Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem is the story of Dylan Ebdus, the son of an artist (who constantly works on a hand-painted film that no one will ever see, but supplements his income by painting covers to sci-fi books he doesn’t even read) and a free-spirited woman who leaves them when he was young after forcing them to live in Brooklyn and go to public school (comprehensive) like she did.
The first two-thirds of the book is the story of Dylan’s youth in Brooklyn – his life (in the 1970s) in the neighbourhood, how he befriends Mingus Rude, son of the famous soul singer Barrett Rude Junior, how he survives being one of three white kids at school. During this time, he is given a ring that provides the wearer with the power of flight, which leads to he and Mingus trying to fight crime. Later, he goes to a better school after doing well at his exams, hooking up with other clever white kids and seeing less of Mingus.
The book turns when Mingus goes to jail for manslaughter for killing his grandfather, a former preacher who had gone to jail himself, who was threatening Mingus’ father (who had succumbed to doing nothing more than cocaine and falling asleep), and Dylan goes off to college. In the last third of the book, the narration changes from third-person description to first-person retelling, as Dylan related how he was dropped from his college, went to Berkeley, then became a music journalist, leading him to pitching a film about the Prisonnaires to Dreamworks. During this time, he sees his father awarded at a convention for his artwork, and visits Mingus in jail for the first time, where he considers springing him through the use of the ring.
The book is written very lyrically, the knowledge and research are so exact as to make everything more real, and the characters are very three dimensional. The details and the authenticity makes the book come alive, even though it is mostly about a young boy growing up in Brooklyn. As with life, it doesn’t necessarily translate into gripping reading, and the book ends without any real resolution or reason. The odd change in narrator two-thirds of way into book is quite disruptive; the first part feels very autobiographical (with distancing effect of third-person narrative allowing clarity and depth) but then feels bit more pretentious with the first-person narrative.
(In educating myself about the author and the novel, I learnt a new word that describes the book: bildungsroman – ‘novel of education’ or ‘novel of formation’ is a novel that traces the spiritual, moral, psychological, or social development and growth of the main character from (usually) childhood to maturity. The German language has a word for everything, doesn’t it?)
I kept reading the book as I felt an empathy with a lot of the aspects it was recounting (I was lightly bullied at school, but nothing compared with Dylan; the comic book references: ‘You said you would read X-Men as long as Chris Claremont wrote it.’; the soul music and birth of rap). However, although I cared about the lead character (mostly when he was a child), I didn’t have the overwhelming urge to pick the book up and read it, as it seemed to go on forever (which is the only way to capture a life).
It comes back to the literature versus a story arguement for me; I didn’t have a passion to wade through the prose to discover what is unfolding, compared to the overwhelming urge to find out the outcome of, say, the Thursday Next stories or the His Dark Materials trilogy. It’s a dense read, with small print and lots of pages, but it’s not about the amount of text; I loved reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and that was 1000 pages of dense, Victorian-style prose. I felt that, however eloquently Lethem captured the sense of reality of Dylan’s existence on the page (which he does – he is an excellent writer with a talent for description and an elegant turn of phrase), I wasn’t reading a story that DEMANDED telling, a story that HAD to be told to other people. I can only conclude that I prefer the story-related directness of genre books (I am currently reading Charlie Huston’s Already Dead and I am having a whale of a time) to the exploration of human existence and emotions. My loss, I guess.