For the record, I still like Motherless Brooklyn better. There’s something decidedly less self-aware about it. Fortress is painfully, blatantly self-aware — and this matches the main character, Dylan Ebdus, always over-analyzing his actions. Motherless‘ main character had Tourette’s, so he had zero self-awareness. Yet it all makes sense in the end, and it speaks to Jonathan Lethem’s incredible talent.
Fortress of Solitude took awhile to grow on me, but it eventually did. It really was the self-awareness that built a barrier. And the pretentiousness. The number of times that the word “ailanthus” was mentioned — and I still refuse to look the word up, though I know it’s a kind of tree/plant/flower — made me want to hurl, and the pride with which White Guy fetishized Black Brooklyn was nauseating. But I’m also approaching this book from a 2016 perspective, where WGiBB is done, cooked, over, annoying automatically. Back in the 70s, when this book was taking place, gentrification wasn’t even simmering yet, and there wasn’t any telegraphing when it’d boil over. It was new and actually fresh. The eyerolls I’m applying to it are nuanced and layered, unfair and uninformed.
Even though I didn’t grow up remotely close to Brooklyn, I still feel a bond with Dylan. He experienced an intense kind of reverse-racial bullying, which I am thankful I didn’t experience, but I was bullied, too. So many of us were that it’s impossible not to connect to a retelling of it, no matter the context, especially when it’s done well. See, for me, it wasn’t about the physical aspect. Though girls can be physical with their bullying, it’s not as common. It’s about the psychological, about making the bullee feel consumed by the buller, and that’s exactly what Lethem does with respect to Dylan and his oppressors. In addition to being a body to beat up, Dylan is fodder for their fucked-up brains, and yet part of him enjoys it, so he doesn’t exactly retaliate like he should. He craves their attention, and that’s the way they want it.
Lethem also has this wonderfully casual way of mentioning milestone moments, both positive and negative ones. You’re embroiled in the details of a scene, and all of a sudden you realize Dylan’s mother is gone, or Dylan’s become best friends with Mingus Rude, or Dylan’s just had his first real sexual encounter, or the years have just passed swiftly and smoothly. It’s all very matter-of-fact and organic, but the origin of it all is hazy, and that’s okay. There’s always so much focus in fiction on Milestone Moments, when in reality, they happen and that’s it and we sort of forget how they happened. They blend in with everything else.
We really feel like we grew up with Dylan the whole way — the first half of the book plugs through his childhood in third-person perspective, which is akin to how any kid with feelings feels at that time, outside looking in, self-aware but not world-aware. And the second half is in first-person, self-aware as much as humanly possible, infinitely reflective on every little thing, as is the adult way. Dylan is obviously Lethem channeling himself and his childhood experiences, as it’s hard to believe Dylan is a real kid sometimes. But his life is easy to relate to, in spite of its specificity and undeniable hipness. His best friend is an enigma, and yet Dylan is one too, trying to uncover his own identity in the shadow of someone else’s whom he’ll always covet. The supernatural element of the book — the magic ring — feels entirely, completely sensible, even in the context of this very stark, real world. Because there’s a supernatural element to every kid’s being.
Lethem also has a way of characterizing stereotypes one encounters in one’s life in ways that they haven’t been characterized before. His cynicism cuts deeply, uniquely. For Dylan, Arthur Lomb is that friend: “Positioning, positioning, Arthur Lomb was forever positioning himself, making his views known, aligning on some index no one would ever consult” (p. 126). Moira is that girl: “Moira and I were a couple for two weeks from that night — an eternity at Camden, where rehearsals of adulthood were rendered miniature by a compression of time and space” (p. 387). Home is gentrifying before his eyes: “Brooklyn’s bepissed your blonde destiny” (p. 267). Popular culture is dulling before his eyes: “I flashed on a vision of a world dotted with conferences, convocations, and “Cons” of all types, each an engine for converting feelings of inferiority and self-loathing into their opposites” (p. 345), and “Football was an arrangement of failures, a proving how unlikely most things were” (p. 75), and “My black jeans were like a smudge of ash or a daub of vomit in this cream-and-peach world” (p. 322). Lethem and Dylan are critical, sharp observers, ready to slay.
[Even descriptions of daily minutae have this depleted, beautiful poetry to them: “If the Etch A Sketch and the Spirograph had really worked they would probably be machines, not toys, they would be part of the way the adult universe operated and be mounted onto the instrument panels of cars or worn on the belts of policemen,” (p. 9) and “The squirrel moved as an oscillating sequence of humps, tail and spine bunching in counterpoint” (p. 17), and “The bicycle … would be downstairs again, leaning in the hallway like a stuffed animal, a blind chrome elk loaded with his parents’ expectation and Dylan’s dread” (p. 43).]
Mingus Rude, though, inspired completely different ways of thinking in both of them: “Leave it to Mingus Rude to recuperate their differences for his own purposes, for Robin Hooditry in art’s cause” (p. 145). Around Mingus, Dylan wasn’t cynical, at least not initially. He shook up something intangible in Dylan’s demeanor, something that not everyone gets to experience, it seems. Mingus’ shitty situation bred a wisdom that then sloughed off on Dylan, who shared them with us:”You could grow up in the city where history was made and still miss it all” and “The key to mostly anything is pretending your first time isn’t” (p. 259″, and “Each institution carries previous incarnations, like sluggish rivers with another century’s silt at their bottoms” (p. 465).
But perhaps my favorite line in the book comes from the beginning, when Lethem’s adult wisdom still overpowers Dylan’s kid ignorance. This line is so evocative to me, so exemplary of youth and innocence: “They gathered wide-eyed as though warming at a campfire of their own awe” (p. 47). It captures the unintentional egotism of youth, too, the idea that nothing’s more important than what’s happening right now, and that’s a takeaway from the book, too. No matter how insignificant things may be, they’re significant in their own context, in their own little world, in their fortress of solitude.