Most everybody knows the meme: ‘the great American novel’. Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, Melville’s Moby Dick, Dos Passos’ USA trilogy, DeLillo’s Underworld, Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!—these and others have been referred to as such. And there is commonality among most: social and personal transitions within the past two centuries of history that in some way embody the American ‘rise from nothing’, all utilizing dense, typically quality prose. The trajectory of this transition has shifted from ascending to descending the further into post-modernism we go, but in general remains in place. Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (2003) is one such contender—granted an outside shot, but a contender nonetheless—for the epithet.
The Fortress of Solitude is the story of two boys, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, and their teenage and early adulthood years in Brooklyn and beyond throughout the 70s and into the 90s. Dylan the introverted white son of an equally introverted artist, and Mingus the troubled son of a formerly successful soul singer now turned drug addict, neither boy has a strong mother figure in their lives either, meaning the streets are their greatest educators. From the games children play to the wider contextualization of their racial and social positions, the two boys arc in and out of each other’s lives, through graffiti and music, pranks and pizza, as New York City and the US beyond, evolve around them.
The novel’s title taken from Superman’s home away from home, Lethem spins the idea in a few ways. Foremost is the poetic interpretation, particularly Dylan’s strongly introverted manner and the invisible line separating him from society. His friends, family, and schoolmates exist at a distance that rarely if ever can be described as ‘warm’. Mingus Rude likewise lives something in a bubble, though it is one spawned from an entirely different domestic scene. Never overtly described in detailed exposition or stream of consciousness, both Dylan and Mingus nevertheless build proverbial walls around themselves that feed the main theme. Fortresses keeping people out as well as in, the metaphor likewise works as something of a prison. Another purpose of the title is its hinting at the note of fantasy in the novel. Not spoiling matters, a magical ring finds its way into the boys’ lives. More symbolic than ‘nebuous point of wonder’ as is found in many a fantasy novel, the ring comes to occupy a hopeful role, of escape from said fortress/prison, and is best viewed as such when reading the novel (rather than a ‘real’ object granting supernatural powers). And thirdly, and admittedly in minor fashion, the title hints at the role of comic books in the novel, not only as talking points in scenes of Dylan and Mingus’ childhoods, but also as points of reminiscence in the scenes where they are older. Lethem does not go into whether Superman beats Batman or any other futile comics discussion, rather he parlays the differing types of value the comics had for the characters young and old into narrative. Lest any reader be afraid Lethem is secretly championing ‘comics as salvation’, later scenes in the novel, particularly at a science fiction and fantasy convention clearly intended to imitate WorldCon, are presented as often insular and juvenile, and as such delineate where Lethem believes comics fall into the spectrum of story beyond.
It was not a surprise in post-reading on the novel to learn that Fortress is semi-autobiographical. There are simply too many exact, precise details for historical readings or imagination to supply. Foremost among these is the usage of music, particular its evolution on the street. From primitive DJ parties to the more general eclectization and amalgamation of urban music that would eventually become rap and hip-hop, Lethem uses said evolution for a portion of the story’s backdrop. Likewise, while Mingus’ father Barret is portrayed as having had minor success in a fictional soul group, around it is a fair bit of discussion on many real-world though very poorly known soul performers. But I think it’s the quality of the scenes that made me believe in the high quanityt of auto-biography. Many are presented with such depth, such insight into the mindset of Dylan that they feel to real not to be true. Perhaps the greatest compliment to pay a writer, the reader comes as close as possible to living these scenes.
Based on Lethem’s prose in general, writing does not feel something that comes naturally. It feels a difficult process, a long struggle, a wrestling of words over multiple revisions and rewrites, minor tweaks at every paragraph, maybe every line, until every word finds its correct place. In Fortress the effort is fully worth it. There are many nice turns of phrase, mood is appropriate, and the unveiling of scenes is always subtle and surprising. Many times a mundane sit down between characters evolves in intriguing ways—sometimes dramatic, sometimes, emotional, sometimes reflective, sometimes self-critical, and sometimes revelatory, minor or otherwise. Fortress deploys a more dense, literary style than seen in previous Lethem novels like Gun, with Occasional Music or Amnesia Moon, and ends up being something akin to what might be found in the novels of Don DeLillo—dense, chewy prose.
It is important to note that Fortress is not a nostalgic, backward looking novel that mourns the passing of time—of the “better days” of post-WWII Brooklyn. It’s a real novel, an honest novel that is more interested in self-interrogation and revelation than it is recalling halcyon days. No Normal Rockwell in sight, its post-counter-culture, or what was happening with the hippy/bohemian movement as time moved inexorably forward after the 60s. Ebdus and Rude’s lives catching the remnants, culture and society are nevertheless forging new paths for them—moments of which Lethem captures in brilliant form, and help to underpin the wider social and cultural context to their story.
In the end, The Fortress of Solitude is a quietly powerful, emotionally honest, personally revelatory, likely even cathartic novel that one rarely finds in fiction. I would guess Lethem felt naked while writing. It will resonate most—as the title hints—with the more introspective reader, but given the strong degree of cultural and social association—music, art, parenthood, racial tension, comic books, drug abuse, father-son relations, etc.—more erudite readers will likewise find a great deal of worthwhile material. And as with any book which successfully recalls childhood, Lethem should be applauded for being able to deliver fiction through the eyes of a child, something that is difficult to do in such dense, meaningful fashion. I could heap further praise, but suffice to say this just may be Lethem’s magnum opus, and, just perhaps a book to consider for ‘the great American novel’. Time will tell.
*Note: For anyone who has read The Fortress of Solitude and is looking for further reading on the novel, I recommend The Disappointment Artist. Indirectly describing details of setting and character, Lethem’s collection of essays acts as a real-world parallel to many “fictional” events of the novel, all the while branching out to other areas of interest that will likely be of interest, as well.