Top critical review
17 people found this helpful
A mighty but flawed dirge
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.