Book Review: Fortress of Solitude

FORTRESS OF SOLITUDEFortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem, the National Bestseller published in 2003 by Vintage Books.

In 2003, I was no longer in college, nor was I writing full time yet. In fact, I was working as a receptionist at an inner city junior high, crying on my drive home, recuperating in the evenings listening to my husband play video games and staring at the wall, planning a first child. Not a time when I was reading books acclaimed by everyone from The New York Times to Oprah to Rolling Stone. Plus, even though the idea of the book seemed neat to me, you probably couldn’t have paid me to get all the way through, before I came up with my crazy read-1200 books idea.

But here I am. Now writing and blogging full time, my once-only-dreamed-of kids both off to school, and I am on book 28 of my first year of reading-through-all-the-top-100s. On the randomizer, this book popped up 7th, but got moved to 13th while I read more of one author. I won’t use the expression Lethem’s protagonist would use. I’ll just say, “Whatever.”

Let’s start with the positives, and the reasons I think Lethem must have gotten so much attention (besides subject matter?). He is very good with words. At times, his prose is absurdly beautiful, playful, and searing. His images tend to hang in the air like sun streaks stuck on your retina. So that’s high praise and it lasts the whole book long. However.

The plot didn’t start until somewhere after 100 pages into the book. Like I said before, there is no way I would have stayed with the book without something external to compel me. Now, I know that this is ironic criticism coming from me, when Benevolent also doesn’t get going plot-wise for at least a few chapters. I’m a character writer, I plead. But is Lethem? I don’t think so. He’s more of an image writer or an idea writer, so we need great characters and/or a great story to make us read. I can’t say I found his characters to be anything more than flatly despicable and cocky. And then that plot which didn’t get started until page 100? More on this in a minute.

This is my main impression of the book: I felt just like someone had handed me a freshly-written novel and I was the agent or editor deciding what to do with it. If all that had been real, I would have handed the manuscript back to Lethem and said, “You’ve got heaps of potential, but we have some serious work to do here before we take the world by storm.” For one, the book should have been about 50 per cent its length. For two, Lethem tried to cover too much. Was the book about the time of life Dylan spent in Brooklyn? Or about what happened because of it, as an adult in California? Was his college career central? Or his relationships with blondes and black women? For three, when Lethem gets going with poetic prose, he needs to finish his tirade and then go chop-chop. Pick the metaphor (or phrase) you like best, man. That’s enough! Fourth, we’ve got to think seriously about the direction of this book. It’s chronological, right? Except where you get Dose’s back-story? Should we start at the end, instead? Tell from the adult voice? Or look ahead, as a kid, and imply the ending? Shouldn’t we follow any of the other characters outside of Dylan’s narration? Whatever. Lastly and relatedly, whose story is this? Is it just Dylan’s? Then cut everyone else’s. If it’s a plot-driven group story, come out of Dylan’s skin. I’m just sayin’. I found so many cardinal mistakes, I was surprised someone didn’t demand he change those major flaws before handing him the writing world.

And back to the plot issues; what was with the different sections? It took so long to get the plot going, but when it did, I found myself enjoying it and then I came to the end of the first section (at page 289). The end! I had absolutely no use for the second section or for most of the third/last section. The final ending of the book I thought worked awesome (except for a major flaw with changing the ring’s power without any driving force), but I wanted desperately for it to tie more to the first section and to see it coming from page one. I guess I would say pacing and unity were huge issues for me, with this book. Perhaps this is two books. Or three.

And I also have a pet peeve with making kids too old, mentally and psychologically, for their age. Sure, occasionally there is the extreme case, but Dylan was no Superman (har har). Plus, he had that nasty habit of being uber-insightful and yet completely blind. And did he ever change in the least? Did any of the characters ever change in the least? I pretty much hated Dylan, even though he was a victim. Perhaps if Lethem had just told the story without reminders and exposition, it would have helped.

And I have to mention that I found the whole homoerotic thing to be unnecessary, especially because he kept saying it wasn’t homosexual. What am I missing, here? In fact, all of the sexual content of the book was distracting, to me because the nature of the book and the story was not at all sexual. I know growing boys deal with sex like 100 times a day, but that doesn’t mean all stories about growing boys have to include explicit sexual tension. I would have liked to just stick with friends, superheroes, safety versus danger, and moms. That’s plenty.

Read it if you want. I wouldn’t recommend it, really, but I would recommend sticking around to see if Lethem will come up with a book that contains both his wonderful writing and a heaping measure of restraint and craft. At the very least, I can say that I was surprised by this book, and that I plan to learn a lot from it.

“She was wild with information he couldn’t yet use: Nixon was a criminal, the Dodgers moved to California, Chinese food gives you a headache…” (p11).

“Nobody cared, everybody yelled sometimes seemed to be the  verdict” (p16).

“Maybe to perfect a thing was to destroy it” (p22).

“They gathered wide-eyed as though warming at a campfire of their own awe” (p47).

“‘…the world is nuttier than a fruitcake. Run if you can’t fight, run and scream fire or rape, be wilder than they are, wear flames in your hair, that’s my recommendation'” (p52).

“Possibly mentioning anyone’s moms out loud, even your own, was miscalculation enough to blow an afternoon” (p94).

“Four black kids dancing like startled spiders in the flow of a wrenched-open hydrant on Nevins and Bergen” (p103).

“It wasn’t for children, seventh grade” (p116).

“…well, they’re projects, their own law, like meteors of crime landed in the city’s midst, still unapproachably hot” (p135).

“Standing at a mirror counting how many buttons up from the floor to undo, nothing’s accidental” (p245).

“The key to mostly anything is pretending your first time isn’t” (p259).

“Someone’s betrayed someone but you can’t say who. Someone’s flying and it isn’t you” (p272).

“Everything was presented with a passive-aggressive flourish, as though we probably weren’t savvy enough to appreciate the oregano-heavy garlic bread, the individual bowls for olive pits, the starched napkins shoved into our wine glasses, or the waiter’s strained enunciation of a long list of specials” (p347).

“‘What do you want me to say?’ I needed orange juice, a toothbrush, a blood transfusion, a Bloody Mary, Abigale Ponders, Leslie Cunningham, a Thneed, someone to watch over me, a miracle every day–anything but a moment of truth between myself and Zelmo Swift. I needed a volume knob on Zelmo Swift” (p361).

“Invisibility was what every superhero really had in common. After all, who’d ever seen one?” (p410).

“I walked an invisible map of incidents, shakedowns, hurled eggs, pizza muggings, my own stations of the cross …. The fact that I could see Gowanus glinting under the veneer wasn’t important, wasn’t anything more than interesting” (p427).

“Any connection was a good one, here in the woods” (p482).

“What age is a black boy when he learns he’s scary?” (p490).

“I was humbled, as I ought to have been, to see what varieties of life could exist between the arrogant, oblivious coasts” (p504).

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