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.

All this changes when Robert Woolfolk, an older boy ‘from the projects’, starts showing up on Dean Street. Almost immediately, he singles Dylan out: having threatened to steal his money, he makes off with his bicycle. But Dylan has his mother to protect him. Rachel grew up ‘a Brooklyn streetkid’, and sees no reason for Dylan to do otherwise. ‘Run if you can’t fight,’ she advises, ‘run and scream fire or rape, be wilder than they are, wear flames in your hair.’ And she beats up Robert Woolfolk for stealing Dylan’s bike.

Unfortunately for Dylan, Rachel disappears soon after this, and neither he nor Abraham sees her again. Dylan lives on in Brooklyn with his increasingly reclusive father, who has ‘renounced painting on canvas’ and is working on a monumental project that involves painting abstract forms onto celluloid. The bullying gets worse. At school and walking around the neighbourhood, Dylan is taunted (‘White boy, what are you looking at?’), has his money – or whatever he is carrying – stolen, and is generally bashed up and humiliated. ‘Yoking’, for example, involves putting the victim in a headlock, usually as a prelude to mugging him.

He might be yoked low, bent over, hugged to someone’s hip then spun on release like a human top, legs buckling, crossing at the ankles. Or from behind, never sure by who once the headlock popped loose and three or four guys stood around, witnesses with hard eyes, shaking their heads at the sheer dumb luck of being white. It was routine as laughter. Yoking erupted spontaneously, a joke of fear, a piece of kidding.

He was dismissed from it as from an episode of light street theatre. ‘Nobody hurt you, man. It ain’t for real. You know we was just fooling with you, right?’ They’d spring away, leave him tottering, hyperventilating, while they high-fived, more like amazed spectators than perpetrators. If Dylan choked or whined they were perplexed and slightly disappointed at the white boy’s too-ready hysteria. Dylan didn’t quite get it, hadn’t learned his role. On those occasions they’d pick up his books or hat and press them on him, tuck him back together. A ghost of fondness lived in a headlock’s shadow. Yoker and yokee had forged a funny compact.

You regularly promised your enemies that what you did together had no name.

The jocular imagery is striking. Yoking is ‘a piece of kidding’, ‘an episode of light street theatre’; Dylan’s tormentors maintain a ‘ghost of fondness’ for their victims. Such phrases remind us that things like ‘kidding’ and ‘fondness’ are what Dylan’s life now lacks; tucking him back together is what his mother is supposed to do. But the idea that yoking ‘ain’t for real’ suggests something larger, too. Black kids may be able to lord it over white ones in Brooklyn, but that isn’t the case elsewhere.

After his mother’s disappearance, Dylan finds a new protector in Mingus Rude, a mixed-race boy who moves to Dean Street when Dylan is in fifth grade. Like Dylan, Mingus is intelligent, his parents have separated, and he lives alone with his father, the Motown singer Barrett Rude Junior. Unlike Dylan, however, Mingus has no trouble fitting in. In no time at all he is the star of one of the block’s communal ball games, and he becomes a graffiti artist whose tag appears all over Brooklyn. Their friendship, though close, is less close than Dylan would like it to be. Instead of always coming to Dylan’s rescue, Mingus disappears for weeks on end, leaving Dylan to gauge his movements from his graffiti tags. In the largely unconscious way these things are decided, Dylan never quite forgives Mingus for not being a more tangible presence, and effectively drops him when he gets a place at a more racially mixed high school in Manhattan.

Stuyvesant High School is a hothouse for the brightest public school kids from all five boroughs and Dylan soon makes friends with two white boys there. As the punk era gets under way, a prosaic, documentary style takes over to describe Dylan’s life in Manhattan. Then, at the end of the first half of the novel, there is a sudden shift back to Brooklyn, when Dylan, who is about to leave for college in Vermont, witnesses a family argument at the Rude household, which results (somewhat melodramatically) in a shooting.

The second half jumps ahead to 1999, and is narrated by Dylan, now a 37-year-old rock journalist living in California. He hasn’t been in touch with Mingus for several years, but learns from Abraham (who is now a successful illustrator of SF book covers) that he has become a crack addict and is in and out of prison. Dylan returns to New York, where he runs into Arthur Lomb, a white boy from junior school who later became friends with both Mingus and Robert Woolfolk. Arthur, who as a teenager clung to the coat tails of the black kids, is still living in Gowanus (or Boerum Hill, as it really is now called) and has become Dean Street’s biggest property developer. He tells Dylan that Robert Woolfolk is in the same prison as Mingus. The hierarchies of Dylan’s childhood have been overturned: the black characters have gone down the tube; the white ones – even Arthur Lomb – have done all right. This may represent a general social truth, but in a novel it’s a little neat, and it sits uneasily with the rich portrayal of Mingus and Dylan’s friendship.

Lethem’s approach to race is extremely self-conscious throughout The Fortress of Solitude. The bridge between the two halves of the novel is a piece of Dylan’s journalism, the liner notes for a box set of Barrett Rude Junior, ‘one of the greatest soul singers who ever lived’. Dylan’s black girlfriend accuses him of having chosen her on the basis of her colour (‘That was okay, I was willing to be collected. I liked being your nigger, Dylan’). Dylan goes to Hollywood to pitch an idea for a film to be called ‘The Prisonaires’, based on the true story of an all-black rock and roll band that might have been bigger than Elvis had its members not spent most of their lives in jail. The theme of talent thwarted by prejudice is impossible to miss.

What saves the novel is its element of comic-book fantasy, which has met with some hostility from British reviewers. ‘Superhero fantasy is unsuitable as a theme for serious literary fiction,’ Adam Mars-Jones wrote in the Observer, ‘for much the same reason that Pot Noodles are out of place at dinner parties.’ In The Fortress of Solitude, the comic-book fantasy paradoxically shores up the novel’s naturalistic storyline. Shortly after he arrives on Dean Street, Mingus introduces Dylan to comic books, and it isn’t long before superheroes dominate Dylan’s imagination: he thinks of Abraham in his studio as being like ‘Superman in his Fortress of Solitude’. Given that so much is wrong in Dylan’s life, it’s easy to believe that he might fantasise about a superhero coming to put things right. But Lethem does more than pay lip-service to Dylan’s fantasies. A local vagrant gives Dylan a ring which confers the power of flight on whoever wears it. Dylan uses the ring to turn himself into a preposterous superhero called ‘Aeroman’, and throughout their adolescence he and Mingus take it in turns to dress up in a homemade cape, put on the ring, and conduct hilarious (and largely unsuccessful) crime-prevention missions around Brooklyn.

The striking thing is that neither Dylan nor Mingus seems especially surprised to discover they possess supernatural powers. Putting on the ring is little different from buying spray paint to go tagging. The line between reality and fantasy, between the literal and the figurative, is artfully blurred. The ring is a focus for the various elements of fantasy in Dylan and Mingus’s relationship, and the way that they change over time. In the first half, Aeroman is an embodiment both of the protector Dylan wants Mingus to be, and of the possibility of escape. It is appropriate that it enables Dylan, and Mingus, to fly. But when Dylan tries on the ring again as an adult, its powers have changed: it now confers invisibility on the wearer, an ambiguous privilege. Dylan, invisible and white, can get away with anything. Mingus, imprisoned and forgotten, is invisible already.

Dylan uses the ring to try to help Mingus escape from jail. The attempt fails and the idea that Mingus could miraculously break out of prison seems to make the hopelessness of his condition all the more plain. Dylan, meanwhile, invisibly roaming around the prison, comes across Mingus’s file, which includes a psychiatrist’s report from high school: ‘Mingus’s typical style and manner,’ he reads, ‘is likely to dispose him towards sarcasm and verbal bouts of a negativistic and oppositional posture to do combat with authority in a covert manner.’ Dylan barely recognises Mingus from this ‘inadequate liner note’, and this prompts the belated telling of Mingus’s story, his descent into crack addiction and his time in and out of prison.

The placing of Mingus’s story in the middle of Dylan’s first-person narrative raises an intriguing question: to what extent is it mediated by Dylan’s imagination? Lethem is careful not to presume that he can speak directly for Mingus. The interpolation also makes you wonder about the first half of the novel: is it the straightforward third-person narrative it seemed to be, or was Dylan writing about his childhood self as if he were another person? His adult voice is obviously a product of the same consciousness that narrated the first half, inasmuch as they know the same things, although stylistically the two sections are very different: the second fluent but rather formulaic, the beginning fresh and evocative. Many aspects of Dylan’s post-Brooklyn life suggest a second-hand, vicarious existence: the mimicry and quotation from Monty Python in which his high school friends indulge; his career as a rock critic; the film he wants to write. Seen in this light, the first-person narration looks like an attempt to recover the vividness that the account of his childhood has. It is on the streets of Brooklyn that Dylan, and The Fortress of Solitude, come to life.