Navel-Gazing and Stereotyping in “The Fortress of Solitude”

Book: The Fortress of Solitude

Author: Jonathan Lethem

Genre: Fiction


This is going to be a relatively short post, considering the book is 500+ pages. I did not like this book, which is quite disappointing, because I’d been looking forward to reading Lethem for a long time. All in all, it was uneven in the worst way, as it sprawled into pointless side narratives and bland scenes, never tying the worthwhile parts together and spending way too much time on pointless introspection. The more interesting parts of the book, such as Dylan’s absent mother, are barely touched on, while boring-as-shit sequences like his college experience and the ForbiddenCon event took up many pages. The general vibe I got from poking around the internet was that people enjoyed the first half of this book and then trudged through the second half. Honestly, I didn’t really care for either. The first half of the book felt like I was re-watching the first half of A Bronx Tale. I love that movie, but how many times can you read about or watch kids grow up in 20th century NYC? I didn’t need several pages about skully or stick ball, nor did I need extended descriptions of frankly uninteresting characters, like Henry, that never come up again in a meaningful way.

At first, I thought I was liking the second half of the book more, but I soon tired of Dylan’s arrogance and attitude. Worst of all, he was the only character that Lethem really seemed to be emotionally invested in. Mingus, a promising character in the beginning, never really came together. To this point, having finished the book, I’m not really sure why Mingus ever liked Dylan at all. His constant upbeat, playful demeanor was contrasted with Dylan, who never smiles or seems happy about anything. By the time the reader reaches this key moment, where Dylan goes to visit Mingus, you expect the section to be rich with emotion, brimming with insight. But alas, the anticlimax of this scene was overwhelming and frustrating. I should have seen it coming, as Dylan is never really actually interested in anyone but himself. The incessant navel-gazing in the second half of the book made me dislike Dylan even more than I already did, which made the book really drag after a while.

And finally, I was a little bothered by the racial commentary Lethem is interested in here. Many of the black characters felt like caricatures of well-known stereotypes. In one scene, where Dylan is hanging around with three black kids in a park, Lethem describes the young white kids in the park as “animated Disney bluebirds, twittering harmlessly around the head of the Wicked Witch as she coated an apple with poison.” C’mon dude. Dylan and the three black characters were going to do some graffiti–not kill somebody or rob a bank. I have a tough time seeing what was sinister about them. I realize that Lethem is speaking to a point of view, a racist one, that seems prevalent to the setting, but he never offers readers anything as a counterpoint. In this book, black people are drug dealers, pimps, and beggars, all sharing a violent temperament. Black people are never genuine, always trying to trick you or force you into giving them something. Again, I understand that Lethem was trying to highlight a certain quality of ’70s Brooklyn, and perhaps there is some authenticity here, but I would love for Lethem to sit down with me, look me in the eyes, and tell me there were no redeemable people of color in ’70s Brooklyn. In trying to speak to racial tensions at the beginning of Brooklyn’s decades long issue with gentrification, Lethem seems only to have sketched out stereotypes. Even Mingus, who begins the book seeming like a counterpoint to all I mentioned above, eventually falls into those same traps. Arthur, a white peer of Dylan’s who begins the book as a nerdy white kid and eventually becomes entranced by black culture, does become successful later in life, despite getting into the same activities and troubles Mingus was involved in. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of difference between those characters aside from the color of their skin. Perhaps that is making a statement, but that statement felt buried to me.

I still plan on reading Motherless Brooklyn, another of Lethem’s novels, which will hopefully have some redemptive power. Until then, I’m not impressed, Jonathan.


Next post: The Stand by Stephen King


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