Jonathan Lethem

Jump down to read review of The Fortress of Solitude

"Men and Cartoons"

(Reviewed by Olivia Boler FEB 17, 2005)

What is it, if there actually is anything at all, that gives an individual significance? What makes our lives noteworthy if no one, say, a devoted comic book fan base, cares enough to note them? These are questions of the Zen koan what-is-the-sound-of-one-hand-clapping ilk, but they are also the pervasive theme of the nine short stories in Jonathan Lethem’s latest collection, Men and Cartoons. As the title suggests, men are at the center of these stories, men and their superheroes—or anti-heroes. The stories range from the supernaturally mundane to the banally quirky, but the characters all seem to share a common affliction: insecurity. In order to combat it, they look to the extraordinary, either in themselves or in others.

The first story, “The Vision,” sets the tone. The narrator finds himself neighbors with a man he knew in childhood, Adam. As a kid, Adam paints his face into a mask, dresses sometimes in a cape and costume, and calls himself the Vision. The “real” Vision is a Marvel comic book character with the ability to “vary the density of his body, becoming a ghost if he wished to float through walls or doors, becoming diamond hard if he wished to stop bullets like Superman.” The narrator recalls the aloofness and confidence Adam conveyed, and that as an adult he still possesses. What develops is the narrator’s resentment towards Adam as his own awe instills itself yet again. At a party, the narrator decides in an instant to “out” Adam’s old habit of fancying himself a comic book character, ostensibly to impress a young woman at the party—to appear, in her eyes, heroic; however, since Adam, even without his cape or painted-on mask, is impervious to bullets of a rhetorical nature, the narrator merely exposes himself as cowardly and weak.

Impressing others, or to be more accurate, making an impression on others good or bad, recurs throughout the stories. In the post-apocalyptic “Access Fantasy,” whose ending smacks of Roald Dahl, the yet again unnamed narrator, living with the disenfranchised in his car on a street—literally stuck in traffic along with thousands of other individuals and families—clings haplessly to the idea that he has seen a murder take place on a videotape. The only way to access those with the power to do anything about this is to become a walking advertisement: a patch is placed on his skin, and he is forced to advise passers-by to drink a certain kind of beer. The inability to control what one verbalizes, as well as the notion that there are mysteries out there needing to be solved, also appears throughout Lethem’s work, as it does in his National Book Critics Circle Award–winning novel Motherless Brooklyn.

“Super Goat Man,” which ran in The New Yorker, again plays on the themes of insignificance and insecurity as a young man, seeking a tenure-track post at his alma mater, encounters a flesh-and-blood cult hero from his youth. Super Goat Man, who in his old life was named Ralph Gersten, has adventures that are both “ludicrous and boring…rescuing old ladies from swerving trucks and kittens from lightning-struck trees, and battling dull villains like Vest Man and False Dave.” While Everett (this time, a narrator with a name) eventually acknowledges that “however unglamorous the chores, didn’t kittens need rescuing from trees?” his moment of generosity is lost—much to his chagrin, the reader senses, after the story’s telling—because of a surprising connection to the old goat.

Perhaps the story that best sums up the collection is “Planet Big Zero,” which is about two boyhood friends, both nerds, who grow up into very different men, one a successful cartoonist, the other an alcoholic drifter. As teenagers, they share a practical joke about a bust of Toscanini, covertly affixing a pair of paper glasses to his face each week, which usually disappear, thanks to high school administrators or janitors, by morning: “It was a joke about futility, and at the same time a joke about will, and subjectivity. If we filibustered the glasses into existence between us did it matter that the paper-and-tape glasses didn’t persist?…Were we viable? Did we have to convince others, or was it enough just to convince ourselves?” Lethem’s exploration of super-heroics is an ideal trope for such questions.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 21 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Men and Cartoons at RandomHouse.com

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"The Fortress of Solitude"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple SEP 07, 2003)

In one of the most ambitious novels in recent memory, Jonathan Lethem recreates the sights, sounds, textures, and tensions of one block of Dean Street in Brooklyn, "an island of time," from the 1970's to the present. Dylan Ebdus, the white child of artistic hippie parents, and his best friend, Mingus Rude, the son of a cocaine-addicted black singer, face school and neighborhood dangers together -- Dylan, the only white child on the block, and Mingus, a Boy Scout from Philadelphia and a newcomer to the neighborhood. Their world of spaldeens, skully, stickball, wallball, Read excerptstoopball, and touch exists side by side with the world of bullying, shakedowns, and outright theft which Dylan must face every day on his walks to the public school, which is "a cage for growing, nothing else."

For Dylan, Mingus is "an exploding bomb of possibilities," a friend who is far more street-smart and clever, and far more willing to take chances. Together they shoplift and collect comic books about superheroes, who, unlike them, have the power to conquer injustice and escape from all threats, unharmed. They especially admire the Marvel Comics heroes, like Spiderman and Doctor Doom, but not Superman. Superman, a DC Comics hero, is considered a "flattened reality," an ineffective presence living in his "Fortress of Solitude," much like Dylan's artist father living in his studio.

Superman imagery fills this huge novel, as Dylan and Mingus grow up, and Mingus, in particular, begins to prove his neighborhood influence by leaving his mark in graffiti all over the neighborhood. When Aaron X. Doily, a homeless man who believes he can fly, jumps from a three-story building and, in un-Superman fashion, injures himself, Dylan begins to think about Superman as a real force in life, not just as a comic book character. When he eventually acquires Doily's magic ring, he discovers that if he wears it with a home-made cape, he can fly as an adolescent "Aeroman," a talent he eventually shares with Mingus.

Though the story of the boys and their eventual drifting apart as they grow up is the framework for most of the story, Lethem also concentrates on depicting the neighborhood itself, the attempts at gentrification, the inadequate public school system, the occasional neighborhood fairs, the failures who have returned home from elsewhere, the drug scene, the racial conflicts, and eventually even the prison system. As if this were not already a gigantic canvas, Lethem expands his scope even further by presenting a detailed view of pop culture during the period. Dylan's father is an artist, working on his masterpiece, a gray and white film in which almost nothing changes-thousands of individually drawn frames which are virtually identical. To support Dylan, he accepts commissions to draw the garish covers of pulp science-fiction novels, at which he is enormously successful. Mingus's father, Barnett Rude Junior, has been a soul singer in a group called The Distinctions. He remains in touch with other stars of soul music long after his own career is over, and they sometimes visit the neighborhood. Dylan himself eventually writes a history of Nashville and Motown music, and his references to Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, and Marvin Gaye, in connection with Barnett Rude, add color and depth to the novel.

Lethem's sense of what is important in a child's world and his ability to recreate it with both its joys and fears will keep readers thoroughly entertained at the same time that they are able to see these two boys as emblematic of the larger cultural milieu of Dean Street, Brooklyn, in the 1970's and 80's. His unique images are a constant source of surprise and delight-"Isabel Vendle was a knuckle, her body curled around the gristle of old injuries," "Dylan Ebdus didn't read, he filleted," and winter revealed a "blackened curb with rinds of snow." The novel is complex and huge in its ambition, like an old-fashioned novel one is happy to curl up with for days on end, and it is largely successful both in bringing this huge world to life and in revealing universal themes in unique ways.

The novel is not completely seamless, however. Dylan's early life in the neighborhood is realistic and traumatic, and "Superman" Aaron X. Doily appears to be totally crazy when he crashes from the roof in an attempt at flight, so when Dylan, at the mature age of thirteen makes a Superman cape, the reader is at first startled by the innocence of that action and then somewhat mystified by the magic realism of the flight which results from it. The intense friendship of Dylan and Mingus as children peters out, as childhood relationships do, but Dylan's lack of curiosity about what happens to Mingus after a horrifying incident that occurs when he is fourteen leaves the reader wondering about the depth of his feelings. The mini-essays, which give color and life to the neighborhood, sometimes slow down the narrative. Dylan as an adult is less attractive than Dylan as a child, and Mingus becomes almost a footnote in adulthood, despite the fact that he is the catalyst for the conclusion.

Overall, however, the novel is a huge and imaginative recreation of growing up in the city a generation ago, with Brooklyn itself providing the heartbeat for the characters. "Literary" in the sense that Lethem tells a story that has a purpose and illustrates themes, the novel is also great fun to read, with vibrant characters the reader will long remember and thoughtful observations about the times and culture in which they "lived." Totally different in focus from Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, a detective novel starring a young hero with Tourette's Syndrome, The Fortress of Solitude adds a new dimension to Lethem's rapidly growing portfolio of novels reflecting different genres and unique characters, and enhances his reputation as one of America's most exciting young novelists.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 125 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Fortress of Solitude at MostlyFiction.com



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About the Author:

Jonathan LethemJonathan Lethem is the only novelist listed among Newsweek's "100 People for the New Century." He reinvents familiar genres every time he sits down to write and has a particular fondness for mixing sci-fi with hard-boiled detective fiction. His writings have appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, McSweeney's, and many other periodicals.

Lethem lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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