The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
Canon
, Ted Gioia reviews The
Fortress of  Solitude
 by
Jonathan Lethem.
The Fortress of Solitude
by Jonathan Lethem

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

More than any other writer of his generation, Jonathan Lethem has
delighted in mixing up highbrow and lowbrow styles.   Pulp fiction
recipes and high literary aspirations somehow
peacefully coexist with each other in his works,
and the most puerile fantasies are elevated into
‘serious' art, yet without losing any of their
playfulness.

In
Motherless Brooklyn (1999), he took the
formulas of a Raymond Chandler potboiler,
and transformed them into a colorful, quirky
novel about an amateurish investigator with
Tourette syndrome trying to solve the mystery
behind the murder of his mentor.   In
Amnesia
Moon
, from 1995, Lethem seemed to be
channeling Philip K. Dick, while in his short
story collection
Men and Cartoons (2004) he somehow managed to
create a variant of magical realism -- imagine a Gabriel Garcia
Marquez who grew up in Brooklyn reading about superheroes -- by
mixing stark confessional literature with the trappings of comic
books.   As far back as his debut novel,
Gun, with Occasional Music
(1994), Lethem was practicing this pot-luck with various genres,
combining mystery, sci-fi, and elements of film and literary
traditions into a amalgam that proved as strange as it was pleasing.

But Lethem’s masterpiece is
The Fortress of Solitude, a semi-
autobiographical novel of epic scope which follows the emotionally
charged relationship of two friends, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude,
over the course of three decades.   As always, Lethem adds a dose of
the fantastic –- the two friends share a magical ring that was handed
on by a scraggly wino superhero –- yet the overall mood of the
novel is soberly realistic and intensely introspective.   Here Lethem
rises above the playfulness that characterized his earlier books, and
creates a powerful narrative with compelling characters who don’t
need a cape and super powers to grab our attention.

Dylan is a white boy in a black neighborhood, the son of 1960s free
spirits who devote more energy to self-actualization than to
parenting.   Before his hippie mother disappears from his life, she
demonstrates her solidarity with the common people by putting her
son in a tough and dangerous Brooklyn school.  Here the youngster’s
chances for acceptance -– and even physical safety –- hinge on his
complicated relationship with Mingus Rude, a street smart black
youth who also comes from a broken home.  Lethem handles the
racial, social and psychological overtones of this relationship with
extraordinary deftness.

There is nothing in this author’s pulp fiction roots to prepare us for
the vividness of these character studies, which at times veer closer
to Dostoevsky than to Dick or DC Comics.   In this setting, Lethem’s
ability to incorporate fantastic themes without dispelling the
intensity of the narrative is remarkable.  The novel is well on its way
before Lethem introduces the magical ring that allows his
protagonists to fly through the air, and use their new-found powers
for good . . . or just for mischief.   (The movie
Hancock, with its
bumbling black superhero protagonist seems to me to be more than
a little indebted to Lethem’s novel.)   In the hands of a lesser writer,
this sub-plot would be the centerpiece of the book, but for Lethem it
functions almost as a dream sequence, as an insight into the wish-
fulfillment aspirations of the emotionally-starved characters at the
core of his book.   In short, don't be fooled by the comic book
trappings here --
The Fortress of Solitude is not a work of escape
literature.

The very title reveals the paradoxes of Lethem’s novel.   Fans of
Superman will recognize the “Fortress of Solitude” as the hero’s
hidden lair, a remote getaway where the Man of Steel goes to chill
out.   For Lethem, a writer always sensitive to adolescent fantasy
life, such a reference is not surprising.   Yet the title is also an
indicator of the tremendous isolation and loneliness of his
protagonists –- not just Dylan and Mingus, but also their parents,
who share their children’s aloofness.   A pervasive, if poetic,
atmosphere of estrangement and alienation pervades Lethem's
novel, and the author's ability to probe into the dark night of the
soul by means of a panoply of pop culture references is both strange
and endearing.

Yet even in this dark book, Lethem has not lost his light, playful
touches.   At a surprising juncture he incorporates a long essay on
1970s soul music into his novel, and it is as delightful as it is
intelligent.   It also helps, in an indirect manner, to enhance our
understanding of the main narrative.   Elsewhere in
The Fortress of
Solitude
, Lethem turns his attention to the themes of gentrification,
graffiti art, avant-garde cinema and other topics that add to the rich
tapestry surrounding his main characters.

As this book demonstrates again and again, Lethem is one of the
most original and invigorating authors of the new millennium.   He is
comfortable with all of the zany post-modern techniques, especially
the juxtaposition of different cultural bric-a-brac in striking new
patterns.   Yet while so many post-modern works tend to collapse
into idle games, cut-and-paste efforts that fall over when exposed to
the elements, Lethem has proven capable of probing the
psychological depths in
The Fortress of Solitude.  This novel,
demonstrating the author's rare ability to combine the fanciful and
tragic in a single epic work, stands out as one of the finer literary
achievements of recent years.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

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More to come


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