A Peaceable Discussion of Race

Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude

A Peaceable Discussion of Race

Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude

A Peaceable Discussion of Race
Critics and readers discuss books over e-mail.
Oct. 7 2003 2:46 PM

Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude

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Dear Meghan:

Was it fair to put the dream of integration on Dylan's shoulders? My family lived the same "dream," but it had little to do with Isabel Vendle's overheated dream of a new world and a lot to do what with what my folks, like Rachel and Abraham Ebdus, could afford. And dream or no dream, living somewhere doesn't mean you end up belonging. Integration, like free trade, lives a healthy theoretical life but shows up rarely and in small pockets: bands, friendships, marriages. Dylan's one true integration is with Mingus. What they have is pretty close to love and has little do with the neighborhood. (Could Dylan have feasibly visited Henry's house, for instance? Or Marilla's?) I don't buy the line that "gentrification is the scar left by a dream." The economic tends to push the psychic, nowhere more so than in real estate.

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One Frayster brings up the "magical realism" of Márquez. Magical realism also functions like integration, and Márquez provides an entry into the Fortress. Lethem's writing may be overdone, but the saturation of description mimics experiences that themselves feel oversaturated, reread, revisited endlessly in your head until the original event has been written over by your internal commentary. There are also many well-written threads in "Underberg" that have nothing to do with magic or overstatement: the self-contained poems, the childhood documents, the Brooklyn history. The running one-liners about school will have a long shelf life: "Second grade was first grade with math," and "Fifth grade was fourth grade with something wrong."

Fortress could be a younger, more withdrawn version of Philip Roth's American Pastoral, an equally overstuffed book about an author's childhood home. (The Corrections is another obvious comparison in the Big American Novel sweepstakes, but Franzen doesn't evoke a city the way Roth and Lethem do.) In tandem, the two books suggest that the first home is so important it almost can't be written about. Both books could easily lose a hundred pages without damaging their dream cities. Does it matter? That hinges on how deeply you feel Dylan's Gowanus, and whether or not his web of enemies and friends resonates for you. "Underberg" doesn't fall into its own navel, but you see that sentimental tar pit lurking. It didn't occur to me anything might be wrong until the second half, which simultaneously breaks the spell and makes you realize you were under one. Here, Lethem unpacks too many of the compressions of the first half. When the adult Dylan does cocaine with his newfound restaurant buddies, the narration points out that cocaine was also Barrett Rude's drug of choice. We knew that.

The grownup Dylan? He's not really there, except as a plot device to facilitate a look back. A rock critic selling a screenplay to a Hollywood alpha dog? Less probable than Aeroman but, more to the point, extrinsic to the heart of the book. Or do you think California and Abby are perhaps supposed to be insubstantial, throwing us back to the pumping heart of Dean Street? Maybe. I felt attached only to the sections on Camden College, which could have extended from the first section (though it would ruin the elegance of the final violent scene). When Dylan admits to trading on his knowledge of black culture, fully aware that his savoir faire barely makes the cut back home, a whole episode of Oprah appeared before me. "White People Who Are Capable of Blackting, But Don't Always Do It." An entire cohort of '70s and '80s New York kids is evoked in one sentence. Dylan is the stand-in for every NYC kid who occasionally trades on the infinite reserves of cool NYC when they're away from home. The glosses on race don't suggest some hysterical clash of civilizations but instead introduce structural problems as mundane and homey as Dean Street itself: These kids wanna rob me, these other kids can be fooled by sneakers and a few moves. The Fray readers will probably be able to add a great deal to this discussion. In a reductive way, you could say Lethem's kick-starting a discussion of race relations with the anger stripped out, and that's unusual.

In terms of race, I was more disturbed about what happens with Robert Woolfolk. I don't want to provide spoilers, but Dylan's score-settling with Woolfolk felt completely out of whack. Dylan seems to have great equanimity in the face of block politics. When Robert Woolfolk yokes him in the first section, almost as an afterthought, Dylan's response is like David Carradine in Kung Fu, all resigned wisdom: "One thing transfer of funds always did accomplish was a turning of the page." Yes, Grasshopper. The eruption of anger at the end revises the beginning in an unpleasant, discordant way.

I wasn't sold on Mingus' risky prison narrative. We know Mingus only through Dylan's desires, so granting him a solo narrative in the 11th hour felt like a way to unload some prison research. But the biggest discordance of all is Aeroman, the superhero Dylan and Mingus transform into by wearing Aaron X. Doily's ring. Just as I'm biased toward Brooklyn, I am less likely to buy this tale because I'm no science-fiction fan. It never becomes clear what Aeroman represents, other than a manifestation of Dylan and Mingus' bond. You propose that Aeroman is the wish made flesh, the evidence of wanting so badly to be something else. If that's what Aeroman is, I understand him through the first section, but someone's gotta explain what he's doing in the last bit.

We'll talk music the next time. In short: The hip-hop blips didn't ring true for me, but the discussion of Devo and the rise of irony was dead-on.

Yours,
Sasha

Sasha Frere-Jones is Slate's music critic and a writer and musician in New York.