The Fortress of Solitude's Swan Song

Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude

The Fortress of Solitude's Swan Song

Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude

The Fortress of Solitude's Swan Song
Critics and readers discuss books over e-mail.
Oct. 8 2003 3:44 PM

Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude

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Dear Meghan:

I haven't read that Lawrence essay, but wouldn't that extirpation imply at least a little anger? I think it would. Nonetheless, I think I was wrong about the final scene. Having reread the last section, Woolfolk's fate seems more like an accident, Dylan's "half-conscious" act, as you say. If we read Dean Street as one of the fallen characters in the book, Woolfolk's wingless flight is the block's swan song, semi-literally. Dylan wants to assuage his guilt about Brooklyn, Mingus, everything—but all he gets for trying to be responsible is The Not Great Escape. You can't go home again, etc., etc.

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Characters in Fortress are constantly falling out of step with their beliefs, or shifting allegiances without fully admitting it. Look at Arthur Lomb—with the snacks and the chess set and the endless opinions, he holds a slight edge over Dylan. But once Mingus enters and tips the balance, Lomb trades in all that younger currency to intern with Mingus, accepting Tonto status. That B-level relationship is one of the book's best because it shows how fluid power can be and how much we'll trade for the ones we love. Abraham paints lurid sci-fi book covers (which Dylan LOVES, except Abraham can't see or appreciate that, Heartbreak No. 453) just to make it as a single parent. Barrett Rude Jr.'s hideous patrimony comes true again and again like a locked groove: Some people can't even give away what they're going to lose anyway.

Lomb is a valuable archetype of a certain New York teen. He's a sweet little nerd who knows, as every boy eventually must know, that some kinda toughness needs to get got. If you can't play ball, you can write graffiti and get high. Watching Lomb's decline was painfully believable. (Very strange real world intrusion: Jonathan's brother, Blake Lethem, was busted yesterday in a chain of events that must qualify as Rachel Ebdus' nightmare: Graf artist puts his skills to use for a political cause and is rewarded by getting cop-yoked. Free KEO!)

One Frayster put the brakes on our New York-ism and said Fortress is "much less evocative for me because my own childhood memories are quite different." It will be fascinating to see the book play out across the infinity of childhoods, because all cities are certainly not the same. Other Fray respondents also testified on behalf of the Ring and Aeroman. Meghan, I like your take on the ring as a talisman of betrayal, which feels almost Biblical to me. I would still have liked it better if the entire block got superpowers, possibly mirroring Isabel Vendle's dream about to be permanently woken by 1977 New York depression: flying milk crates, radioactive skully caps, flesh-eating ink from Underberg's. Let the whole city's dream life come to graphic life, and let Abraham illustrate it.

Duration may be what undoes Aeroman for me. The early flying experiments in Vermont were bewitching, and I was ready to play along. But we are asked to go a long way on that homemade cape. Do you know Donald Barthelme's short story "The Balloon," where a huge rubber ball takes over Manhattan? It's presented as fact, but it's very short. Right before you have to decide if it's fantasy, metaphor or dream, it's over.

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I certainly didn't have trouble with Lolita's shift of scene, and I might even cite that book as an example of how to resist closure and tighten the screws effectively. Another Fray reader—a Slate writer, as it happens—made an excellent point that Fortress presents "a vanished world in which young middle-class children were encouraged to engage in unstructured and unplanned play with neighboring children." You responded in the Fray itself—I would simply add that I would let my boys play on the street now like I would let them carry hacksaws. And all I did on spare afternoons in Fort Greene was my ride my bike in the park and jump over jerry-rigged hurdles made of fridge doors. I'm flirting with conservative ready-mades about the good old days here, but the reader's point is relevant. We're supposed to mourn Dean Street along with Dylan's childhood. (What if one grew up in Rockefeller Center? It hasn't changed as much as Brooklyn, has it? I look forward to that memoir.)

The book's biggest invisible character isn't Aeroman—it's Rachel. Her will isn't really in the postcards but in Dylan's determination to play us her dream. I'd stand by the economic reading of renovators, but Rachel really may be idealistic enough to think she's going to make a difference with Dylan as her proxy. Dylan's return home to "make good" may ultimately be his homage to her beliefs. First time around, the book seemed like a song of loss. The second time, it's a close reading of disappointment and what we do to hold it at bay.

Pop culture—right. I've heard of it. Comics function like records like baseball cards like Bionicles. Boys like to collect stuff. It never ends, and Dylan's trek through the snow could be another kid's trek to Fulton Street to stuff 12 inches inside a parka. And I loved the passages about CBGB and punk's role as yet another way for teens to seek individuality through joining a self-similar mass, every kid's inevitable betrayal of him or herself.

Speaking of which, for those who are confused, I'm a he, not a she, and I'm done.

Best and thanks,
Sasha

(Slate will announce the next selection in the participatory book club soon.)

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