Jonathan Lethem,
The Fortress of Solitude
(Doubleday, 2003)

If your father's a painter and you have the creative impulse but you're absolutely not going to be seen to be walking in his footsteps, you need to come up with an art form, a medium, for your creativity that he won't recognize, that's a refusal, that's a rebellion. So doing graffiti, or drawing comics, or writing science fiction, those sort of pop-culture, street methods are a way to have your cake and eat it, too. You've rebelled against the generation before you but you haven't thwarted your own creative impulse."

This is a quote from an interview I conducted with Jonathan Lethem at the World Science Fiction Convention in Anaheim, Calif., in 1995. We were discussing his short story "The Hardened Criminals," which deals with the theme of identity through the metaphor of graffiti. Lethem pointed out that identity was a theme that was central in much of his work. And, true to form, identity is once again a prominent theme in his sprawling new novel The Fortress of Solitude. And once again, graffiti art is employed as a metaphor.

The book's protagonist, Dylan Ebdus, whose father is a painter, uses and is subverted by his use of graffiti in his attempt to find his identity. Dylan is a white boy growing up in a black world in 1970s Brooklyn. Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music (White Boy)" is blaring from radios, pointing a far-from-subtle finger at Dylan as he tries desperately to blend in. His salvation, perhaps, can found in his friend Mingus Rude.

Mingus is the son of R&B singer Barrett Rude Jr., former frontman for the Subtle Distinctions, current cocaine-dependent recluse. But Mingus is a year older than Dylan. And a year can be an eternity when you're in grade 6 and your salvation has moved on from P.S. 38 to a new school, I.S. 293. Still, Dylan and Mingus read the same comics (Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, Warlock, Avengers). They hang together playing stickball and stoopball with the other Dean Street kids. And most importantly they collaborate in Mingus's graffiti styling, marking walls, lampposts and train cars with his "Dose" tag.

And so it goes for the first 100 pages. Then, suddenly, Lethem takes this "slice of Americana" and grafts in a magic ring. Aaron X. Doily, the ring's owner, is loosed from the "air waves" and falls from the sky while Dylan is tagging a playground slide. Dylan is the only witness to this poor old black man's tumble from the rooftops. "He's dressed in jeans oiled gray with filth and a formerly white shirt, cuffs shredded, a button dangling by a thread. And over his shoulder, crumpled between his wide back and the brick wall, a bedsheet cape, knotted at the neck just like the kid in Where the Wild Things Are, only stained yellow." When Dylan approaches the downed flying man, Doily explains, "can't land right no more ... I can't stay in the air no more."

It's another 50 pages later, after Dylan and his father rescue Doily from the street, arranging for him to be taken to hospital, that Aaron passes on his magic ring to Dylan. Sixty more pages pass as Dylan crafts a costume and superhero identity for himself and eventually reveals his secret to Mingus.

The ring's sporadic role in the The Fortress of Solitude made it very difficult to reconcile this fantastic element with the rest of the plot line. In fact I didn't feel the ring really fit the story until the second half of the book. It's here, once Dylan has grown up and left Brooklyn and his past behind him that he discovers the ring's true potential: to reconnect him to Mingus. Only in this way can he finally deal with the issues of his childhood and locate his own, distinct identity. But surely some other object, something without magical powers, could have played this role equally well. Why a magic ring?

This is the question I'm left with at the end of The Fortress of Solitude. It's the reason I feel that Lethem's previous novel Motherless Brooklyn is a better book than this one. In Motherless Brooklyn Lethem didn't feel the need to impose an element of the fantastic. It was simply a wonderfully quirky, insightful, well-told story that demonstrated that science-fiction writer Lethem could work in the mainstream. What The Fortress of Solitude demonstrates to me is that science fiction and fantasy tropes like magic rings require very careful handling in the "real" world. Lethem is a tremendously skilled writer, one of those rare talents who can work both inside and outside of genre fiction. But in The Fortress of Solitude he's tried to do both at the same time. Perhaps he's still rebelling against the previous generation. Unfortunately that need to rebel has produced a somewhat disappointing novel, a book that mirrors the problems of its protagonist; it hasn't managed to come to terms with its author's science fiction past and develop its own distinct identity.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 17 January 2004

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