A Review Of Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress Of Solitude by Emily Hass

The bravest thing about this luminescent, ambitious, and slightly sprawling novel is its complex treatment of race. Dylan Ebdus, Jewish whiteboy to bohemian parents, grows up in Brooklyn and goes to a public school (destined to become a “rehearsal for prison”) with only one other white kid. Both are victim of ritual yokings* motivated by the neat assumption that white = wealth. Dylan learns to love his block and temporarily carves out a safe haven for himself via his best friend of questionable loyalty, Mingus Rude (also known as Dose), son of a black soul legend turned crack addict. Offered cocaine before he loses his virginity, Mingus isn’t far behind. Dylan moves on to an idealistic career as a music journalist/screenwriter, ostensibly looking for romance on the West coast as his gaze lingers obsessively over Gowanus Heights, Brooklyn.

Does this sound stereotypical? Does Dylan already seem shamefully nostalgic? Lethem knows it and fitfully dwells in it. The Fortress of Solitude reinforces ideas of the white tourist getting burned in the ghetto: an odd, unwelcome longing without belonging. Inherent in this cruise through a liminal space of hybridity is an important critique of cultural mobility (Who moves in? Who moves out? How?) which helps flesh out precisely how economic and racial limits always already predefine real mobility, illusions and idealism be damned.

Characters like Dylan or Rachel who do get out are haunted by shame and orbit about their lost object/ideal (which seems to constitute a rough equation along the lines of bravery + openness + sheer determination = harmony/growth). Those like Barrett Rude Jr., Mingus, Arthur, or Abraham who carve out their own private floating spaces are left to rot, unmoved or unmoving. Lethem’s prose brilliantly exudes both tenderness and ruthlessness towards his characters’ stupidity, stubbornness, and overall habituation— because this is deeper than inclinations like negritude or a penchant for smoking your cocaine. Whether they are related to prisons or schools or the rules on the block, habits here are equally about power, institutions, and capital.

The arc and peak for me were as follows: Dylan struggling as the older Mingus abandons him through the yokings of 5th and 6th grade; the light, charming, and at times possibly colourblind Mingus drifting off into a cloud of pot smoke and graffiti; the two coming together over the discovery of a mysterious ring with superhero properties before later drifting apart. The pair meet again, fifteen or so years later, and their attempts at honour and hospitality go tragically and yet beautifully awry.

The main affective thread through this movement feels like a kind of dodging, ducking fear— a sort of counter-terrorist or freedom-from-yoking move with a heavy, messy, mournful resonance. This is, after all, also a book about a kid’s wet dream for a hero, and although at times Lethem pulls us away on a bright flight of fancy (or alterna-reality), he swoops up only to zero in on the shameful details of soaking sheets, discarded socks, and the wasted efforts that help us confuse exhaustion with satisfaction, or release with fulfillment.

While Lethem and I share a love for awkward sentence structure and comma splices, I found myself disappointed by his switch to the first person. Dylan the mole-man that we viewed at a distance was sickly and precious, a new shoot going yellow before our eyes. Dylan the self-involved college hood rat with the bratty girlfriend is just less appealing and less interesting to read about, partly because Lethem does childhood exceedingly well— all its stratifications, its street games, its under the radar culture, its private torments, its bare-boned longing for power and protectors.

In the first person, Dylan is a disappointment: hung-up, grown inverted. But it makes sense that we are unmoved by the once heroic “I”. It is, after all, our own personal Phantom Zone which we imagine to be Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. Without a realistic assessment of the true stakes of the present— how power works, moves, and immobilizes— we will remain prisoners to former ideals and liminal, fleeting places, chained to some lost object that gives us a sense of purpose, all the while serving none.

*Yoking: coaxing a kid to come over for a word, then placing him in a kind of headlock position so you can flush out his pockets for a dollar or two.

An excerpt from the novel:

“In that brief margin between renouncing his Boy Scout uniform and taking up with FMD and Robert Woolfolk, and spurning Dylan Ebdus, or being spurned by him, whichever it was, Dose could still be enticed by the simplest games, stoop ball, wall ball, skully… Or alternately, rush onto the street on the broilingest of days to join in directing, with a tin can open at both ends, a stream from a wrenched hydrant through the window of a passing car. Driver hectically rolling it if he saw what was in store, never fast enough. But the stories you told yourself— which you pretended to recall as if they’d happened every afternoon of an infinite summer— were really a pocketful of days distorted into legend, another jailhouse exaggeration, like the dimensions of those ballpoint-crosshatched tits or of the purported mountains of blow you once used to enjoy, or how you’d bellowed an avenger’s roar when you squeezed the trigger of a pistol you’d actually brandished in self-pissing terror. How often had that hydrant even been opened? Did you jet water through a car window, what, twice, at best? Summer burned just a few afternoons long, in the end.”


* place your cursor over the footnote to read it


James said...

Interesting piece. Seems I can go either way with Lethem. Liked Motherless Brooklyn, hated You Don't Love Me Yet (seems like everyone else did, too), loved (most of) Men and Cartoons and his book-length essay thing on They Live. Reeeeeeeally need to check out Chronic City.

Have you read any Colson Whitehead? I've only read Apex Hides the Hurt but I loved it and would readily recommend it to a Lethem fan.

Emily said...

Thanks James.

Chronic City is a riot. Definitely check it out. A departure from The Fortress of Solitude, to be sure, though!

As for Colson Whitehead, I haven't read any but thanks for the recommendation.

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