Lethem scales high in epic 'Fortress'

By CASEY SEILER, Entertainment editor
First published: Sunday, October 19, 2003

In comic book parlance, they are known as "secret origins" -- the pertinent details concerning how Peter Parker gained spider strength, or the identity of Clark Kent's birth parents. Jonathan Lethem's abundant new novel, "The Fortress of Solitude" (Doubleday, 511 pages, $26), is a secret origin story as Saul Bellow might have imagined it, if he had grown up reading Marvel Comics.

It's fitting that Lethem's book is being released 50 years to the month after Bellow's breakthrough novel, "The Adventures of Augie March." In its broad range of concerns -- cocaine to avant-garde filmmaking, soul music to graffiti art -- and the almost tidal push of Lethem's writing, "The Fortress of Solitude" displays an American writer chewing off a very big bite.

And also like "Augie March," Lethem's novel takes place in a big city that is made to feel like a small town. For Bellow, it was Chicago; for Lethem, it's the borough of Brooklyn.

"I was often dreaming my way back to Brooklyn as I wrote this book," said Lethem, "and I think in some ways that made it stronger, because it kind of encapsulates this pattern of loving this place but then leaving it behind -- but pining for it, yearning for it."

Aptly enough, Lethem (pronounced LEE-them) spoke from his Brooklyn apartment as he was "walking out the door" to embark on another leg of an extensive book tour. On Tuesday, the author visits the New York State Writers Institute in a reading at the University at Albany.

Funny, harrowing and tragic in roughly equal measure, the novel tells the story of Dylan Ebdus, the son of a noble but monastic artist father and a tough leftie mother who disappears before Dylan's 11th birthday. The main engine of the novel is Dylan's friendship with Mingus Rude, the similarly motherless son of a darkly eccentric soul singer disappearing down a rabbit hole of addiction.

The story's wild card is Dylan's discovery of a mysterious ring that confers superpowers: first flight, then invisibility. As the boys pass into troubled adulthood, the ring comes to embody the unredeemed dreams and aches of their shared childhood.

Drowning in prose

Lethem's first novels, including "Gun, with Occasional Music" (1994) and "As She Climbed Across the Table" ('97), were playful, literary, science fiction novels, far from the sprawling structure of "Fortress."

"In the past, I've written a lot of relatively tightly structured books that were bound up in a concept or where the plot was very prominent," said Lethem, 38. "I wanted this to be one of those oceanic books where you felt like you were kind of drowning in it -- that there was no handhold -- but that also had the music that emotion gives the sentences and the paragraphs."

It took four years to write, in places ranging from Toronto to "hotel lobbies in Germany"; Lethem spent several weeks working on it at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs. Although the book includes several portraits of artists locked in painful struggles with their work, Lethem thinks of this novel's creation as "pretty thrilling."

"I had been envisioning it for so long," he said. "There were dark areas where I didn't know as much about what I wanted to do, but I wouldn't say that any portion of this book came hard -- it was kind of a magical four years as a writer. I'd like to live that way often, but you don't get to."

The neighborhood

The book is, to a certain degree, autobiographical. Lethem grew up in Dylan and Mingus' neighborhood, and returned after a decade in Berkeley, Calif. The borough provided the setting for his 1999 novel "Motherless Brooklyn," a bent whodunit featuring a Tourette's-afflicted protagonist, that won the National Book Critics Circle Award -- a reception that the writer calls "a big invitation" to tackle something larger.'

"People ask about (the autobiographical aspect) all the time," he said. "I'm not terribly interested in going over it point by point and making all the distinctions. There are hundreds of divergences, and overlaps. But the thing that is of course unmistakable, and that I'm eager to say, is that it's a spiritually autobiographical book. ... Talking about the details after that, it's just sort of curiosity."

Lethem's experience with the science fiction community provided several rather sharp sequences in the new book, including an extended sequence at ForbiddenCon, a sci-fi convention awash in a weird mix of grandiloquence and geekery.

"I certainly was reporting on some stuff that I know," Lethem said. "But for me the science-fiction convention is one of an almost innumerable number of pocket utopias, attempted communities."

The book is full of them, ranging from the block where the children engage in epic, cryptic street games to a drug-addled portrait of a Vermont college very much like Bennington, which Lethem attended.

"I only knew this in retrospect," he said, "but if I look at the book now it's very concerned with versions of community, and the fragility of community, and the attempt to make a kind of Bohemian utopia -- an idyllic place where there's no class. And the science fiction community is one of those."

Subtle Distinctions

The novel's seventh-inning stretch is a section titled "Liner Note," in which Dylan -- grown up into an embittered, self-loathing music writer -- provides the annotations for a CD box set of music by Mingus' father. This chunk of the book was published in the journal Tin House, and was convincing enough to send several readers looking for the discography of the fictional group, the Subtle Distinctions.

"The research was really rewarding," Lethem said. "It goes in the 'nice work if you can get it' category to have justification for buying a zillion soul CDs. I'm pretty proud of the 'Liner Note,' in its nerdy way."

Lethem's current book tour, he said, feels like a "victory lap." After the marketing push is completed, he's planning to turn his hand to a set of short stories. His profile has already risen, but Brooklyn's residents treat him much the same.

"Right in this neighborhood, people who are interested in that sort of thing have long since spotted me -- 'Motherless Brooklyn' took care of that," he said. "But new Yorkers are cool customers; they're not to interested in giving it up to someone who could be considered a local celebrity. So I pretty much get to have it both ways.

"Every now and then, someone will introduce themselves or want to high-five me, but I don't have any real invasion of my privacy."

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2003, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Jonathan Lethem