This is an interesting one. The Fortress of Solitude is a book that’s difficult to catagorise. With brief genre moments, and certainly many nods towards SF / comic book fandom, it describes the lives of two boys, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude. One white, one black, both growing up in Brooklyn. Not a simple friendship.
The first and largest chunk of the novel is in third person, following mainly Dylan’s family as they move into the area of New York populated mainly by blacks, a decision spurred on by his Bohemian mother. It is here that Jonathan Lethem gets in full prose swing, clearly echoing Don DeLillo, in mood, pace, sentence structure. And for me that’s not a bad thing at all, considering Mr DeLillo a deity. I still think so little is ever discussed of style, it’s worth making a point here how talented a stylist Lethem is.
Fifth grade was fourth grade with something wrong… The ones who couldn’t read still couldn’t, the teachers were teaching the same thing for the fifth time now and refusing to meet your eyes, some kids had been left back twice and were the size of janitors. The place was a cage for growing, nothing else.
One such sentence used to describe the poor quality education that Dylan must go through, and ultimately rise out of. Lethem’s voice is perfect to capture 70s America, with all the music, the language of the street, the graffiti, then the drugs. Lethem shows with warmness the racial tensions of the period, the yoking, the “yo, mama“, the social challenges of the area. When he bursts into those stream-of-consciousness style sentences, he’s poetic. Never quite riffing like DeLillo does, but still up there.
Dylan being one of the only white boys in the area suffers, inevitably, but not without making friends along the way. His relationship with Mingus is distantly affectionate, and Dylan does his best to blend in with black culture. But his geek side is too strong for him to remain bound by Brooklyn. Of course, a magic ring is thrown into the mix, granting invisibility, something Dylan appears to have craved, and the powers of flight. This ring came from someone who was on the way out of society, who seemed relieved to be rid of it.
The story breaks into first person, as we join Dylan after college, then looking back on college, before revisiting Brooklyn. You can’t help but by this point be totally immersed in his upbringing, so engaged, that this section stands up on the supporting frame of the third person narrative. They wouldn’t work without each other. Dylan is now suffering from an uncertain relationship with his past, almost unable to move on fully, Brooklyn never leaving him. Lethem writes with such an obvious love for the area. And all the time in the background is Dylan’s father, the painter of SF novel covers whilst working on a film, painstakingly, over the course of his life, never quite being finished. A relationship that is distant in the first section, ever more powerful towards the end of the novel. And of course there is the ring, revisited.
It is complex in places, hazy in others—but never meant to be clear. Only towards the end can we understand where he was going, and even then it is more a feeling, something within ourselves, our own childhood and future concerns, perhaps, that is brought to mind.
For lovers of style, sharp dialogue, and cultural investigation, this cannot be recommended enough.