Rough Emotional Grain

Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude

Rough Emotional Grain

Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude

Rough Emotional Grain
Critics and readers discuss books over e-mail.
Oct. 6 2003 2:47 PM

Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude

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Dear Meghan:

Guilty as charged. I grew up in Fort Greene and went to St. Ann's, which makes Dylan Ebdus' story, for me, something Lethem's beloved Philip K. Dick might dream up: I'm reading a book someone else has written about my life. "Who cares where you grew up?" is a proper response, because this book has to work beyond Brooklyn and New York to make a case for all cities and childhoods. For me, the first section, "Underberg," captured the experience of being young in '70s Brooklyn. Lethem nails a lot of things: the feeling of downtime on the block, the way fellow block kids like Marilla and Henry slip into a hierarchy that feels like it was handed down from the Ancient Greeks, the guys sitting on milk crates near the bodega who never react to anything, even car crashes. The bike-stealing scene was perhaps my favorite, reminding me of the "Let me see it" demand we used to hear before losing baseball bats, bikes, and fancy water-pistol machine-guns to bigger kids. As Lethem writes, your larger opponent would look "like a clown on a tricycle" as he wobbled away with your bike—which, at age 10, was your life—and then "it was pretty much as if there had never been a bike." That feeling of imminent smackdown permeated my childhood.

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This kind of retroactive theorizing is part of any memory, especially when you write it down. How do you present your childhood? If bad things happened, does it mean you were miserable? The grown-up Dylan talks to his girlfriend Abby about this question. "So why are you so obsessed with your childhood?" she asks. He finally answers, "Because my childhood is the only part of my life that wasn't, uh, overwhelmed by my childhood." Like Dylan and me, there are many city kids who could trot out stories that would make childhood sound like Vietnam. And along with those memories are another 20 that could make the whole shebang sound like Nabokov's Speak, Memory: flying magical dads and marvelous misbehaving in the snow. Think of all the scenes where Dylan plays stoopball, sometimes losing miserably. Yet even when he's suffering, the scene is soaked with a feeling of inherent beauty, like that block on Dean Street was maybe the Ninth Wonder of the World. "Hard times" don't necessarily equal bad memories.

Dylan's isolation gives him this psychological cast he can't, or won't, take off. The breakfast-table conversations with his father, especially, drive home the sense that Dylan is on an almost pre-determined solo flight course. Lethem has always been good at mapping emotional circuitry. In Girl in Landscape, the teenage Pella Marsh winces when her politician father Clement talks to guests in a calculated, result-seeking way. There's that same fine hair of cilia on the prose here—think of the scenes when Dylan listens to his mother Rachel's conversations, isolating "Rachel words," like "gay, pretentious, sexy, grass."

The isolation seems to come from Dylan's loss of both Rachel and Mingus. His father becomes so distant from Dylan as to constitute a third loss: "They were like old men at the YMCA, the two of them waking to their two alarm clocks in their two bedrooms and meeting for breakfast." When Rachel leaves unexpectedly, Dylan transfers his emotional capital to the Mingus account. That leads to some strong stuff—I guarantee you the mutual masturbation scene is going to create its own body of commentary—but the mother's disappearance still feels underwritten. It's reduced to a literary gimmick, the Running Crab postcards from mysterious locations. Why didn't Dylan's father, Abraham, react more? Why didn't Dylan have more to say?

He does have more to say, and he says it about Mingus, the true love interest. (Bet you a dollar they strip out the homosexual aspect when they make the movie.) Dylan's mantra through the book is "Where's Mingus?" He asks because Mingus protects him from harm the way his absent mother no longer can. But he also asks because he loves Mingus. Dylan looks for Mingus long past the point at which the two no longer have common ground. Dylan is heading to college and Mingus is heading to jail. When the book ends, they've floated apart, but Dylan can't shake the feeling that Mingus is his other half, or his ideal.

We need to talk about race, because that's probably the gutsiest thing Lethem does here, and the Aeroman conceit, which drove me nuts, but I wanted to address what you said about the prose, and how that relates to his earlier books. I am guessing that the first section, "Underberg," is so rich and overstuffed because the intensity of memory demands it. All the poeticizing about the Williamsburg Savings Bank clock and Pintchik's works because Dylan's loss is hungry to fill the gaps with something: comic books, snapshots of light, indelible ink. As the book went on, though, I began feeling as though the demands of sci-fi or crime might have helpfully contained some of the largeness. Girl in Landscape is effective because, even though the story is more dire than Fortress, the narrative sci-fi jockey kept his sentences reined in. I don't think Lethem necessarily made the wrong choice to let Fortress sprawl, because a tighter book might have cleaned up the emotional bloodbath. It's obvious that the emotional grain of this book is absolutely the point. But the other books are certainly easier to read.

Yours,
Sasha

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