Adventures in Life

Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude

Adventures in Life

Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude

Adventures in Life
Critics and readers discuss books over e-mail.
Oct. 8 2003 12:06 PM

Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude

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Dear Sasha,

As for Robert Woolfolk: I don't see the end as an "eruption of anger" on Dylan's part or as conscious score-settling. I took Dylan's hand in Robert Woolfolk's fate to be an illustration of D.H. Lawrence's idea, in Studies in Classic American Literature, about the dual feeling of the "white American soul" toward "the Indian," expressed in fiction as "The desire to extirpate the Indian. And the contradictory desire to glorify him." The truth Lethem is getting at isn't that Dylan is malevolent or evil. It's a sadder truth: Something along the lines that every threatened person will retaliate at some point; that there are grotesque half-desires in our souls. Dylan's resentment of Woolfolk results in a tragedy. But his is a sin of omission, half-conscious rather than premeditated.

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Aeroman's magic ring (which Dylan gave to Mingus when they were kids) is the symbolic talisman of a weighty premeditated betrayal, on the other hand: Before leaving for college, Dylan orchestrates an elaborate, humiliating purchase of Mingus' comic books and coldly schemes to put Mingus in a position where he must return the ring to Dylan. This is the emotional center of the book. Later, Dylan offers Mingus the magic ring to help him escape prison—and when Mingus asks him to use it to aid Woolfolk instead, Dylan betrays Mingus again. But this is an outgrowth of the first betrayal, almost inevitable.

As a Fray reader indirectly pointed out, we haven't spent any time talking about this book's relationship to the great American novels of cross-racial friendship, including Moby-Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Our Frayster noted that Dylan's relationship to Mingus is like Huck's to Jim, as Fiedler sees it: In each, the white man is "searching for the more genuine, natural, unrefined essence of himself in his companion." There's something to this; I wanted to point out earlier the way Lethem quite consciously sets the boys' relationship against a backdrop of well-established tropes—or stereotypes—about whiteness and blackness. Take Dylan's very first encounter with a black neighbor: A girl named Marilla gives him her hula hoop and asks him to dance. What happens? The hoop "clattered to the slate" and Dylan awkwardly learns that "he couldn't dance" (that old bromide). When Marilla tries, her body swivels with ease, and she grins.

Moby-Dick and Huck Finn are stories of an adventure and take place outside of the socialized/civilized space of a city. Lethem's isn't an adventure story and takes place in a city, but the book is shadowed by the adventure narrative Lethem might have written: I Will Survive: A White Boy's Time in the Ghetto. Here, Gowanus is the nonsocialized/civilized place the novel invites us into, a world as uncharted, unknowable—for the middle-class white American—as the ocean or the Mississippi River. This novel could have easily embarrassed itself—or have been merely a more sophisticated form of the performance Dylan puts on for the white kids at Camden, to satisfy their prurient interest in this freaky other world. Instead, it shows incredible sophistication about the levels of irony and appropriation that underlie the act of telling its story. Take the scene when he and his Stuyvesant punk friends first listen to "Rapper's Delight," and Dylan, realizing that cultural plate tectonics are about to shift, daydreams of a punk T-shirt with the words "Please Yoke Me" blazoned on it. A shirt he'd have to take off on the subway home.

Finally, I want to return to why the book is split in two. Lethem has talked about the fact that he wants the reader to register the shock of expulsion Dylan feels leaving childhood for the narrower experiential realm of adulthood. And we certainly do: We're locked out of the world we were in and want to be in—much like Dylan. For Dylan, as for all of us, to enter adulthood is to experience an act of spiritual vandalism—crystallized in Dylan's treatment of Mingus, his "rejected idol." But it's no fun leaving a luminous, microscopically observed world for a landscape that we're meant to find less appealing. Was this the best way to register this loss? For starters, any radical change in a novel is difficult to handle (I remember feeling some of the same disappointment at the end of The Sheltering Sky; and the second half of Nabokov's Lolita isn't as entrancing as the first.)

One more thing—this is a book about pop culture, which we've barely touched on. It's about a lonely boy who relates to art and comics and music more powerfully than anything else. For Dylan, nothing is stable except this. That's why the book ends with a flashback to a drive home with Abraham after Dylan gets kicked out of college. They're listening to Brian Eno in a snowstorm, and Dylan turns to Abraham and asks, "Do you hear it? How great it is?" Sure, Abraham says, idly. "But do you really hear what I'm hearing? Can you hear the same song I do?" Dylan persists. The book, as a whole, is about trying to find someone who hears the same song you do, and realizing you never will; or that, if you do, you'll never fully know it. There's that amazing moment when Lethem writes, of the high-school Dylan: "Dylan never met anyone who wasn't about to change immediately into someone else." The scary fact is that even we, ourselves, don't have such stable identities: When Mingus tells Dylan about yoking a white boy—another emotional crest—he describes making "the mean face," and Lethem writes: "What age is a black boy when he first learns he's frightening?" Lethem nails the identity-shifting pressures of race but he also (thankfully!) resists simply dividing the book into a white guilt/black woe novel.

Another Fray reader asked if I found this book moving. Parts of it, yes, very much so. Mingus is a character of incredible dignity. There's that painful scene when Dylan reads Mingus' prison psych evaluation, which delivers a picture of a sulky, violent, withdrawn man—a man I didn't recognize, and Dylan doesn't either. The Mingus we knew was the Mingus who wordlessly guided Dylan up the stairs of the school and kept him safe from harm, without ever making Dylan feel he was in anyone's debt.

Best,
Meghan

Meghan O’Rourke is Slate’s culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at the New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother’s death, is now out in paperback.