Big, sweeping American novels seem to be all the rage these days. Jonathan Franzen set the stage last year with his verbose and neverending The Corrections, and recently another Jonathan—Jonathan Lethem—hit the literary big-time. Fortunately for us, Lethem’s efforts yielded a smarter and more complicated (albeit grandiose) novel, The Fortress of Solitude. And this comic but poignant novel was penned by an author both exuberant and thoughtful, something audience members at First Parish Church learned last Thursday evening.
The novel, which Lethem read passages from during his Cambridge stop, tells the story of Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, a white boy and a black boy living in 1970s Brooklyn. Dylan, whose name comes from his parents’ fascination with the folk-singer, is conscious of race early on, especially when his mother proudly proclaims his status as one of only three white kids in his entire school. In an era of heightened race consciousness, Dylan is an experiment in immersion; fortunately, Lethem avoids heavyhandedness by leaving this theme of race consciousness understated.
Dylan, walking the precarious tightrope of race consciousness every day of elementary and middle school, encounters the rigors of a different kind of New York when he enters Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School. The friends he meets there are nothing like Mingus, from whom Dylan is gradually growing apart; instead, the Stuyvesant students are dorky, and Lethem seems to revel in their language and attitudes. Stuyvesant is many things to many characters, but, as Lethem writes, “crucially it was nerd nerd nerd nerd nerd.”
Lethem, whose previous novel Motherless Brooklyn was named the “Book of the Year” by Esquire, is very engaged in his characters. This was clearly evident at the reading; he eagerly mimicked the dull hulk of a schoolyard bully; he let the squeak of a scared submissive jump from his lips. Clad in tight jeans, a bright yellow shirt and Costello glasses, Lethem was as colorful as his characters themselves.
The Fortress of Solitude is filled with cultural references, a novel that wavers between an interesting cultural history and a forced inclusion of everything that comprised the 1970s. Even Bruce Lee is mentioned, seemingly for no other reason than a gratuitous name-drop.
Still, most of these inclusions are vibrant and meaningful. One of them, which is particularly important given the novel’s race-conscious veneer, involves the black neighborhood kids’ singing of Wild Cherry’s “Play that Funky Music” to taunt the isolated Dylan’s whiteness. “At the very least, the song was the soundtrack to your destruction, the theme…[it] ought to be illegal,” Lethem writes, pinpointing the agony a single grade school taunt can impart on the impressionable mind.
Lethem, when he read this section aloud, even sang the song lyrics themselves, caught up in their humor. When Dylan becomes a rock critic later in the novel, he notes the ignorance of his childhood self: “Of course, the 35-year-old rock critic knew what the 13-year-old scrap of prey on the sidewalk outside Intermediate School 293 never did: Wild Cherry were a bunch of white guys.”
When Lethem read he glanced at the audience constantly, noting their laughter and gauging their reactions. He chewed his words, especially those uttered by his characters, as if his creations had taken on a life of their own.
The title of the novel is a reference to comic-book hero Superman’s isolated hideaway, and Lethem’s novel is rife with talk of comic books as well. “Marvel Comics had it right,” Lethem writes, “the world was all secret names, you only needed to uncover your own.”
Indeed, one of the book’s most interesting devices comes from a comic book: a flying man, who Dylan and Mingus glimpse repeatedly around their neighborhood. “In this book there’s a flying man,” Lethem said, all seriousness. “Every now and then there’s this figure leaping over the rooftops.”
The man, Lethem said, is the physical manifestation of childhood imagination. “The superhero image in the book, the yearning to be able to fly…I’ve related to. [They’re] adolescent feelings, wanting to disguise yourself, transcend yourself. For me, it wasn’t that big a jump to interject superheroes in the book.”
Of the setting, an intensely detailed Brooklyn in a vital and specific time, Lethem explains that “I was letting it lead me through the book…I wanted to really let myself write about the place that moved me.” Perhaps noting the critical strain that has resulted from such a jam-packed style—a style dubbed “hysterical realism” by some critics—he added that “I think there are a lot of pages of scenery, but I hope it’s as emotionally charged as the characters. I wanted it to be emotionally crucial.”
Lethem, who was born and lives in Brooklyn, was asked how much of the novel is autobiographical. “There’s a lot of me in Dylan,” he said, though he added that “my autobiographical sentiment covers more of the book than Dylan.” He described some of the incidents in the book as “experiences I know about but never had.”
Lethem said he usually begins writing a novel with an image: “What I hold in my head is an image of a book I want to write—what I know are codes, the image of an ending,” and beyond this, he said, he must fill in the gaps. Writing is an endless process of decision-making, and the author must always be “bridging across these dark zones to the next node of light.”
Even though he thinks it’s a difficult process, “in the end, everything that seems to matter is there on the spot.”