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The fortress of loneliness, the 2003 novel by Jonathan Lethem that chooses the Vox Book Club for May, seems to take place in memory in a single golden childhood summer. It’s a shimmering evocation of a Brooklyn kid’s vacation that feels almost painfully beautiful: the days are eternal, the spadeens bounce pink and perfect against the brownstone walls, the water from the hydrants shockingly cold—and at times, when you in the air to catch a wallball, it almost seems like you can fly.
“But the stories you told yourself — which you pretended to remember as if they happened every afternoon of an unending summer — were really a bag full of days turned into legend,” Mingus Rude thinks toward the end of the film. Fortress‘s tragically mature second half. “How many times had that hydrant even been open? Have you run water through a car window, what, twice at best? In the end, the summer only burned for a few afternoons.”
Like that other great American children’s novel, petite women† The fortress of loneliness is based on a binary number: the first half devoted to the beautiful, cruel pleasures and pains of a childhood remembered with painful emotional intensity, and the second to mourning the death of that childhood and reckoning with its uneasy ghosts. “My childhood was the only part of my life that wasn’t, er, overwhelmed with my childhood,” 35-year-old Dylan Ebdus explains to a disenchanted girlfriend who wants to know why he doesn’t let go of a shrine from his Brooklyn days.
Dylan spends his childhood in seedy Gowanus in the 1970s, just as that neighborhood is about to transform itself into boho Boerum Hill. Dylan’s parents are among the first wave of white gentrifiers, a pair of progressive hippies who chase nerdy white Dylan into the predominately black neighborhood to forge a post-racial utopia, while bragging to their friends that he’s one of three white people. children is school in its entirety.
However, Dylan finds no utopia in Gowanus. As we learn in the section titled “Underberg,” Dylan is gentle, and he clearly has the racial and class privilege it takes to make his way out of Brooklyn, given enough time. Together, these facts mark him as a target for what is known locally as “yoking,” a quasi-robbery carried out under the guise of camaraderie that frees Dylan from his pocket money on a daily basis.
Dylan’s refuge comes in the form of Mingus Rude, the charismatic mixed son of an almost famous soul singer, and the natural leader of the block. Mingus takes Dylan under his wing, including him in ball games, teaching him shoplifting and tagging. Dylan immediately adores Mingus and their friendship takes on a romantic intensity that turns the rough streets of Brooklyn into a parental paradise.
In an early and innocent echo of the cultural appropriation he will cynically continue as an adult, Dylan begins writing Mingus’ tag for him all over the street. But Dylan and Mingus’ team wasn’t built to survive the pressures of 1970s Brooklyn. Intruders intervene, skewed mirror images of both Dylan and Mingus: a nerdy white boy who despises Dylan almost as much as he despises himself; a black boy who fears Dylan as he will not let himself be afraid of Mingus. Dylan tests in a highly segregated magnet school and wanders into Manhattan and the punk scene, where he is often replaced to buy drugs. Mingus stays in Gowanus and starts selling drugs.
What keeps Dylan and Mingus connected for a while is their shared secret: a magical ring that allows them to fly. They use it to fight crime.
By now it’s a well-known move to include a comic book as a magic ring in a literary novel, but when Lethem pulled this trick in 2003, it was still a bold formal innovation. It functions here as a shining hope of redemption: if there’s anything that can defeat America’s structural racism and just love these two guys, it’s got to be something magical.
Instead, the magic of the ring fails to achieve the impossible. Dylan and Mingus drift apart.
In the second half of the novel, Dylan is an embittered 35-year-old music critic who lives in Berkeley, cherishes the street value he gets from his childhood in Brooklyn and his black girlfriend, and fantasizes about cheating on that girlfriend with a blonde cocktail waitress. Mingus is a drug addict who has cycled in and out of prison since he was 18.
The critical consensus is that the second half of Fortress, which Dylan tells in the first person after holding us with a third person for the entire first half, is the weaker part of this novel. Titled “Prisonaires,” it lacks the forward drive and glittering beauty of the first half, instead meandering aimlessly through one satirical set piece after another, before Dylan finally finds his way back to Brooklyn and Mingus, and Fortress finds its purpose again.
But it’s that very quiet chaos in “Prisonaires” that makes “Underberg” shine all the more brightly afterwards, and makes you feel all the more strongly what Dylan has lost. Fortress of Solitude is a heartbreak novel, and Dylan without Mingus is a heartbroken man. Therefore Fortress only starts to rise again when it finally gets fully into Mingus’s voice, and we get the full tragedy of his demise.
Share your opinion about The fortress of loneliness in the comments below, and make sure you RSVP to our upcoming live discussion event with Jonathan Lethem† Meanwhile, subscribe to the Vox Book Club newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything.
- The critic James Wood famously stated: Fortress a mixed review in the New Republic upon his release. eight years later, Lethem responded with an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, disagreeing with the fact that Wood didn’t even mention the magic ring in the middle of the book. A classic literary battle!
- The fortress of loneliness was adapted into a very flawed and very beautiful musical in the 2010s, with music by the late great Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson† It was unlucky to premiere at the Public Theater in 2015, the same season as Hamilton, so there was very little oxygen in the room for anyone else, but at least it did well enough to deserve a cast album. You can listen to the whole thing here†
- The Camden College section of Fortress is based on Lethem’s time at Bennington College, where he and Bret Easton Ellis (american psychopath) and Donna Tartt (choice of the Vox Book Club) Secret History† Lethem is one of many interviewed characters in this very good oral history of the eraas well as this almost-so-good podcast on the same subject.
- Lethem also blogs on Medium† A nice place to check out some of his cultural critique.
- In his LARB essayLethem writes that the ring is a “formal discontinuity” so that the book “breaks its own ‘realism’ – mimeticism is the word I prefer – in crisis by insisting on eerie events.” A similar crisis of mimeticism may be read in Abraham Ebdus’s rejection of figurative art, which he later embraces with his psychedelic paperback covers. What will this crisis bring?
- Why do you think Marvel geek Dylan uses the DC image of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude as the central metaphor of this novel?
- The other defining absence in Dylan’s life, outside of Mingus, is the absence of his mother, Rachel, who fled Brooklyn early on and never seems to look back. On the last pages of FortressDylan finally goes after her. How does that storyline work for you?
- On the last pages of Fortress, Dylan muses on the idea of a ‘middle space’ where the utopia his parents sought in Gowanus might exist, where DJs jam in the schoolyards and ‘Mingus Rude always grooved fat spalden pitches, born home runs’. He seems to suggest that such middle spaces are always ephemeral in real life and that they can only exist eternally in art. Agree? Disagree?