on 26 August 2005
This is a love it or hate it book. From the minute I dipped into it in a bookshop I was hooked and had to have it, then and there (sorry Amazon).
You don't have to know anything about 70s soul or Brooklyn street culture to love this book. Brooklyn and its jive-talk, and comic-strip heroes, are merely the framework for universal themes of how we use private myths to deal with reality and to fight our way out of our own ghettos. But it's a rich and compelling cultural background nevertheless. Forget about the "great American novel" (what is this obsession? did Dostoevsky set out to write the "great Russian novel" or did he just need to write?) - Lethem can just as well be compared to Joyce in the musicality of his language, and to Spenser in his use of dualities. Jung readers will find plenty of interest in here too.
Who before has dared to make the white kid the victim, not ultimately of black racism but of society's compulsion to outcast difference?
Mammoth though it is, I found this book's structure revealed itself and its dénouement successfully ties in all its strands and myths. You have to like metaphor and signs as a way of reading the world - here they show their primeval force in a dog-eat-dog urban morass. If you liked The Corrections chances are you'll hate this. But to some it will speak out loud and clear.
on 30 October 2003
I’m in two minds about this book. On the one hand I’m conflicted about the novel’s style and structure, yet on the other hand I’m in absolute awe of its enormous scope and passion. Fortress of Solitude was just far too over embellished with detail and Lethem’s style just seemed out of control. Lethem really needed a good editor to ferret out some of the more long-winded passages, rein his style in, and condense the novel to a more sensible length. Much of Fortress of Solitude is satisfactory for its insight into the sights and sounds of Brooklyn in the 1970’s, yet its also frustrating in its intensity. Lethem writes as though he is obsessed with some “Joycean” like intensity, as though he can’t wait to splurge and gorge any thought he ever had onto the printed page. He has a kind of bold, confrontational style, but his work reads like a clunky, turgid school report from his youth.
The real star of this book is not Dylan Ebdus or Mingus Rude but the world that they inhabit. Dean Street in the Seventies is a world teetering in the edge – drugs are rife, the yuppies are moving in, gang life proliferates, and a sense of economic decline permeates the area. To is credit, Lethem’s descriptions of Dean Street are good – the oil stained body shops and forlorn graffitied warehouses, the sprays of broken glass on the side walks, the Puerto Ricans, the images of the dilapidated brownstones, and the liquor stores. This, after all, is the Seventies and Lethem, to his credit infuses his narrative with references to pop culture – Logan’s Run, Star Trek, disco hits, cocaine, and the grooviest pop groups. Lethem periodically intersperses the narrative with pop songs of the period, as the story gradually moves forward into the 80’s and 90’s.
The main problem that I found with this novel is that Lethem never really allows us access to the main characters’ inner thoughts. We have some wonderful descriptions of time and place – but I never got the sense that the author was privileging us to what Mingus, Dylan and Arthur were actually thinking, and this is also true of many of the secondary characters. The reader is constantly the observer on in this novel, always on the outside and at all times looking in. On the positive side, Lethem has a good ear for recreating natural conversation and portrays rather adroitly the particular black inflections of the period. Bu generally though, I found this novel to be a big disappointment, an over the top, shoddy, and slapdash mess. Fortress of Solitude is all over the place, which is a pity, because Lethem has much passion and zeal as a writer.
on 11 June 2009
...to fully appreciate this novel. A bloke called Roland Barthes once said that the first reading of a book is consumption, and that literature begins only when you read it for the second time. Well, not exactly this, but something like this. That bloke was right, absolutely right. Let me tell you that having finished my first reading I was slightly disappointed--that happened when the book was published, and I already was a Lethem fan. I pre-ordered it on Amazon and read it as soon as it arrived. As I have already said, a slight disappointment: after Amnesia Moon, Girl in Landscape and Gun I'd been looking forward to more visionary, surrealistic sf. This huge novel of street life in Brooklyn was a surprise. Sure, the autobiographic aspect was interesting, and it was well written as usual, and the characters were intriguing, but I thought it missed Lethem's earlier magic. Well I was wrong. I re-read it and re-read it, and then I realized that there was a figure in the carpet that wasn't easy to detect, and that behind the story of these two teenagers in Gowanus, one white the other mulatto, there was much more, a lot more, a cartload more... than what meets the eye. It's one of those books which don't tell you everything on the first reading. It's a story about something bigger than adolescence in a mixed neighbourhood. It's about New York, it's about America, it's about the world. Well, to make a long story short, this is the 21st century bildungsroman. It will be recognized as a classic, some day. It'll take time. But wait and see.
In one of the most ambitious novels in recent memory, Jonathan Lethem recreates the sights, sounds, textures, and tensions of one block of Dean Street in Brooklyn from the 1970's to the present. Dylan Ebdus, the white child of artistic, hippie parents, and his best friend, Mingus Rude, the son of a cocaine-addicted black singer, face school and neighborhood dangers together. Their world of spaldeens, skully, stickball, wallball, and stoopball exists side by side with the bullying, shakedowns, and outright theft which Dylan must face every day on walks to his school, "a cage for growing, nothing else." Together they collect comic books about superheroes, who, unlike them, have the power to conquer injustice and escape from all threats.
Though they admire Spiderman, they do not like Superman, whom they consider a "flattened reality," an ineffective presence living in his "Fortress of Solitude," much like Dylan's artist father living in his studio. When a homeless man in the neighborhood, jumps from a three-story building and injures himself in an attempt to fly like Superman, Dylan begins to think about Superman as a real, not comic book character, actually emulating him in real life. Descriptions of the neighborhood, the attempts at gentrification, the inadequate public school system, the drug scene, the racial conflicts, and eventually even the prison system all add depth and color to the novel, and Lethem expands this scope even further by presenting a detailed view of pop culture. His unique images are a constant source of surprise and delight.
The novel is a huge and imaginative recreation of growing up in the city in the '70's, but it is not seamless. Dylan's early life is traumatic and is drawn very realistically, so the reader is startled when, at the relatively mature age of thirteen, Dylan becomes obsessed with Superman and wants to emulate him, and when the author segues into the magic realism of flight shortly thereafter, the reader is unprepared for the contrast with the earlier naturalism of the novel. Dylan's lack of curiosity about what happens to Mingus after a horrifying incident at age fourteen leaves the reader wondering about the depth of his feelings, and occasionally the mini-essays, which give color and life to the neighborhood, act as a brake on the action. Dylan as an adult is not very interesting, and Mingus becomes almost a footnote. Still the novel adds a new dimension to Lethem's rapidly growing portfolio of outstanding novels and enhances his reputation as one of America's most exciting young novelists. Mary Whipple
on 25 August 2004
"The Fortress of Solitude" is a difficult book for me to review. The story being told by Lethem is so broad, and at the same time so simple that capturing it in a couple of short paragraphs seems like folly to attempt. Yet, this novel is so good that an attempt is warranted. "The Fortress of Solitude" is one of the few novels that I would honestly compare to Don DeLillo's "Underworld", and Lethem pulls this off in theme, setting, and in the simple power that is conveyed by the story.
Most of the novel takes place in 1970's Brooklyn and the story centers on Dylan Ebdus, a young white boy living in a neighborhood of Brooklyn that is predominately black. Later, when he is in high school it is said that he is one of only three white boys in the entire school. Yes, race plays a factor in this book. Dylan is a smaller kid, weak, but he makes a friend in Mingus Rude, a black kid who is new to the neighborhood. Unlike Dylan, Mingus immediately fits in and finds a place in the neighborhood. Nobody messes with him. Mingus belongs. Dylan and Mingus have one friendship when they are alone and at each other's homes, and another type when they are on the street. This works for Dylan. He takes what he can get and he knows that his friendship is the true friendship.
Lethem gives us the rhythm of the street and the race relations in that Brooklyn neighborhood. It is painful for Dylan, but he is able to get by. What comes next almost seems like a gimmick, but Lethem did not push it down our throat so it felt believable. Mingus and Dylan are big into comic books and think and talk about superheroes and the powers they have. Dylan meets a man who was trying unsuccessfully to fly. At first this seems like an event unconnected to anything else, but it turns out to have a deeper connection to the story. Sometime later Dylan and Mingus are part of their own two person tagging crew (graffiti) and they tag a homless man who they think is already dead. At some point later he turns out to be alive and Dylan acquires a ring from the man. This ring has "super" powers. Dylan and Mingus attempt to be superheroes, but nothing goes quite according to plan and the ring is put to the side for months and years at a time.
As much as the title alludes to Superman comics and that there is a strong comic book theme running through the novel, not to mention the ring, this is a very down to earth novel that just feels real. Lethem has fashioned the world of the Brooklyn neighborhood and of Dylan's childhood absolutely perfectly. Lethem is a talented author who just keeps getting better and better.
Two boys, one black, one white, growing up together in Brooklyn in the 1970s, just before the beginning of its gentrification, a time when a white face was in a minority.
The two boys, the white Dylan Edbus, and black Mingus Rude, have much in common, their fathers are creative (one in music, the other art), they are both (eventually) in effect motherless, and they share a love of comics and comic book heroes. But their friendship is not simple, it cannot be where a young white boy is prey to regular muggings, otherwise called yolking, but it is a friendship bound by among other things shared intimacies, and a ring with special powers akin to their comic book heroes.
The story, part told in the third person, later narrated by Dylan in the 1990s, reflects a change in attitudes over a period some twenty years. It is about the music of the period, black and white relations, about friendship and loyalties, about lost opportunities. But above all it is a book that is beautifully written, a book to be savoured purely for the pleasure of reading.
on 12 August 2015
The reviewers who have criticised the length (dirge...) of this book need to understand that there is an investment to be made, and if you do invest in Lethem's wonderfully crafted work, it repays many times over. I'm a white, English middle class reader, so my orbit is very different to that of Lethem's protagonists, but I feel richly rewarded by this work which is at times playful, fantastic and literary. The plot is deeply fulfilling, but leaves ample room for interpretation, suffice to say that friendship, fear, peer pressure, pop culture, class and race are all adroitly touched upon without the book ever feeling preachy. Stop reading reviews and buy it....
on 19 January 2004
Expecting a coming of age type story, I must say that I really enjoyed this in-depth and, at times poignant story featuring a Brooklyn neighbourhood, the people who lived there and life during the 70s and 80s. It’s a powerful book that reads much like a documentary about growing up in Brooklyn at that time, the difficulties faced by single parent families and, not only racial divisions, but the class distinctions and their effects. It’s as much about survival as it is about living.
What I found a little disappointing was the feeling that very little was achieved by the time I reached the end of the book. There were no life-altering realisations or achievements of any note, in particular, the characters didn’t seem to grow or change much.
Set in two distinctive halves, the book first chronicles the lives of 2 boys, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude growing through their formative years, and then there is a fast-forward to today and a look at what they have made of themselves. Along the way, we are treated to a myriad of unusual pursuits. We get a peek at graffiti artist mentality, comic book collecting, pop-art and the life and dedication of an experimental film-maker. We are even treated to an unexpected touch of the fantastic.
Although the odd crime is committed in the book, it’s not a crime book, not a mystery. What it is is a terrific story of life in the 1970s that came across as very much real-life. I also thought the main characters were very sympathetic and believable making reading it a most rewarding experience.
on 29 March 2005
The mercurial Lethem attempts the great Amercian novel and the result, while erratic and uneven, is still a damn fine read, full of invention, intelligence and wonderful prose. An author this talented will almost certainly write better novels - but then, few writers are anywhere near this talented.
on 2 November 2003
Jonathan Lethem's 'The Fortress of Solitude' is one of those novels that stops people in their tracks. The story, sprawling across two decades (and springing forward to the present), revolves around the early life of Dylan Ebdus and is set predominately, but not exclusively, in Brooklyn. A host of other characters also appear, contributing to an achingly believable picture of the good and the bad of childhood. The novel's early chapters depict growing up in such plausible, exacting actuality that it can become overwhelming. Dylan is a character we can all understand - sometimes painfully so. The stories of his experiences occur in a vivid Seventies world of music and culture, society and school, comics and baseball. Lethem is excellent with detail - the power of names and lyrics, objects and things. And the detail is never cold. 'The Fortress of Solitude' is a living, lived-in, historical novel: everything about it - people, place, emotion - resonates with a considered, passionate authenticity.
What distinguishes this elaborate, inventive (and unexpectedly fantastical) story of growing up is the quality of the narrative. It is a strong tale, well told. Lethem's sharp, perceptive prose - alert to every facet of Dylan's life and world - holds the reader's attention from the first pages, never loosening its grip over the novel's length. This is a big novel, containing multitudes; but one where the smallest of thoughts or ideas or moments frequently become the most compelling. The simple act of catching a spaldeen during an improvised, summer-evening ball game emerges, in Lethem's hands, as the strongest single scene in the book: a transcendent, crucially important event in the narrative of Dylan's life. This expert meeting of style and substance marks out 'The Fortress of Solitude': there is a rhythm to the language - a pulse and flow - that enriches the matter (in turns tragic, uplifting, and comic) of the story.The title is a reference to Superman's epic, ice-covered home (immortalised, for many, by Richard Donner's 'Superman' films) carved out of an Arctic mountain. It stands, on the most basic level, for Dylan's retreat within himself - the privacy of his own mind, where he stores the "junk and treasure" of his life. It also represents the interaction of the real with the fantastical, an issue of great importance to 'The Fortress of Solitude' (and to Lethem's work in general). Superman, the most incredible of alien superheroes, chooses for his private home one of the most ancient of earthly landscapes; Dylan, a hero in his own way, has the real (and, for Lethem, autobiographical) home of Dean Street chosen for him. Lethem suggests something intriguing and perfectly natural about people's tetherings to place; and about their moves (real or imaginary) to fly away. Crucially, however, the reader doesn't want to leave Dylan: 'The Fortress of Solitude' is a book you don't - in a good way - want to finish