November 18, 2003

Lethem's fortress: an enticing bohemia or a sad waste of life?

The Fortress of Solitude is a failed book about failure, a boho dream about the failure of boho dreams. Jonathan Lethem—whose previous work, Motherless Brooklyn, was a slim, perfectly realized detective novel with no real ambitions other than to be extremely good, which it was—tries to take on the epic American issues of race, class, and geography. Like his characters, he is ultimately unsuccessful at wringing coherence out of these dilemmas, though he gets off to a hopeful start. Nonetheless, in the midst of the wreckage (and, whether intentionally or not, because of the wreckage) The Fortress of Solitude offers enough moments of moving and intriguing brilliance to permit Lethem safe passage into the elite class of writers to which he aspires.

Lethem's protagonist, Dylan Ebdus, comes from spotlessly bohemian parents, a working, pot-smoking feminist and the isolated, avant-garde artist husband she supports (his big project is an abstract animated film on which he works several months to create a couple frames). His mother, who quickly leaves their life and the book, is the kind of firebrand liberal who takes pride in raising her only child in a poor, virtually all-black section of Brooklyn, and sending him to a school where he is only one of three white kids.

Dylan stumbles through his early childhood in a predictably solitary manner, foreshadowed by his inability to hula-hoop with the black girls. He lives on the periphery until befriended by another quasi-outsider, Mingus Rude. Mingus is the son of a long-departed white mother (subtext: Motherless Brooklyn II) and a faded soul singer father—the "black" boho mirror to Dylan, as their music-figure-reference names suggest. Mingus, however, is a social animal who belatedly introduces Dylan to the neighborhood and its language of games.

Soon Dylan is playing scully and stickball, and the first part of the book flies by with a graceful innocence. One of Lethem's gifts is his ability to reflect the racial tension that remains through a child's eyes. When Dylan gets hit up for money by black kids, Lethem skillfully folds a sixth-grade purity to it. "If Dylan choked or whined," he writes, "they were perplexed and slightly disappointed at the white boy's too-ready hysteria…. On those occasions they'd pick up his books or hat and press them on him, tuck him back together."

The exoticism of Lethem's Brooklyn is leavened by his spot-on portrait of childhood, when society's determination of roles seems innocently inevitable. The book's first half is vividly and beautifully realized. Lethem's innate sense of social dynamics—between child and child, between black and white—allows him to coherently recreate a community's language, roles and atmosphere. "The little kids run wild, girl and boy, Spanish, black and white mixed the way they did at that age," Lethem writes. "They spend themselves in the sun, winning and losing shitty prizes, Super Balls…. The young ones shriek and run, are pooped and whining by four o'clock. The older kids are stalling for night." While Dylan and Mingus maintain a faithful bond, the book remains perfectly realized.

The boys' paths diverge as they get older. Dylan remains true to his heritage as an educated boho kid, enrolling at an elite public high school in Manhattan, while Mingus drops out of school and picks up an increasing drug habit from his father. As Dylan grows older, discovers punk and Manhattan, he begins to fall into an uncomfortable miasma that dogs him and the book. Lethem breaks the book in half with a strange interlude—liner notes to a release of Mingus's father's work—and immediately skips into Dylan's adulthood.

These are Dylan's lost years, a drug-soaked passage at a veiled Bennington College and his time as a fumbling, second-rate rock critic. He borrows the name "Camden" from Bret Easton Ellis, and his depiction of college life as well. He presents it as a couple years of expensive drugs, cheap sex and empty hipsterdom. There's no evidence that anyone at Camden actually, you know, goes to class; it's less a college than a shady refuge for druggy nihilists. Here Dylan's innate sense of solitude serves the book far worse. Because rich people are an easy target, Lethem sees less need to describe the culture as carefully as he describes Dylan's Brooklyn. It's unquestionably the worst part of the book—if the rest of the book is, as some argue, wearing its Jonathan Franzen influence proudly, Lethem's decision to ape the anti-Franzen (the bottomlessly horrible Ellis) is a mystery.

The second half is kind of a mess. In it Dylan (who dominates the scene after the midway point) turns into the kind of tiresomely unsure jerk who exists mostly in novels. He's divorced from the streets of his youth, long distant from the incarcerated Mingus, unhappy with his girlfriend, and dissatisfied with his work. Likewise, his father has become celebrated for the illustration work he does to pay the bills, while his audience has relegated the still-in-progress film to an idle curiosity. They both drift through their later years in a weary fog.

If you're thinking that this is a painful blend of white guilt and midlife crisis, you're kind of right. The tricky part is that this is kind of Lethem's point. He's not just interested in the beauty of a moment in Brooklyn where Dylan and Mingus suggested a utopian idyll for urban America—two in between kids trying to forge a life away from their expected roles—he's also interested in the aftermath of that idyll's failure, and he's willing to belabor it for artistic effect. This is why Dylan gets little joy from his relative success in a creative industry; his lost childhood and lost friend (and, debatably, his lost love) Mingus rest too heavily on his shoulders. The realization that his presence in this ideal was also the first wave of gentrification only compounds it.

It's a messy book, in a lot of ways, but Lethem seems too smart and too capable in the first half of the book to have not intended this at all. He throws digression after digression at the reader, including a subplot involving a ring that bestows superhero powers on the wearer, a ring that no one uses for anything but to fool around and break things despite their best intentions. At times the subplot is fundamental, at times tangential, but the inability of the characters to grasp the ring's power mirrors their inability to save themselves with their meager human powers. Likewise, Lethem's loss of control over the book feels intentional, infusing it with the same ennui that Dylan suffers from. Lethem seems to want no more rights to superhuman powers than his main character can possess. It's a risky and not entirely successful move, but no one ever said being a superhero is easy, or even the best choice.