10/01/2003

The Fortress of Solitude and the meaning of realism

First, a confession: I approached Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude with high expectations--not impossibly high, but perhaps high enough to bias my reaction to the novel. I first learned that a new Lethem book was forthcoming from a contributor’s note in Harper’s, where Lethem this spring published a wonderful essay on the nearly forgotten critic Edward Dahlberg. I added “The Fortress of Solitude-September” to the weird little list I keep of titles to look out for. Then, toward the end of summer, an excerpt appeared in the New Yorker. I was so taken with what I read of “View from a Headlock” that I stopped halfway through, hoping to save some of the piece’s surprises for when the novel itself was published. I extended my self-imposed media blackout to reviews, as well—no mean feat for an inveterate book-review browser.

This may all seem a little much for a novelist whose last book, the National Book Critics Circle Award winner Motherless Brooklyn, I didn’t even like that much. But I got the impression from his recent nonfiction that, in The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem would be swinging for the fences.
In recent years, a number of American white guys have abandoned the comfortable climes of the modest triumph and the minor setback—where most novelists eventually settle—and lit out for the territory where the magnum opus roams—where the ground is littered with the bones of pretenders. I’m thinking here of DeLillo, Chabon, Franzen, Roth, Eugenides, Gass, Cormac McCarthy, Russell Banks (one might also include Richard Powers, David Foster Wallace, and even Thomas Pynchon in this list). This has not been a wholly welcome development: the fin de siecle trend toward big-ass books of balls-out ambition has distracted some writers from their own best tendencies, and from the point-of-view of women and writers of color, the whole thing may call to mind a pissing contest, for which Tom Wolfe’s unconvincing polemics may be to blame. But while the degree of success has varied from author to author, the peculiar resurgence of the Great American Novel—on the brink of extinction by the early 1970s—has made being a reader in America in recent years a bracing, invigorating experience.

In order to write these long, sweeping novels, each of the authors I’ve mentioned, seems to have drawn on his own history and passions in a way he hadn’t before. In particular, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Middlesex, and The Corrections raised the stakes on their authors’ careers, so that Chabon and Eugenides and Franzen will either be remembered as big-time novelists or as big, overhyped failure. Now, I sensed, it was Lethem’s turn. Motherless Brooklyn had proven his abilities as a stylist and his “sense of place” (to borrow from Eudora Welty), but had ultimately failed to move me. The Fortress of Solitude would reveal just what Lethem was capable of.

In a way, I was right. The novel, equal parts memoir, comic book, and meditation on race, traces the friendship of its white protagonist, Dylan Edbus, and his black best friend and idol, Mingus Rude, through 25 years of history. There are moments, in particular those set in Lethem’s exquisitely felt Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, when the author indeed seems to summon all the energies of mind and heart and hand to create an utterly convincing emotional reality. Just as often, however, Lethem lapses, offering scenes that feel overplotted, overwritten, and underwhelming. It seems to me that the source of much of the novel’s unevenness lies an unresolved tension that has often been debated over on The Millions, one we might call “the trouble with realism.”

In a recent Times review, Michiko Kakutani, in a rare fit of insight, manages to identify the unevenness of The Fortress of Solitude. But the doyenne of New York reviewers is content to attribute this asymmetrical effect to the genre-splicing in which Lethem indulges here, as in his previous novels. To the extent that Lethem writes “realistically,” she says, the book is a success; his forays into the supernatural are what undercut the power of the narrative. But this diagnosis feels too easy—like much of what Kakutani writes, it seems both biased and just plain wrong.

From my armchair, the first half of The Fortress of Solitude--superhero exploits and all—felt nearly seamless. Lethem’s Dylan stars in some of the best childhood writing this side of Dylan Thomas. The Boerum Hill setting, for which Lethem’s own formative years served as research, provides an utterly convincing backdrop for Dylan’s youth. The characters (particularly the troublemakers who populate Dean Street) are as simply and sharply drawn as the people in your own life probably seemed before the concurrent advent of pubic hair and moral ambiguity. And, as in most people’s childhoods, events in Dylan’s Brooklyn unfold as a sun-dazed series of nonsequiters: only in retrospect does the shape of a narrative begin to emerge. As the boys grow into their high-school selves, Lethem shows a surprisingly deft touch with too-cool aesthetic motifs--punk and graffiti and New Wave—that in lesser hands might come off as so much name-checking. And perhaps most impressively, Lethem manages to sustain a tone perfectly pitched halfway between melancholy and romantic. Enfolded in this tone, and this setting, the flights of supernatural fancy seem of a piece with the more mundane material.

The flaws in this long opening section, titled “Underberg,” are minor. It takes awhile for the too-allusive names of the young protagonists, Dylan and Mingus, to stop obtruding on more important matters. And there are occasional fits of overwriting, as though Lethem couldn’t decide between similes and so decided to include them all, dazzling us with his figurative capabilities. This tends to have a flattening effect on the landscape of the novel; too often, the author invests what should be unimportant—a spare hubcap, say—with the same kind of poetry that elsewhere is supposed to communicate the urgency of a first love, or the devastation of losing a parent .

Both of these faults bespeak a desire to impress: a need to be admired, rather than a need to tell a story. And this insecurity, this lack of confidence in the material’s ability to impress us, develops into a sinkhole that undermines the book’s second half, “Prisonaires.” Dylan, now thirtysomething, living in Berkeley in a style seemingly cribbed from a Nick Hornby novel, has become our first-person narrator. And, much like Cal Stephanides, the backward-looking narrator-protagonist in Eugenides’ Middlesex, Dylan seems to have become, in his old age, a stranger to the author--like a friend you once knew well, but now only hear from at Christmas. Traditionally, the “I” voice provides more intimacy than the third person can offer. But despite two hundred pages of first-person narration, we never feel that we understand the adult Dylan as well as we did the youth of “Underberg.” Often, Dylan the narrator is barely recognizable as that youth.

Also problematic is the adult Dylan’s burning need to dissect his past, to reassure us that it all means something. After “Underberg”—where, as in our lives, chance and the supernatural and the inexplicable and the absurd and the pointless all have their place—this burst of thematic explication, as faithful to the tradition of “realism” as any of the Jhumpa Lahiri stories Kakutani so loves, arrives like a cosmic hailstorm, an unwelcome phenomenon of foreign origins puncturing an atmosphere otherwise carefully created.

The most believable moments in “Prisonaires” take place at Camden College—a stand-in for Bennington. But, still able to entertain, Lethem seems to have lost the element of surprise: we’ve seen all this before—these druggy art-school kids, this bucolic New England setting—perhaps in a Bret Easton Ellis novel. And, despite a blockbuster set-up, the novel’s climactic jailbreak feels like a trite bit of stage-business setting up an unilluminating sight gag. It is, in a word, anticlimactic. All is not lost, however. The surpassing beauty of the novel’s final pages, in which Dylan revisits his departure from Camden College, almost redeems “Prisonaires.”

These pages show that Lethem can handle first-person narration as well as he can third-, as earlier passages revealed his facility with realisms both magical and unmagical. The novel’s real problem seems to be that, in surrendering to some of the imperatives of the brand of “realism” Kakutani tends to endorse—people learning things, plots going places, events unfolding toward epiphanies, all of it happening in a world recognizably our own—Lethem has surrendered the illusion of reality, the willing suspension of disbelief, he earned earlier in the novel.

Realism should not be defined as a genre, discernible by a specific set of tropes and tactics and signifiers, but as an accolade we can apply to any piece of fiction that makes us believe, if only for the duration of our reading, that it is, or should be fact. Judged by this criterion, The Fortress of Solitude is indeed uneven, but its first half, including the superhero elements, constitutes some sort of triumph of realism on par with the best parts of The Corrections and Middlesex. And unless Lethem lets the hype go to his head, he’ll aim even higher the next time out. At any rate, we can hope that he will not be discouraged from continuing to transgress the artificial generic boundaries that enervate much “literary” fiction.

While you’re waiting to see what Jonathan Lethem does next, I suggest you pick up The Fortress of Solitude. While a reviewer gauges a book’s success, the writer’s credo often resembles Samuel Beckett’s: Fail. Fail again. Fail better. Any book that manages to be this engaging both in its successes and failures deserves to be read.