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Tuesday, October 21, 2003
I guess there's not much point in talking about the new Lethem novel yet, since it's just out in hardback, so maybe I'll save the longer critical posts for when the paperback come out. Or maybe not. But here's what I can tell you right now: if you like music and you like books, you have to read this novel. Trust me on it.

Anyway, here's the review I finished up this weekend, presented as a teaser for much more stuff later.


The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday)

In the midst of the fictional liner notes that serve as an intermission to Jonathan Lethem's new novel The Fortress of Solitude, we learn that Barrett Rude's vocal group—Barrett being the father of Mingus, Mingus being the best friend of Dylan, Dylan being the only white kid in his Brooklyn neighborhood and the subject of the book—we learn, as I say, that his vocal group, which had a few hits in the early 70's, changed its name from the Distinctions to the Subtle Distinctions. That's a good joke, since the change itself is a subtle distinction, but it's also a perfect description of the game this book is playing.

Starting in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, the book tracks the awkward friendship between white boy Dylan and black kid Mingus through Dylan's time in the local public middle school (his absentee hippie mother Rachel not wanting to be gentrificationist) and into the magnet high school as a punk and then private college in Vermont and California as a gen-u-ine New Yawker who uses his play-acted "street cred" to score status and/or drugs. On the way we pass by such subjects as tagging, magic rings, and the politics of interracial dating, but by and by you realize that it's mostly about the little things, the little differences: who like hip-hop, and who like soul; who use crack, and who use cocaine; who are real graffiti artists, and who are just "toys." And in the midst of all these micro-intervals, the seemingly insurmountable differences between blacks and whites that is the apparent center of a book practically screaming “THIS IS ABOUT RACE” become subtle, too, because that's what novels are supposed to be: subtle, ambiguous.

It's about the differences between this book and Lethem's last, the National Book Award-winning Motherless Brooklyn. That one, about an orphaned detective with Tourette's Syndrome, was widely embraced; Fortress, on the other hand, appears much harder to love. Still, they each have a first section set in a child's-eye view of Brooklyn that turns out to be merely a setup for a much more difficult, but much more rewarding, finale. And, contrary to widespread opinion, Fortress is hardly sprawling, its length aside; it focuses precisely on its main character and three supporters, and spends at least as much time in Brooklyn as Motherless did, even while it encompasses a larger time frame.

And ultimately, it's the little differences that make Fortress so rewarding and so good. Not that this was necessarily assured: as a longtime Lethem fan, it was impossible to miss the transition from inventive slipstream sci-fi (Gun, With Occasional Music and Amnesia Moon) to a sort of carnivalesque pomo-realism with Motherless Brooklyn, and be worried upon hearing that the next book was going to be semi-autobiographical. This turns out to be unfounded: Lethem's style, always shifty, here subsumes all worries, eschewing an authorial voice even when in the first person and continuing to tell the kind of stories he always has. True, Dylan isn't very likable, but the lack of a fanciful conceit (some superheroics aside) to hang the plot on turns out to be an advantage: by placing race, something very real, ostensibly at the center, the history in the first half doesn't resolve in the second in some genre pastiche like Motherless' detective fiction, but in one of the best pieces of music criticism I've ever read, about music that doesn't actually exist.

Music criticism? Sure, when you break it down, the novel's three-fourth history, recalled in the course of a trip a 30-something Dylan takes from California to Brooklyn and back again; you know, a novel. But from the last few chapters of the first section through the liner notes and the beginning of the back half, it's a gleeful, breathtakingly creative blast of criticism (while remaining a great novel), making a whole series of great points about cultural capital, music geekery, punk, hip-hop, and on and on and on.

This isn't an easy book to fall in love with. But there's a lot there to dig into, and I think it's something that can be profitably mined for many years. Give it a try.