The Fortress of Solitude

By: Jonathan Lethem
2003
Fiction
Subject Matter: Brooklyn; New York, NY; Male friendship; Race relations; Teenage boys
Rating: 2.5/5

 

The Fortress of Solitude book cover

The Fortress of Solitude is exhausting.

There’s a really compelling story here, but it’s buried under layers of chaos. Not true chaos, because Lethem‘s best quality is his ability to tie it all together, to recall details you’d almost just forgotten, to make them relevant. But his writing style is unconventional, and while that’s mightily impressive and refreshing, it’s also hard and difficult and just pure exhausting.

You know how people always ask, “Is it any good?” when they spot you reading a book? My answer to that infernal question while reading The Fortress of Solitude was this: “I think I would love this author if he were writing a short story. But a 500-page novel is a little much.”

This novel is a coming-of-age story centered on Dylan Ebdus, a white boy growing up in a largely poor, largely black area of Brooklyn. It gets down to the nitty gritty quick, and Lethem doesn’t once shy away from the hard topics. Drugs, racism, muggings, violence, death, broken families, dysfunctional parenting, loneliness, disillusionment, fear, anger, ineptitude, crime. It’s all there, through the eyes of a young, not-so-naive, child.

There’s even a strange bit of the supernatural.

This book is divided into three uneven parts. The first, the longest, is almost unbearable. By the end, I was so over it. It’s third-person, jumpy, jaunty, overwhelming, loud, messy. The second, however, is delightful. It’s a set of liner notes written by a character for a CD collection recorded by another character. And the third starts to feel normal. For the most part, this last section is in the first-person, told by Dylan himself.

But the last few chapters feel a little too convenient for me. The details that Lethem interwove so brilliantly throughout the book become a little too contrived and come together in a relatively neat package. For such a chaotic novel, a neat ending just feels wrong. For instance, you can actually find the title in the last chapter, capitalized, just like a title should be: Fortress of Solitude.

This book is a strangely brilliant look at race relations. It’s a unique experiment in writing style. It’s most certainly a whirlwind of nostalgia and meaning and relationship.

But it kind of left me stranded.

 

*****

 

Here are some suggestions similar to The Fortress of Solitude:

(for other inventive writing styles)

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Ulysses by James Joyce

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

(for more by Lethem)

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem

Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

(for themes of comic books and NYC)

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

(for themes of race relations and friendship)

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

 

Coming up:

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Out Came the Sun by Mariel Hemingway

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

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