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Book Club - The Fortress Of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem [Mar. 30th, 2005|10:23 pm]
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[ninebelow]
"My childhood is the only part of my life that wasn't overwhelmed by my childhood."

Autobiography

Its always a dangerous proposition to identify a character with the author. You can't read Fortress without being struck by how strongly autobiographical it is. The journey of Dylan Ebdus from motherless Brooklyn to liberal arts college to California and back is the journey of Lethem. (We might also note whilst Jonathan is a common or garden name his brother is called Blake.) I blame Dave Eggers and crew.

Well, blame is the wrong word but Fortress is much more in line with the McSweeney's ethos than anything else he has produced (even This Shape We're In, his novella for McSweeney's Press.) Even when Lethem got as close to home geographically as in Motherless Brooklyn, his previous novel, his protagonist was every bit as alienated and isolated as all his other protagonists back to Conrad Metcalf. Dylan Ebdus is an altogether more personal, and perhaps more honest, character. This seems like a deliberate shift into Great American Novel territory. I don't think it was a satisfactory change of direction.

Mythology

You couldn't really call it a nostalgic novel but it inhabits the same space: it is resolutely backwards looking. Instead of nostalgia we have a fetishisation, a mythologising. The essence of the novel is street lore. The paradox is that whilst Ebdus/Lethem are a participant in this they cannot remove the sense that they are merely observers, all the while trading on the authenticity of their experience. And the reader is always aware of the gap between the true authenticity of autobiography and the assumed authenticity of fiction. Though Lethem treats Ebdus's experience on the street in the same way as Rude's experience in prison one is first hand and the other is not. This uneasy tension persists throughout the novel.

Slipstream

There is, and this seems to have thrown quite a few reviewers, a magic ring in the novel. What do we make of this? Frankly, I'm buggered if I know. Lethem's novels go like this: SF, SF, SF, slipstream, mainstream, Fortress. He has form. The treatment of the ring in the novel falls squarely under the bracket of magical realism and hence slipstream but I don't know what the aim is.

Structure

The novel is structured as an LP: two sides seperated by the liner notes. It's a brilliant idea that Lethem makes no real use of. Fortress is a baggy, shapeless novel which he seems unable to have excluded anything from. Like Help the A side outweighs the B side by some margin. Did we really need the comic scene, at odds with the rest of the book, where Ebdus pitches his movie? Too many of Lethem's journalistic concerns intrude because he finds himself inseperable from Ebdus. Returning to the lack of difference between Lethem's portrayal of Ebdus and Rude it seems a mistake to have allowed Rude (and Abraham and Mrs ) the - occassional - privilege of viewpoint. The narrative is so heavily skewed towards Ebdus that these excursions ring hollow.

All of which makes it sound as if I didn't like the novel. I did. I like Lethem a lot and he can certainly write. At the level of the sentence the work succeeds. I do have strong reservations, however, about what he is trying to achieve. I prefer him when he is more detached, when his same concerns are filter through distance: the Martian adolescence of Girl In Landscape rather than an attempt to exhume the corpse of his own Brooklyn puberty.


(A few words of textual scholarship: my edition (London: Faber & Faber, 2005) gets it half right. The blurb is great; enticing and in keeping with the book. The cover art, whilst not great, is striking and again in keeping with the novel. However the paper is the newspaper quality variety beloved of American MMPB. It also has a bloody hole in the front cover. Is that meant to look good? Is it? Is it? It's stupid that's what it is. Inevitably mine has ripped.)
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: faramir_boromir
2005-03-31 02:43 am (UTC)
Well, I bought this and tried. Several times. And each time, I'd get about 40 or 50 pages in, and end up doing something else. I just bounced off this one, hard. I was uninterested in the characters he drew (whether from life or not) and ultimately couldn't get myself to care what happened to them. Was this a function of how hard he was trying to mine his own past for authenticity? Dunno. I've been to Brooklyn, and I don't think it mattered to me that he got the details 'right.' I just didn't think he had a lot to say.
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2005-04-03 11:10 pm (UTC)
Sorry - just remembered you'd posted this.

I agree that the book creaks under the weight of its bewildering number of interests, and I'm equally baffled as to why Lethem didn't play to the novel's clear strength - its treatment of music - given his structural conceit. But what interests me is that most of these problems really start to rankle only once the book moves away from what you seem to hold as hollow, self-indulgent nostalgia - i.e. the 'Underberg' segment of the novel. For me, this is a beautifully written literary achievement of some worth. Yes, it probably romanticises its subject matter, but then I can't think of a similar book that doesn't. This isn't trying to the next Great American Novel of the Of Mice And Men or Great Gatsby kind - I rather see it as a modern To Kill A Mockingbird, an extrapolation almost of that book's civil rights optimism. Similarly, Mingus can be seen as the Tom Sawyer to Dylan's Huck.

I think what we're looking at is a book about identity, and that's where the ring comes in. The teen years, Dylan/Lethem note at one point, are just a succession of ever-changing identities, and the super-powers are just another layer of self-explanation. It's certainly no coincidence that the ring doesn't bestow the same power on everyone - it bestows the power most fitting to the stage at which that person's life finds itself. But you can get hung up on the ring, as many reviewers have. It's there as just another example of a striving for identity, and to draw attention to the way in which the novel questions boundaries: why do we want to live in Boerum Hill rather than Gowanus, or what is it about high art that is preferable to SF? Why do we define ourselves by the clubs we do and don't join? Why does Dylan become obsessed with understanding why he didn't belong, why he was just the observer?

It's an ambivalent book, I think - it's uncertain where indentity begins and ends, but it's probably in the moment. Like Abraham's endless film, identity exists from one bubble of time to the next, defined as much by the people around us - the ones who like us and the ones who don't - as it is by ourselves and the boundaries we set.

I think this book asks more questions than it answers - as shown by the slight 'wtf?' tone of some of your review. And I think that's because, ironically, it doesn't set itself any boundaries. :)
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[User Picture]From: ninebelow
2005-04-04 07:44 am (UTC)
For me, this is a beautifully written literary achievement of some worth.

Oh, I'd agree. I couldn't perhaps seperate it from the rest of the novel so successful though.

This isn't trying to the next Great American Novel of the Of Mice And Men or Great Gatsby kind

I was thinking more along the lines of the post-war New York mafia. Admittedly reading of them is comfined to DeLillo and Roth but I caught the same sense of how-to-map-the-American century-through-my-personal-lense. (But that was a throwaway line that I didn't bother to do the groundwork for...)

But you can get hung up on the ring, as many reviewers have. It's there as just another example of a striving for identity, and to draw attention to the way in which the novel questions boundaries:

This is what is so confusing and unusual about the ring: it doesn't add anything new, just reinforces what is already there. Is this unique? I can't think of any novels offhand that deliberately move from the memetic to the fantastic for now other reason than the author fancies it.

I think this book asks more questions than it answers - as shown by the slight 'wtf?' tone of some of your review.

I can't claim to have done a close reading of the novel but I did apply myself to it with some thought. When that leaves you doing the hands up shrug I think the author's gone wrong somewhere.
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2005-04-04 10:22 am (UTC)
I was thinking more along the lines of the post-war New York mafia.

Hm. Yes, fair point. I'm not sure we're looking at quite the same approach or outlook here, but I can see where you're coming from - and my reading of that group is as narrow as yours. :)

This is what is so confusing and unusual about the ring: it doesn't add anything new, just reinforces what is already there.

Well, since you mentioned the Eggers cabal, the answer seems obvious - it's called self-consciousness. :P I think the inclusion of the ring is so self-aware as to be almost meta-textual, to be honest. It seems to me that in terms of content you're perfectly right - the ring adds nothing. It's included because of its form, which is the worst possible reason to include anything in a novel, of course, but nevertheless links up with Abraham's career and also the book's interest in boundaries, both creative and personal. Perhaps it makes the point more emphatically and literally than anything else in the book, but the ring does seem to ask more questions because of what it is rather than what it says.

When that leaves you doing the hands up shrug I think the author's gone wrong somewhere.

Yes. The book simply covered too much ground and got lost on the way.
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