Wear flames in your hair

William Skidelsky

  • The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
    Faber, 511 pp, £12.99, January 2004, ISBN 0 571 21933 0

Jonathan Lethem’s novels tend to be fusions of genres. As She Climbed across the Table (1997) is a science-fiction campus novel; Girl in Landscape (1998) an SF western. Gun, with Occasional Music (1994), his first novel, is a detective story set in a dystopian future. Narcotics are doled out by the state, and knowledge of the past has been eradicated. Children have been genetically adapted to be as intelligent as adults, and are known as ‘babyheads’. There are still private detectives and everyone (including the babyheads) speaks in a lingo descended directly from Chandler. These early books, with their mix of the familiar and the alien, mean to be disconcerting.

In Motherless Brooklyn (1999), four Brooklyn orphans are taken up by a low-level crook called Frank Minna, who runs a detective agency. Frank is then murdered, leaving the orphans to find out what happened to him. The style is hardboiled, the pace unflagging, the plot bewildering; yet this isn’t an ordinary detective story. The narrator is one of the orphans, Lionel Essrog, who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, and because of his various tics and compulsions is widely regarded as an imbecile. That this isn’t the case is clear from the eloquence of his narrative voice, and from the fact that he eventually solves Frank’s murder.

On the face of it, Lethem’s big, sprawling new novel – which could also have been called Motherless Brooklyn – is quite different. It tells the story of Dylan Ebdus, who grows up in Brooklyn during the 1970s, and whose mother abandons him when he is a teenager. It is obviously autobiographical: Lethem was raised in the same part of Brooklyn as Dylan, and his mother died when he was roughly the same age as Dylan is when his disappears. But Lethem doesn’t dispense with his old habits. Into what is essentially a Bildungsroman, he introduces an element of comic-book fantasy: a ring with magical powers.

The novel opens in the late 1960s, when Dylan is five. He and his parents, Abraham and Rachel (an abstract painter and a beatnik with a social conscience), have recently moved to Dean Street, Brooklyn, part of a once genteel enclave of ‘Dutch-style row houses’ called Gowanus that has become almost exclusively non-white. This is the main reason that Rachel, a committed integrationist (and the more forceful of Dylan’s parents), decided they should move there. Another recent arrival on the block, a racist old lady called Isabel Vendle, plans to transform the neighbourhood into the ‘new paradise’ of ‘Boerum Hill’. The novel’s opening sentence – ‘Like a match struck in a darkened room’ – describes her delighted reaction to seeing two white girls playing in the street.

It is thirty years before Isabel’s vision of a predominantly white Dean Street comes to pass, by which time she is long dead. During his childhood, which spans the first half of The Fortress of Solitude, Dylan isn’t just the only white kid on his block but, thanks to Rachel’s insistence that he be educated locally, one of only a handful at his school. At first this doesn’t matter. Dylan and his fellow pupils ‘hardly look at each other’ at junior school, and outside on Dean Street, where the real action takes place, he gains some acceptance for being the ‘chief alchemist and philosopher of skully’, a form of hopscotch played with bottle tops.

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