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Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Fortress of Solitude

Contemporary literary fiction can tend to feel very repetitive. Everything is outsized characters in outlandish situations that span the globe and usually involve sex with both genders. Absurdity and hysteria can overwhelm the prose, and talent can be drowned in the process.

However, Jonathan Lethem's 2003 novel avoids these pitfalls for the greater part of its 500 or so pages. Despite the protagonist Dylan Ebdus's modest travels, the novel has a real understanding of the importance of place. Lethem knows Brooklyn better than any sociologist, and it shows in his exploration of the transformation of black and Puerto Rican Gowanus Heights into gentrified Boerum Hill. The Ebduses are one of the first white families to move in, as Dylan's mother has noble intentions of raising a race-blind child, even if that means letting her son get bullied and ostracized at school. Dylan's experiences in the public school are torturous to read but to Lethem's credit they feel very real.

Dylan struggles to fit into the games played by the non-white children of Dean Street, and finds grudging acceptance due to his talent at a bottle-cap game named scully. Real acceptance seems imminent when Dylan befriends Mingus Rude, the mixed-race child of a coke-addicted soul singer on the outs from his famous band.

The friendship between Dylan and Ebdus also has quite a bit of truth in it, despite some admittedly unlikely occurrences, both sexual and aerodynamic. There are the requisite betrayals, real and imagined, in any childhood friendship, and Lethem brilliantly depicts the unevenness of the duo. Dylan needs Mingus infinitely more than vice versa, and both children know it. Indeed, Mingus seems cruel when he leaves Dylan on his own in the hallways at school.

The peripheral characters remain firmly fixed in the background, and the novel is low on subplots, but these are not faults in light of the strength of Dylan and Mingus as characters.

The novel's obsession with soul music is daunting to a non-expert such as myself, but you get the sense that Lethem really does know what he is talking about, which is probably good enough.

I had two major problems with the plot of the novel. The first was the poorly explained and too infrequently mentioned absconding of Rachel Ebdus, Dylan's mother. It feels too much like a minor event, and its ramifications are indiscernible. The second problem is that the end of the novel is overwhelmed by quirk in a way the rest of the novel just isn't. I should explain with a mild spoiler. At some point in the novel, Dylan and Mingus discover a magic ring which initially bestows the power of flight, later switching to the power of invisibility. Remarkably, this remains subtly done until the end, when it figures in a major way into the story's ho-hum resolution, which I won't spoil in this space. I think the inclusion of real superpowers into the narrative was an unfortunate and unnecessary choice, borne out of a misplaced desire to be hip and edgy. What Lethem and so many others fail to realize is that when everyone is hip and edgy in the same way, it fails to stand out anymore.

The Fortress of Solitude gets a 7.2 out of 10 for strong characters, a vibrant setting, and a lot of truth. It loses points for not being true to itself.

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