The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem's most recent novel, is set at the crossroads of soul-inflected funk and idiosyncratic geekdom. It is the tale of a bookish young boy aided by a magic ring that gifts him with the power of flight, but whose most important battles are fought internally. Superheroes and comic books have always been a part of science fiction literature, but their effect on youth, especially the youth of the past thirty years, is a new phenomenon. Lethem, who made a splash with science fiction novels Gun, With Occasional Music, Amnesia Moon, and Girl in Landscape, is up to the challenge. The Fortress of Solitude is arguably his most personal work to date.
The novel begins with young Dylan Ebdus and his family moving to Gowanus, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. His father, Abraham, is an artist, living in his own world upstairs, and his mother Rachel is a restless spirit, in love with the radical ideals of early seventies counter-culture. The Ebdus' are the first white family in a Brooklyn neighborhood populated mostly by blacks and Puerto Ricans. They are an early sign of the gentrification that will one day consume the modest area. One of Dylan's early defining images is seeing the blonde Solver sisters, "who shone like new-struck flame," (p. 3) spinning in an arc on their roller-skates, perfect and enclosed in their own universe. It is an unattainable vision, and one that will haunt Dylan for years.
The Solvers may not be in the cards for Dylan, but he soon befriends Mingus Rude, the son of Barrett Rude Junior, the genius former frontman of a rhythm and blues group from the sixties. Mingus is something new and exotic in Dylan's life, and becomes a touchstone for what Dylan yearns for, and fears. Mingus and Dylan's friendship is fused with comic books, followed later by graffiti, and pot.
Their love for superheroes is described with awe and reverence, tinged with mild derision. (Lethem and I are not too far apart in age, and I related to his references, including his assessment of the Marvel comic Omega the Unknown as "worse than unsatisfying," p.83). Dylan and Mingus are joined in their obsessions by the pedantic Arthur Lomb, the only other white kid Dylan knows. Lethem draws compelling parallels between the young boys and the world of comic book hero-dom: "Marvel Comics had it right, the world was all secret names, you only needed to uncover your own." (p.93) Mingus gives Dylan the name "D-Lone," and calls Arthur "King Arthur." He is the scion of cool for Arthur and Dylan. Lethem even gives Dylan a mortal enemy in the form of Robert Woolfolk, a bully from another neighborhood who has a personal score to settle with him.
Mingus is also a junior-high drop-out, and runs with a gang that regularly sprays graffiti around the neighborhood, going by the name "Dose." Dylan desperately wants to be a part of this lifestyle, but he will never be able to ditch school. Unlike Mingus, Dylan is prey for bullies. "'Yoke him, man,' they'd say, exhorting. He was the object, the occasion, it was irrelevant what he overheard ... he might be yoked low, bent over, hugged to someone's hip then spun on release like a human top, legs buckling, crossing at the ankles ... never sure by whom once the headlock popped loose ..." (p.84) The descriptions of Dylan's 'yoking' can be hard to read, but Dylan suffers them with such resigned stoicism that your sympathy for him is layered with respect.
During this time, Dylan also notices that Gowanus is watched by a "superhero," a homeless man who flies across the tops of the buildings ... only to fall to the pavement in a drunken heap. In a fractured fairy-tale twist on superhero origin tales, the homeless man (with the vaguely Lee-and-Kirby-ish name of Aaron X. Doily) passes his magic ring to Dylan, bequeathing the young man his powers of flight. Dylan successfully "rides the air waves" during a lyrically written stoopball game, (pp. 159-165) complete with pulsing encouragement from Mingus and singing commentary from Marilla—another childhood friend of Dylan's, who serves as chorus throughout the novel. Exhilarated, Dylan constructs his own costume, and christens himself Aeroman. Dylan soon tells Mingus about the ring, and it is Mingus who takes on the mantle of Aeroman, with Dylan as his sidekick. But circumstances beyond their control shorten their team-up. Dylan and Mingus soon become estranged, until they are brought together by a horrible tragedy that closes the novel's first arc.
The first half of the novel is focused mainly on Dylan, but it contains multiple viewpoints, and serves as a giant meta-memory. The multiple perspectives of Dylan, Barrett Rude Junior, Abraham, and others are presented without the sentimentality of subjective memory; the viewpoints serve to balance and correct each other. The style evokes Thomas Wolfe's O, Lost (the original version of Look Homeward, Angel.) Like Wolfe, Lethem's prose falters into digressions, but where Wolfe's digressions often devolved into rambles that led nowhere, Lethem cunningly knifes his back into the plot. The reader is placed directly in Gowanus, observing the torments, ecstasies, and outrages of Dylan and his circle of family, friends, and enemies. The exuberance of comic book styling is also brought into counterpoint with two other artistic styles: painted celluloid and graffiti art. Each artform has its own arcane rules, initiations, and fetishes. Each has its sacrifices.
Lethem also makes Dylan a mostly passive character. Things happen to him, and even when he takes action (in the case of Aeroman) he ends up taking a behind-the-scenes role. Dylan and Abraham's last name is an anagram for 'subdue,' which serves as a telling metaphor for them both. Both are 'subdued,' not only in personality, but by the forces around them. While Dylan is subdued by bullies, Abraham is subdued by the entire world, especially after Dylan's mother leaves him. He retreats into his own existence of painted cells and film, grudgingly working as the cover artist for B-grade science fiction novels to pay the bills. Dylan copes with his mother's abandonment the way he deals with everything else—burying himself in his fantasy world. Her loss is an ache too deep for him to acknowledge.
After a brief "Liner Note," the novel jumps ahead twenty years. Lethem changes the point-of-view from the third-person omniscient to first-person, focusing solely on Dylan (though it shifts to another's point-of-view at a crucial moment later on). Even with the personal urgency of first-person narration, we do not get a greater sense of Dylan, and the novel loses some of its power in the second half. His passivity in the novel's first section helped to define the obstacles of his upbringing (distant father, the constant bullying, his stumbling romances), but this passivity is only magnified in the second section. The years in-between are sketched in flashback: Dylan at Berkeley, using his ring again for the first time in years, and learning that being a "superhero" doesn't work well in the real world. There are new terrors on the streets, with the Oakland gang warfare of the eighties making the territorial rumbles of Gowanus seem quaint. Once again, he gives up the ring.
Back in the present, Dylan is chastised by his erstwhile girlfriend Abby, who is African-American. "Your childhood is some privileged sanctuary you live in all the time," she says to him. "Instead of here with me." (p.319) Dylan is still "D-Lone"; he's still reticent to share, or confront. Like his father, he lives in his own self-constructed fortress. But after an encounter with Katha, a blonde waitress, he is forced to re-evaluate his enforced solitude, and his past. Because Katha is "rich in damage" and unlike the "impassive goddesses who regarded me dubiously," (pp.379-380) Dylan receives a long-wished for release from the Solver sisters. This experience also serves as a catalyst for him to confront his other ghosts: Mingus, Robert Woolfolk, and finally, his parents. The final chapters of the book have real power to them, and Lethem somehow makes the climax both exciting and believable, without disrupting the verisimilitude he has masterfully built from the beginning.
The Fortress of Solitude is a flawed work, but only because Lethem is striving to explain a generation's strata of obsessions primarily through the experiences of one character. It's a tall order, for any author, and he succeeds more often than he fails. Sometimes he make his metaphors too clear for the reader ("Fifth grade was abstract art, painted one frame at a time," p.64) and that may put off readers more inclined to make those connections themselves. But Lethem knows the subjects he's tackling are important. Race relations, the loss of one's environment, living one's life as an outcast—these are subjects never well-served by pithy oversimplifications. The novel certainly has its slow spots, but partly that's due to Lethem paying attention to the little details: the sweaty feel of a dollar bill stuffed into your sock so the bullies won't find it, the smell of a new comic book, the electrical thrill of first lust. I enjoyed the lyrical, surrealist prose style, and I hope it's a sign of greater things to come. As it stands, Lethem has dug deep and accomplished a difficult task. He captures the elusive feeling of childhood.