Synopses & Reviews
This is the story of two boys, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude. They are friends and neighbors, but because Dylan is white and Mingus is black, their friendship is not simple. This is the story of their Brooklyn neighborhood, which is almost exclusively black despite the first whispers of something that will become known as "gentrification."
This is the story of 1970s America, a time when the most simple human decisions what music you listen to, whether to speak to the kid in the seat next to you, whether to give up your lunch money are laden with potential political, social and racial disaster. This is the story of 1990s America, when no one cared anymore.
This is the story of punk, that easy white rebellion, and crack, that monstrous plague. This is the story of the loneliness of the avant-garde artist and the exuberance of the graffiti artist.
This is the story of what would happen if two teenaged boys obsessed with comic book heroes actually had superpowers: They would screw up their lives.
This is the story of joyous afternoons of stickball and dreaded years of schoolyard extortion. This is the story of belonging to a society that doesn't accept you. This is the story of prison and of college, of Brooklyn and Berkeley, of soul and rap, of murder and redemption.
This is the story Jonathan Lethem was born to tell. This is The Fortress of Solitude.
"[E]motionally compelling....Transcending category while defying expectation, the book starts out sounding like Richard Price, morphs into an unlikely Nick Hornby-Michael Chabon hybrid and resolves itself as only a Jonathan Lethem novel can." Don McLeese, Book Magazine
"Lethem is a tremendous writer, and in the first half he uses magnificent language to capture the complexity of a child's worldview....[T]his often-excellent novel labors under the weight of its ambition." Booklist
"[D]azzling but fundamentally flawed...at once wildly ambitious and quietly intimate....Mr. Lethem has written a novel with many defects, but a novel that nonetheless attests to his potent storytelling talents." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"[S]prawling, ambitious....[W]hile Lethem is an impressively savvy writer on race, women come and go without adding much weight to his story. This flawed but daring work is recommended for all general collections." Library Journal
"Lethem has done a number of things here, any one of which is impossible for any but the very finest novelists. He has vividly and lovingly and truthfully, through thrilling evocation of its music, its popular culture, its street games, argot, pharmacology, social mores and racial politics, recreated a world, a moment in history that I would have thought lost and irrecoverable. He has created, in young Dylan, a genuine literary hero. He has reinvented and reinvigorated the myths of the superhero, of black-white relations, of New York City itself. But most of all, from my point of view, he captures precisely as only a great novelist can how it feels to love the world that is, on a daily basis, kicking your ass." Michael Chabon, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Wonder Boys
"The Fortress of Solitude is luminous, stinging with truth and life. A story of two boys, a Brooklyn story, an American story that gives in its very specificity the force of the universal." Paula Fox, author of Desperate Characters and Borrowed Finery
"[C]onfirms Lethem's status as the poet of Brooklyn....[S]tunning, disturbing and authoritatively observed....Scary and funny and seriously surreal, the novel hurtles on a trajectory that feels inevitable." Publishers Weekly
"[B]ig, personal, sometimes breathtaking, and sometimes disappointing....[T]errifically entertaining: a fine, rich, thoughtful novel from one of our best writers." Kirkus Reviews
"[A] stunner...flawlessly evoked, original, and vividly imagined....The final 200 pages maunder, deflate, and stumble through time....As long as Fortress stays earthbound, it soars. (Grade: B+)" Mark Harris, Entertainment Weekly
"[A] novel of boundless energy and startling insight about the conundrum adults impose on children by demanding that they live the ideal of integration that we've been unable to demonstrate ourselves....Lethem's mock-heroic voice, full of innocence and mischief, perfectly captures the challenges of childhood, the desperation to belong, the acute sensitivity to embarrassment, the unquestioning endurance of adults' absurd behavior....This is daring stuff, as dazzling for its style as for its politics." Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor (read the entire CSM review)
"Lethem is the new poet of Brooklyn the new Whitman, even, whose bold imagination and sheer love of words defy all forms and expectations and place him among this country's foremost novelists....To say that Lethem bends the rules, pushes the envelope and extends the possibilities of fiction is to state only part of the case. He's defiant, delicious, in his refusal to be pinned....The book is a Bildungsroman in the exact sense, the story of Dylan's self-development in the context of place and time. It's also a comedy, a history and a fantasy, where the strange and supernatural mix freely with the solid and austere, as they do in life, in memory, in everyone's autobiography." Peter Kurth, Salon.com (read the entire Salon review)
"[I]n Dylan and Mingus's relationship, Lethem has created a profound, sad, and perfectly crafted story." Adrienne Miller, Esquire (read the entire Esquire review)
"There is a genuine atmosphere of cognitive novelty; Lethem manages to combine childish innocence and adult knowingness (not just childish knowingness) in ways that ought to fail but invariably delight and intrigue.
And Lethem delights and intrigues in the end because, while a perfectly adept theorizer, he is a much better painter. His street scenes, his pictures from childhood, have a true coloration; they are drawn, not just spoken....Alas, the thirtysomething Dylan turns out to be a vague character; he talks like Lethem's prose, which is pleasant when the prose is good, but is hardly very distinguishing....It as if the delicate balance of the novel's earlier style has been turned inside out." James Wood, The New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)
About the Author
Jonathan Lethem is the author of five novels, including Gun, With Occasion Music, and Girl in Landscape. His most recent, Motherless Brooklyn, was named Novel of the Year by Esquire and won The National Book Critics Circle Award and the Salon Book Award. He is also the author of the story collection, The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye and the novella This Shape Were In. He edited The Vintage Book of Amnesia, guest-edited The Years Best Music Writing 2002, and was the founding fiction editor of Fence Magazine. His writings have appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, McSweeneys, and many other periodicals. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Reading Group Guide
1. Why has Jonathan Lethem titled his novel The Fortress of Solitude
? Where does the phrase come from? In what ways is Dylan Ebdus a solitary child? In what ways does he live inside a fortress?
2. What does The Fortress of Solitude reveal about the dynamics of childhood friendships? What kind of friendship does Dylan have with Mingus Rude? With Arthur Lomb? Why does Dylan want so badly to be accepted by Mingus?
3. The Fortress of Solitude is a realistic novel, except for one fantastic element: the magic ring that enables its wearer to fly and to become invisible. Why has Lethem included the ring in the story? What effect does it have on Dylan? How is the ring crucial to the plot of the novel?
4. When Mingus asks Dylan if “everything” is cool, Dylan thinks of his science teacher explaining that “the universe was reportedly exploding in slow motion, everything falling away from everything else at a fixed rate. It was a good enough explanation for now” [p. 118]. Why does Dylan think of this theory at this moment? How does it explain Dylans neighborhood and home life?
5. What effect do comic books, pop music, and other aspects of popular culture have on the characters in The Fortress of Solitude? How is Dylans sense of self shaped by his fascination with comic book superheroes?
6. When he sees Doses tag on a sleeping homeless man, Abraham tells Dylan, “Maybe this is just a terrible place. Maybe in these streets right and wrong are confused, so you and your friends run insane like animals that would do this to a human person” [p. 141]. Is Abraham correct in his assessment? How does the Gowanus neighborhood affect those who grow up in it?
7. Abby tells Dylan, “Your childhood is some privileged sanctuary you live in all the time, instead of here with me” [p. 316-17]. Why is Dylan so obsessed with understanding his childhood? How have his childhood experiences made it harder for him to connect with others?
8. As Dylan is attempting to rescue Mingus from prison, he thinks of the “ordinary angst” hed earned as a “grown-up Californian . . . an author of liner notes, an inadequate boyfriend,” and asks himself: “How could I have thrown over these attainments for this chimera of rescue?” [p. 488]. Why does he take such risks to rescue Mingus? What are his real reasons for offering the ring to Robert Woolfolk?
9. In what ways is The Fortress of Solitude a satirical novel? How are Hollywood and private school education depicted in the novel? How does Lethem present the world of science fiction publishing?
10. Near the end of the novel, Abby tells Dylan, “I guess being enthralled with negritude still beats self-reflection every time” [p. 457]. Is it true that Dylan is obsessed with race? Does he use that obsession to avoid self-knowledge? What is he afraid to discover about himself?
11. When Dylan leaves Croft Vendle, he thinks: “He wasnt the father I never had. . . . Abraham was the father I never had, and Rachel was the mother I never had, and Gowanus or Boerum Hill was the home I never had, everything was only itself however many names it carried” [p. 506]. In what sense is it true that Dylan grew up without a mother or a father or a home? How have these absences affected him?
12. The Fortress of Solitude is a vivid evocation of a particular period and place, as seen through the eyes of Dylan Ebdus, and while the novel does not overtly make any large statements about race relations, what does it suggest about how blacks and whites see each other? What scenes particularly dramatize the tensions between blacks and whites in Brooklyn?
13. The Fortress of Solitude includes two self-contained chapters, “Liner Note” and “Prisonaires,” which function almost as set pieces. Why has Lethem included these? How are they different from the rest of the narrative? What do they reveal about Dylan?
14. In interviews, Jonathan Lethem has described the novel as structured like a musical boxed set. In what ways is this novel reminiscent of a boxed set? Why might Lethem have chosen this structure?
15. Much of The Fortress of Solitude concerns the gentrification of Gowanus into Boerum Hill. How has the neighborhood changed when Dylan returns at the end of the novel? Has the neighborhood been genuinely improved or simply turned into another playground for the trendy? What does Dylan mean when he says: “A gentrification was the scar left by a dream, Utopia the show which always closed on opening night”? [p. 508]
16. At the end of the novel, Dylan thinks of his mother pushing him into nearly all-black public schools “which were becoming only rehearsals for prison. Her mistake was so beautiful, so stupid, so American” [p. 508]. Why does Dylan think it was a mistake for Rachel to send him to public school? What does Dylan mean when he calls that mistake beautiful, stupid, and American?
Read an exclusive essay by Jonathan Lethem