On Our Shelves Now
A few years ago I came across an essay in an issue of the Village Voice Literary supplement by a more or less unknown author named Jonathan Lethem who was arguing that the science fiction community had betrayed its own potential when it refused, in 1974, to give the Hugo or Nebula award to a novel nominated that year by the name of 'Gravity's Rainbow'. Of course, this caught my attention and I've been watching Lethem's career ever since.
Around the time of the essay in the VVLS, Lethem's work tended to be thought of as ambitious, but not very successful literary sci-fi. In 2000 he garnered a lot of praise and a National Book Critics award for his book Motherless Brooklyn; a formulaic mystery novel with the added wordplay created by a narrator with Tourett's syndrome. This started out very strong, but seemed to become bored with itself by the end. So, for me, Lethem's work always seemed to be on the verge, but never quite successful.
Well, so, the point here obviously being that his new work, The Fortress of Solitude, is the novel which has finally placed him in the (very small) company of truly respectable American writers. Fortress is an ambitious work that paints a vivid portrait of urban America in the last half of the 20th century that resonates with the same awareness of time, place, and the unspoken and embarrassing truth about ourselves that I think is compelling in the work of early 20th century writers such as Edith Wharton, Ralph Ellison, and John Dos Passos. Some passages of Fortress are simply beautiful to read, exhibiting a control of the English language that I rarely find in many of the popular contemporary writers (Chabon and Eggers come to mind as failures here).
Lethem's sensitive and expert handling of pop-culture history makes it shockingly apparent how little real, successful work has been done that can represent the truly poignant childhood memories of the gen-x for a world filled with Hannah-Barbera cartoons, comic books, and the great rock-funk-soul-punk era of music. The literature of the boomer generation has so saturated our awareness with that particular generation's pop-culture concerns that we tend to not even recognize it as such until a writer like Lethem points out the validity of a younger experience; not in a tongue in cheek way like Douglas Coupland, but with a humble seriousness that pays respect to his own generation. He even goes so far as to incorporate what might be called a "magical realism" element that is a direct and unapologetic homage to a generation raised on comic books.
What is most impressive about Fortress, however, is the way Lethem is able to make these different elements revolve effortlessly around the true core of this novel: an unflinching meditation on the effects of race and class in a post civil-rights era world. As seen through the eyes of a young white boy growing up in an overwhelmingly African-American neighborhood in the 70s, the world of Fortress slowly unveils the last quarter of America's 20th century as a schizophrenic battle between the triumph of African-American culture even as it is buried under the yolk of poverty and Crack, and the love/hate relationship that white America has always had with the Other. Dylan, the young white protagonist, loves his black friend Mingus and wants to be accepted by his neighbors even as he fears their attention. And as the characters and the novel grow, the tragic shame of America's prison-industrial complex is mirrored by Dylan's withdrawal from his responsibilities to his friend and his past.
With this novel Lethem has joined the small, but growing, ranks of great American gen-x writers such as William Vollman and David Foster Wallace. The Fortress of Solitude may turn out to be one of the representative novels of my generation.