The other books are easier to read. The Fortress of Solitude chooses to be a big book, and the downside is that it has some big flaws. There are overwritten, imprecise moments when Dylan’s childish wisdoms slip into adult writerliness and Lethem’s Inner Essayist peeks out. One Fray reader commented on a certain “gauzy nostalgia”; I didn’t have this problem. But the point of view in the first half wobbles in and out of a near-omniscience, extrapolating, explaining, as has become fashionable in recent big American novels: “Gaze long enough into Dean Street and Dean Street will gaze into you,” we’re told, in the midst of a beautiful passage about boyish “conjured solitude.” Is this interruption important? Is it crucial to allude to Nietzsche here, or is it, as another Frayster asked, “Pomo noodling?”
But the dazzling parts are real: Especially when Lethem is expertly sketching out unspoken social architecture. Take the introduction of Robert Woolfolk, a tall, older boy who becomes Dylan’s nemesis, and whose menacing brand of blackness first makes Dylan want to be “invisible”:
One day he was there on the stoop of the abandoned house, another day he sat on Henry’s low wall and looked at the girls. Then he got into a game [of skully] or two, though he wasn’t really a game player. He was taller than Henry and could fling a ball as far but there was something disorganizing in him as a presence that broke games apart, some slangy way of moving his arms and head.
This isn’t just about Brooklyn; it’s about childhood and invisible alliances—universal stuff. Lethem’s trying to write about a boy feeling out the edges of consciousness, by learning a language that belongs to the world outside his home, where we usually learn language. “Outside” is loaded word: a place of statelessness and of rogue freedom.
So for me the great question is: Why does Lethem leave this world? Why did he divide the book in two, essentially? The first section could be a book on its own. The second half lacks its originality. It leaps to 1999 and shifts to the first person—Dylan lives in Berkeley; he’s a 35-year-old music critic. There’s the psychosexual relationship (with a light-skinned black woman), the ennui, the unrealized ambitions. Did you like this Dylan? I found him less compelling without the anchoring puzzle of the street to offset his isolation.
The second section covers, often with ease, a huge amount of territory—Dylan’s brief tenure as an undergraduate at Camden College, a Northeastern liberal arts school (the name is borrowed from Brett Easton Ellis); a comic book conference, where Dylan’s father, Abraham, is being honored (having taken up illustration as a way of making some money); Mingus’ misadventures in prison. I like some of the Camden material—there’s an amazing scene when a drunk girl jokingly asks Dylan to show her what a “yoking” is, and is thrown by the aggression of it. But it’s not till Dylan finally returns to Brooklyn, searching for Mingus, that the book picks up again and pulls us back in its wake. Mingus is, as you said, the love object. The girlfriend, Abigail, is a habit that Dylan is going to break. Mingus is the unshakable obsession. As a child, Dylan wanted “to merge” with Mingus by spraying the same graffiti tag, hoping to lose his whiteness and become part of “a team, a united front.” Theirs wasn’t just a homoerotic youthful bond but a physical one; they become sexually involved at one point.
In other words, the second section is about guilt: How could I, Dylan, have left Mingus behind? (And on the other hand, How could I, Dylan, not have left Mingus behind?) Dylan is now among people who are, in some way, “like” him—they listen to the same music, read the same books, share, more often than not, his skin color—but he’s haunted by a past that “overwhelms” him, literally swallows up his sense of self. And he can’t escape it. He wants to make amends for the fact that he makes a living as a connoisseur of black culture, writing liner notes for Mingus’ dad’s album, and pitching movies in L.A. about black singers not getting their due (a funny scene). Mingus, on the other hand, is a crack addict. He has been in and out of prison for years, ever since shooting and killing his grandfather in an incident that Dylan witnesses at the end of the first section.
The guilt, I think, isn’t just about Dylan’s sense that he failed Mingus. It also rises out of the fact that it was his mother Rachel who wanted him to find a life beyond the boundaries of race. The dream of integration was hers; she sent him to public school and bragged that he was one of three white boys there. Was this fair, a Slate editor asked? Was Rachel’s hope that Dylan be beyond race an unfair one—given that there were frustrated Robert Woolfolks down the block, all too happy to take advantage of Dylan’s situation? Does the pressure of Dylan’s impossible desire for things to be different give rise to Aeroman, his superhero alter ego? The magic realism strand involving Aeroman is weird and hard to adjust to, but I think it’s crucial: What is real, Lethem seems to be saying, is our sense of wish. Dylan’s sometime wish to be black, or to be invisible, or to be something other than who he is, is who he is. This is most persuasively rendered in the first half of the book.
You said that the material about race was the gutsiest thing here. I agree. What, for example, did you think of risky mini-narrative about Mingus’ life in prison? Finally, since you’re a music critic, what did you think of the role of music—hip-hop, punk—in the book?