Fortress of Solitude review: Jonathan Lethem’s love letter to Brooklyn

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The Fortress of Solitude, the 2003 novel by Jonathan Lethem that’s the Vox Book Club’s decide for May, appears in reminiscence to happen in a single golden childhood summer time. It’s a shimmering evocation of a Brooklyn child’s vacation that feels virtually painfully lovely: the times are everlasting, the spaldeens bouncing off the brownstone partitions pink and excellent, the water from the fireplace hydrants shockingly chilly — and at sure moments, as you leap within the air to catch a wallball, it virtually looks as if you’ll be able to fly.

“But the stories you told yourself — which you pretended to recall as if they’d happened every afternoon of an infinite summer — were really a pocketful of days distorted into legend,” thinks Mingus Rude towards the top of Fortress’s tragically grownup second half. “How often had that hydrant even been opened? Did you jet water through a car window, what, twice at best? Summer burned just a few afternoons long, in the end.”

Like that different nice American novel of childhood, Little Women, The Fortress of Solitude is constructed on a binary: the primary half dedicated to the beautiful, vicious pleasures and pains of a childhood recalled with aching emotional depth, and the second to mourning that childhood’s dying and reckoning with its uneasy ghosts. “My childhood was the only part of my life that wasn’t, uh, overwhelmed by my childhood,” explains 35-year-old Dylan Ebdus to a disenchanted girlfriend who desires to know why he received’t let go of a shrine to his Brooklyn days.

Dylan spends his childhood in seedy Gowanus within the Nineteen Seventies, simply as that neighborhood is getting ready to reworking itself into boho Boerum Hill. Dylan’s mother and father are among the many first wave of white gentrifiers, a pair of progressive hippies who shoo nerdy white Dylan off into the majority-Black neighborhood to forge a post-racial utopia, bragging to their associates that he’s certainly one of three white children in his entire college.

Dylan, nonetheless, doesn’t discover utopia in Gowanus. As we be taught all through the part titled “Underberg,” Dylan is tender, and he’s clearly obtained the racial and sophistication privilege wanted to leverage his approach out of Brooklyn, given sufficient time. These information collectively mark him as a goal for what’s domestically referred to as “yoking,” a quasi-mugging carried out underneath the quilt of camaraderie that sees Dylan relieved of his pocket cash day by day.

Dylan’s refuge comes within the type of Mingus Rude, the charismatic mixed-race son of an almost-famous soul singer, and the block’s pure chief. Mingus takes Dylan underneath his wing, together with him in ball video games, educating him to shoplift and tag. Dylan immediately worships Mingus, and their friendship takes on a romantic depth that transforms Brooklyn’s tough streets right into a parent-free paradise.

In an early and harmless echo of the cultural appropriation he’ll cynically proceed as an grownup, Dylan begins writing Mingus’s tag for him all around the streets. But the staff of Dylan and Mingus isn’t constructed to outlive the pressures of Brooklyn within the Nineteen Seventies. Interlopers intervene, skewed mirror photos of each Dylan and Mingus: a nerdy white child who Dylan despises virtually as a lot as he despises himself; a Black child who Dylan fears the way in which he won’t let himself worry Mingus. Dylan exams right into a closely segregated magnet college and drifts towards Manhattan and the punk scene, the place he’s ceaselessly deputized to purchase medicine. Mingus stays in Gowanus and begins promoting medicine.

What retains Dylan and Mingus linked, for some time, is their shared secret: a magic ring that lets them fly. They use it to attempt to combat crime.

By now it’s a well-known transfer to incorporate a comic book e-book trope like a magic ring in a literary novel, however when Lethem pulled off this trick in 2003, it was nonetheless a daring formal innovation. It capabilities right here as a radiant hope for redemption: After all, if something can defeat America’s structural racism and permit these two boys to easily love one another, it must be one thing magical.

Instead, the ring’s magic fails to perform the inconceivable. Dylan and Mingus drift aside.

In the novel’s second half, Dylan is an embittered 35-year-old music critic dwelling in Berkeley, cherishing the road cred he will get from his Brooklyn childhood and his Black girlfriend, and fantasizing about dishonest on stated girlfriend with a blonde cocktail waitress. Mingus is a drug addict who’s been biking out and in of jail because the age of 18.

The important consensus is that the second half of Fortress, which Dylan narrates within the first individual after holding us at a third-person take away all by way of the primary half, is the weaker a part of this novel. Titled “Prisonaires,” it lacks the ahead drive and the shimmering fantastic thing about the primary half, and as an alternative meanders aimlessly by way of one satirical set piece after one other, earlier than Dylan eventually makes his approach again to Brooklyn and Mingus, and Fortress finds its function as soon as once more.

But it’s that very quiet chaos in “Prisonaires” that makes “Underberg” shine all of the extra brightly on reflection, and that makes you are feeling all of the extra strongly what Dylan has misplaced. Fortress of Solitude is a novel of heartbreak, and Dylan with out Mingus is a heartbroken man. That’s why Fortress solely begins to soar once more when eventually it enters totally into Mingus’s voice, and we’re given the total tragedy of his break.

Share your ideas on The Fortress of Solitude within the feedback part beneath, and you should definitely RSVP for our upcoming stay dialogue occasion with Jonathan Lethem. In the meantime, subscribe to the Vox Book Club publication to be sure to don’t miss something.

Discussion matters

  1. The critic James Wood famously gave Fortress a blended overview within the New Republic upon its launch. Eight years later, Lethem responded with an essay within the Los Angeles Review of Books, taking subject with the truth that Wood by no means even talked about the magic ring on the middle of the e-book. A traditional literary combat!
  2. The Fortress of Solitude was tailored within the 2010s right into a deeply flawed and deeply lovely musical, with music by the late nice Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson). It had the misfortune to premiere on the Public Theatre in 2015, the identical season as Hamilton, so there was little or no oxygen left within the room for anybody else, but it surely did a minimum of do properly sufficient to earn a forged album. You can take heed to the entire thing right here.
  3. The Camden College part of Fortress relies on Lethem’s time at Bennington College, which he attended together with Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho) and Donna Tartt (Vox Book Club decide Secret History). Lethem is likely one of the many figures interviewed on this excellent oral historical past of the period, in addition to this almost-as-good podcast on the identical matter.
  4. Lethem can also be running a blog on Medium! A pleasant place to take a look at a few of his cultural criticism.
  5. In his LARB essay, Lethem writes that the ring is a “formal discontinuity,” in order that the e-book “wrenches its own ‘realism’ — mimeticism is the word I prefer — into crisis by insisting on uncanny events.” We may maybe learn an identical disaster of mimeticism in Abraham Ebdus’s rejection of figurative artwork, which he later embraces along with his psychedelic paperback covers. What does this disaster accomplish?
  6. Why do you assume Marvel nerd Dylan makes use of the DC picture of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude because the central metaphor of this novel?
  7. The different defining absence in Dylan’s life, exterior of Mingus, is the absence of his mom, Rachel, who flees Brooklyn early on and appears by no means to look again. In the ultimate pages of Fortress, Dylan lastly goes after her. How does that plotline be just right for you?
  8. In the closing pages of Fortress, Dylan muses on the concept of a “middle space” the place the utopia his mother and father sought in Gowanus would possibly really exist, the place DJs jammed within the schoolyards and “Mingus Rude always grooved fat spaldeen pitches, born home runs.” He appears to recommend that such center areas are at all times fleeting in actual life and that they’ll solely exist eternally in artwork. Agree? Disagree?

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