I just finished reading Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude. It was a good book, although not quite what I expected. I had been led to believe it was a book about comic books, something like the Marvel or silver age equivalent of Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay (which if you haven’t read you should run out and BUY RIGHT NOW because its a great book). Lethem had written a really fabulous essay on Random House’s web site about comic books, about the emotional differences between Marvel and DC characters, and about how growing up with comics has influenced a whole bunch of writers of a Certain Age (my age, actually, which is probably why the essay, and novels about comics, resonate so much with me). The essay has incredibly deep paragraphs like this:
On the other hand, a prime run of the classic Kirby/Lee Fantastic Four, or the Byrne/Claremont X-Men, if not quite Proustian, is a genuine reading experience. The ensembles suffer, reflect, change. And suffer again. If Mad Magazine is a child’s primer in irony, Marvel is its equal in angst. (The first romantic loss for a lot of guys my age was Gwen Stacy’s death at the hands of the Hobgoblin in Spiderman #X [tk].) Marvel’s universe is loaded with tortured and ambiguous figures, like Black Bolt and The Vision and Warlock, who refuse to decant into pop art. Opaque at first, they deepen with exposure.
I mean, like, whoa. Between the comics essay and the fact that I had read Lethem’s first novel a long time ago (Gun with Occasional Music, a terrific surreal SF/Mystery) I figured Fortress would be right up my alley.
Well, its a good book. But its not really about comics. And its not a surreal SF/mystery. Jonathan Lethem apparently went literary in the intervening years between Gun and this book, which is a fine thing, if you like that kind of thing. This is a book about being a white kid and growing up in a very black neighborhood in Brooklyn, about race relations and drugs and violence and pop music — and being suddenly granted superhero powers. Its tremendously well written — it has a really strong sense of place and time, at least in the first half where he describes the block in which the narrator grows up. The second half is weaker, and the superhero plot device feels kind of out of place, a sort of magical realism stuck in the middle of an all too hyper-real reality.
Overall: If you like literary novels its worth a read. I’m glad I read it. But I’m still looking for the great comics novel (besides Kavalier & Clay).