Saturday, 2 July 2016

Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem


People recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. For a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. (This is still the fastest way to get a book to the top of my list.) So I started a new list to read of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.

This book was recommended to me by Rob

I finished this book and I think I enjoyed it. I didn't love it, but it was an interesting read. Still, something felt missing, and I have orbited around this review for several days, unsure of what I wanted to say or how. Then, unfortunately for Jonathan Lethem, I started reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and with one sentence, she sort of demolished this whole genre. This isn't to say that I suddenly didn't enjoy the book, but the distance I was feeling from it crystallized.

This is what she wrote, talking about how the main character's boyfriend was trying to "improve" her taste in reading, recommending:

"novels written by young and youngish men and packed with things, a fascinating, confounding accumulation of brands and music and comic books and icons, with emotions skimmed over, and each sentence stylishly aware of its own stylishness."

Ouch. Because in a lot of ways, that does describe this book very well. I think my other problem is a quirk of what order I have read books in. There were a lot of times where this felt like an odd conflation of two Michael Chabon books - The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (which I loved) and Mysteries of Pittsburgh (which was okay.) Combine the comics and slight magical realism of superpowers, with a tale of growing up, and exploring sexuality. Lethem's book is certainly more about race, but there were still similarities.

I'm talking around it though, about books that seem similar or relevant to this book. Let's focus back in on what Fortress of Solitude is. It's the story of a young white man growing up in Brooklyn, the only white kid for blocks and blocks. It's how he negotiates that identity, the way it isolates him, and it's about his best friend Mingus, the son of a soul singer, and the ways in which they orbit around each other.

Oh, and there's a ring that grants the power of flight.

So part of it, particularly when we get to Mingus, is a very subtle look at who's the hero and who's the sidekick, and what heroism means in a real world, and how complicated and sticky low-level superpowers can be when they lead to vigilante justice. It's also about friendship and distance, the barriers society builds and those we build ourselves.

Only about half the book takes place in their youth - much of the rest covers Dylan when he goes away to college, and later, as a music writer. It's about his relationship to blackness, which he can never quite reconcile. It's also about his relationship to absence, with his mother having run when he was small, his father isolated in a studio creating an unending animation, Mingus only appearing some of the time Dylan wants him, and Dylan wanting to disappear or at least to blend in.

I don't know what I want to say about the core of the book being about how hard it is to be the one white kid in a predominantly black and Puerto Rican neighborhood. I really don't. It bothered me, but I do not have my thoughts in order enough, beyond a tired "well, of course it's the white guy's book about race that gets published." Lethem has every right to write this story, but there's definitely an inequality of access to the publishing world.

I really wish this review were neater and better organized. Sometimes I come to reviews and they just flow. This one feels jerky and disconnected. But honestly, I think that's how I feel. I liked this book. But I was also made uneasy by it.

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