Monday, March 12, 2012

Jonathan Lethem's "The Fortress Of Solitude" (Steak Knives/Cadillac)

I keep giving Jonathan Lethem chances, and he keeps delivering really solid work.  Short of genius, but solid work nonetheless.  'The Fortress Of Solitude' is more of the same.  Solid, but a little shy of genius.

Half way through this book I was incredibly impressed with it.  Instant classic.  Inspired.  Important.  It's cliché to say 'the ending let me down,' but that's the easiest way of saying it.  Not just the last few, but the last half of the 500 odd pages clotheslined the genius of it.

Up front, it's a brilliant piece of magical realism, well-grounded by incisive social commentary and coming of age chronicling in a 1970's Brooklyn.  This is great reading.  Lethem visits some thick themes inside what's ostensibly a story about a boy with a magic ring (race relations, adolescent sexuality and identity, art in society, family dynamics, drug culture, and more).  As I say, the balance shifts in the second half, leading to a cynical and deflating close.  It didn't need to be heroic, and it didn't need to be a storybook ending, but it did need something more ambitious.

I'm reluctant to say too much about plot.  I think the less baggage you bring to it, the better.  Just knowing about 'the ring' going in made me anxiously wait for its entrance, perhaps making me race too quickly through the early pages.  So yes, there is a magical ring, and it's used artfully, for the most part.  Its greatest moments take place while it's not being worn.  It's how the characters react to the ring itself, and what it represents allegorically that do the heavy lifting.

The second act is more of a reflection on childhood and adolescence, which is pretty standard issue at times.  Regret, rinse and repeat, etc.  Try to make right what was left behind.  That kind of thing.  While I say Lethem has never really let me down, it occurs to me that this is the same difficulty I had in reading his more recent Chronic City (reco'd by Cory Doctorow, who seldom lets me down).  He takes some great concepts and fantastic devices and plays with them capably early on, only to stumble over what it all means in wrapping up the tale.  

I've been a month or so getting to this, with 5 or 6 other books to catch up on, so I'll leave it there.  While I'd recommend this to lovers of magical realism, be prepared for it to peak well before the close.

Jonathan Lethem, casually leaning against a wall.

(For those not pop culture savvy, the title is a reference to Superman's earthly hide-away in the Arctic - his 'Fortress of Solitude'.  Knowing that going in certainly colours your experience and running interpretation of it.)

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