This book got off to a very slow start, and although it came together well by the end I’m not sure I really see why everyone likes it so much. In The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem has written a decent, but nonetheless fairly boilerplate, bildungsroman about growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s, and then returning there at the turn of the century. Its interest lies largely in the milieu, which Lethem does a good job of capturing, with the exception that he has an annoying tendency to use italics the first time he uses slang terms, as if he were announcing to the reader, “Look! Local color!”
Some of the best parts of the novel come not from Lethem’s invocation of superheroes, but in his descriptions of his protagonist’s reactions to a different form of popular culture, music. He has a strong feeling for the way people create their own sense of a song’s meaning in their given context: most humorously, when Dylan takes “Play That Funky Music” as a direct mockery of white kids getting beat up, “lay down and boogie and play that funky music ‘til you die” a taunt to a kid curled up on the pavement and wailing while he gets beat up. Everywhere it comes up, Lethem astutely reveals how our personal position within a culture is tied into our tastes in and interpretations of music.
Still, there are some structural problems. The novel shifts from third to first person at the midway point, but then has to revert back to third person for a couple of chapters, not quite formally coherent. At the end of the novel, Dylan’s epiphany about his supposed unconscious reasons for returning to New York to see Mingus is not especially convincing. And, in the first half, Lethem can’t resist endless side pieces filling us in on the barely-glimpsed lives of minor characters—some of these sections make narrative sense by the end, but others don’t and could be cut without losing anything.
I think if I had read a novel like this years ago, in late high school or in college, I might have really enjoyed it, but at this point in my life I’ve read enough realist coming-of-age stories (in this case with a magic realism twist, but nothing very challenging) that I found myself wishing it would hurry along already. I have a renewed taste these days for something at least a little more ambitious, formally or philosophically. Although Lethem’s novel is long enough to be called ambitious by some standards (Time even tells us it is on the back cover of my paperback), it isn’t really, in the sense of trying to use form to adjust the way you think.