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September 1, 2010

Jonathan Lethem, A Fortress of Solitude

I recently read The Fortress of Solitude, a 2003 novel by Jonathan Lethem (having previously read Motherless Brooklyn, a funnier and perhaps tighter book by the same author). Fortress of Solitude has been compared to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: both are heavily fictionalized memoirs that begin in early childhood, when language and memory are still unformed, but emotions are raw and potent. Both focus on a sexualized and delinquent adolescence, deal with questions of national or racial identity, explicitly consider art and aesthetic theory, and end with the protagonist as an author reflecting on his own story.

Joyce's character lives in British-ruled Dublin late in the 1800s, whereas Lethem's hero grows up as one of two white boys in an otherwise African American block and school in the Brooklyn of the 1970s. The local bullies, the protagonist's best friend, and his main girlfriend are all Black, while in Portrait of the Artist the key figures are Irishmen. Joyce's hero debates Shakespeare, whereas Lethem's writes about soul and Motown.

I found some personal resonances. I'm just a couple of years younger than Lethem and his fictional protagonist. My aunt and uncle actually lived not far from his fictional setting. My father, a cousin, and several other people I've known attended the high school where the hero studies. My college was not much different from his. Black-White relations, graffiti, punk, and the condition of bankrupt New York City were peripheral or contextual issues for me, central in the plot of Fortress of Solitude.

It's an ambitious or even risky book. The biggest risk is departing from a fully naturalistic plot: let's just say that some things happen in the novel that could not happen in the real world. I felt it become somewhat slack in the middle, once the hero leaves Brooklyn, but become suddenly taut again at the end when all the plots collide. Like the plot, the prose is ambitious and risky. Consider, for instance, this early paragraph with its evocation of filtered childhood memories, its free indirect discourse (where do Isabel's thoughts begin?), and the use of "ribbon" as a verb:

I think Lethem pulls off a fine novel, although sometimes it's a close-run thing.

September 1, 2010 12:10 PM | category: fine arts | Comments



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