the newly-minted neighborhood of Boerum Hill, Dylan’s world is composed of streets, bounded by blocks and irreversibly marred by color. Thanks to his mother’s misplaced notions of hippie activism and egalitarianism, and an artist father’s misty detachment, Dylan finds himself growing up in an almost completely black and poor neighborhood. As a very young child, however, Dylan has yet to understand the racial conflicts that will plague him throughout his adolescence.
Instead, the novel’s early passages deal with the minutiae of an urban childhood: the handball and skully games with the neighborhood children, domestic life with eccentric parents, doing chores for scary crones three brownstones over. This part of the novel conjures a sense of the past that is almost Proustian in stature. Dylan’s life possesses all the timelessness of a dream and all the laser-like vividness of raw experience. As a portrait of what Brooklyn used to be like before the yuppies moved in and the rents went through the ceiling, Fortress is a monumental work.
Rendered in prose that seems directly imprinted on the page by Lethem’s febrile imagination, these sections make up the most appealing parts of the novel, but they also pose a problem. Timelessness and historical precision don’t really lend themselves to swift plotting, and unlike Proust, Lethem doesn’t have the luxury of spreading his recollections out over numerous books. The stunned aura of Dylan’s early youth makes a poor starting ground for the rest of the novel’s arc.
Once things begin to change for Dylan, Fortress’s pacing shifts in a manner that leaves confusion and awkwardness hanging around in its wake. Granted, the process of growing up is filled with confusing and awkward moments (indeed, those moments are vital for growth), and if Lethem has purposefully chosen to embed those feelings into Fortress’s very structure, then he has succeeded. Nonetheless, I would argue that the best novels dealing with adolescence—Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (1962), Lynda Barry’s Cruddy (1971)— wrest some shred of meaning and stability from their subject, even if that shred is the lack of all meaning.
The course of events that Fortress eventually charts is Dylan’s friendship with Mingus Rude, the racially-mixed son of a soul singer who moves into the neighborhood. Joined by their love of comic books and outsider status (Mingus is from out of state, and his family has money), Mingus and Dylan quickly take to each other. As Dylan and Mingus age and enter the war-torn hallways of the public school system, their bond is complicated by the specter of race. Dylan becomes besieged with prejudice, and every unsupervised stretch of outdoors poses a threat, as black teenagers from the nearby projects learn they can put him in a headlock and take his money with ease. Instead of fighting back or running away, Dylan feels guilty and ashamed, his very presence making him complicit in the morass of racial relations that shapes the lives of both himself and his attackers. Mingus remains friends with Dylan, but in a sporadic, far-off way, never watching out for him or protecting him at school, which Mingus rarely attends. Later in the book, in a well-done but overly compressed section written from Mingus’s point of view, we learn that he too felt guilty about Dylan’s constant victimization, and distanced himself from Dylan because he knew he could never completely protect him.
By picking at the wound of white/black relations, this section of the book raises some intriguing and important issues. Lethem is clearly using his experience to justify his writing about black culture and characters, but even so, he only seems comfortable about half the time. Whether or not readers will enjoy the dialogue can probably be determined by what they think of the transparency of having two main characters named Dylan and Mingus. To my admittedly jaded ears, Lethem’s use of slang will feel natural in one paragraph, forced and stiff in the next. Here Fortress’s mania for detail betrays the larger whole; instead of capturing the natural lightness of human speech, it often weighs dialogue down with repeated stock words and phrases. "Yo," "What up?" and the like feel listless, and often unnecessary. During Dylan’s punk phase, which he enters upon enrolling in a specialized Manhattan high school, this tactic grows especially burdensome. We’ve all memorized those hoary Monty Python routines, but there’s no reason for them to be popping up in books.
Dylan’s feelings of alienation and failure in junior high school also become somewhat wearying after thirty pages or so. As if sensing this, Lethem throws in an oddball device: Dylan discovers a ring that grants its wearer superpowers. While this sort of invention may have suited Lethem in the past, the notion of Dylan and Mingus soaring around stopping crime is jarring and befuddling in a book that is otherwise so concerned with physical veracity. The recent explosion of superhero themes in literature makes this move look even more cursory. Lethem may know this as well, because ultimately he devotes little space to the characters’ thoughts about their superhuman gifts.
The second half of the book appears even less connected to the spellbound, impressionistic swathes of Dylan’s youth. As told in the first-person, Dylan briefly escapes to a Bennington-like college in a section that reads like watered-down Easton Ellis, and then goes on to become a Berkeley-based music journalist and writer. In an entertaining but somehow pointless episode, he pitches a treatment of the true story of the incarcerated soul group The Prisonaires to an incredulous movie producer. Though the transition does accurately portray the shock and failure of Dylan’s middle years, it’s nonetheless hard to go from intensely empathizing with the character to wanting to slap him.
All criticism aside, The Fortress of Solitude is a book that grapples with big, horny issues, as well as a sprawling social novel that lovingly depicts a vanished way of life. The former quality provides the luster of nobility, while the latter makes for a good read. Fortress may not be perfectly realized, but the scope of its vision and many moments of fine writing will appeal to any serious fan of fiction.