Or why you should read The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem.
I try to go into novels with very few expectations beyond some familiarity with the authors track record and some basic idea about what the plot will be about. Like, I have a sense what a thriller novel by a favourite author who writes thrillers or an idea of what the Sci-fi sequel of another favourite author might be like. This sense of what to expect gives me some idea of whether I will enjoy the novel, whether its the right choice for a particular week, and let's me gear up for the necessary mode of reading. (A silly Fantasy romp needs a far different mental process than Gravity's Rainbow and delivers a radically different reading experience.) My point here is that I usually try to have some idea of whether I want a reading meal before I order it.
I was grossly mistaken about what kind of book The Fortress of Solitude is.
For some reason that I can't quite explain, I thought that Fortress would be vaguely genre and kind of existentially whimsical. Maybe kind of a bittersweet coming of age story that centres around comic books or some sort of supernatural experience. I knew race, the American black-white divide would be important, but figured it would be observed through the lens of Superheroics. I thought it would be kind of like a Silver-to-Bronze Age version of the excellent The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, since Jonathan Lethem clearly has the genre love, geekiness, and sheer prose writing chops to realize such a book.
This is not what The Fortress of Solitude is at all!
Instead The Fortress of Solitude is a novel about the experience of isolation.
The early sections of the depict the childhood of Dylan Edbus, a young white boy growing up in a very black neightbourhood of Brooklyn in the 1970s. The novel beautifully recreates his young life, the size and enormity of street games with the local kids, the challenges of fitting into a racially different neighbourhood, the tragedy of his broken family, and what happens when he strikes up an unexpected friendship with Mingus Rude, a black boy from another broken home, and they discover a magic ring that lets them fly. The latter part of the book deals with a grown up Dylan as he tries to come to terms with an adult life irrevocably marred by his childhood experiences. From a purely narrative perspective it is a powerful and beautiful character story and a vivid depiction of a certain moment in American history.
The Fortress of Solitude really shines thematically. The novel plays with the difference between the epic scale of childhood and contrasts it with the jaded perspective of adults in a way I found really resonated with my own experience. Fortress also examines the difference between the Black and White experience in America in a really visceral and empathetic way. The book delves into the grand debate between the power of flight, the need to be seen and loved and virtuous, and the power of invisibility, that base desire to be anonymous and exempt and amoral. Most of all though, the novel examines isolation and solitude imposed by obsession or wanderlust or race or self-imposed myopia. It's a story element that I think any introvert can really relate to. For all of the story, it is these cavernous depths to the book that I found to be the most captivating.
So yeah, The Fortress of Solitude isn't a genre-friendly coming of age story and is instead a deeply thoughtful book about isolation, race, and gradually maturing views on life. It wasn't what I was expecting, but was much more satisfying.
I would recommend this book to anyone looking for something substantial to read. This is a brick of prose and while it is certainly geek friendly, making many references to geek media, it isn't a fun genre novel. Instead The Fortress of Solitude is a serious work of literary fiction, and if you want to read a really great, nerd-accessible literary novel I can think of few better to choose from. And really, if you are a socially incompetent introvert, this book has depths for you to plunge into. It's really worth the investment of effort and time.
Post by Michael Bround