Colin McKay Miller's Reviews > The Fortress of Solitude

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
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May 23, 2008

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bookshelves: novels, favorite-of-this-author, book-club-picks
Read in October, 2006

Storytelling has changed.

It used to be that stories unfolded slowly, sometimes even lethargically, until rising to the climactic finish. Think about the classics you like—most likely: slow start, strong finish. These days, stories begin at a rapid pace, but seem to lose momentum by the end. When I think about recent popular titles, even ones I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, this disappointment is usually present. Maybe it’s the immediacy of the modern-day culture, but it’s rare to find an ending up to the neo-pace set by the initial chapters/hour (in movieland terms). Unfortunately, Jonathan Letham’s The Fortress of Solitude is no different.

The story centers around Dylan Edbus, a young white boy sent to public school in a nearly all-black neighborhood in 1970’s Brooklyn, New York. Attacks and abuse run high, but Dylan forges a friendship with his neighbor, Mingus Rude. Despite their differences in family (Dylan from white hippies, Mingus from a cocaine-addicted, formerly popular black singer), they soon share disappointments in that area. Letham paints a strong picture of the charm and volatility of the Dean Street neighborhood. His social commentary on race relations, comic books, music and decades of life in Brooklyn are strong and rarely heavy-handed.

Then there’s that slow descent from the great first part of the book, the point where the flaws of modern storytelling hit and bleed out the vein of what could have been one of the great books of the decade. It’s a shame, because the first part is amazing. Not casual amazing, but actually amazing in its craft and prose, four stars and reaching higher. Then the rest of the book comes with a shift in time, perspective and quality. Even though the story finishes fantastical and strong (with one of the rare successful surrealistic uses of what could be superhero powers), the drop from the peak set by the first part of the book leaves the reader in too low of a valley to ignore. Three stars.
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06/07 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Carolyn (new) - added it

Carolyn i was struck by your comment about the change in the weighting of storytelling --i wonder if it doesn't have something to do with the rather new business of writing --an agent will toss a manuscript away if you don't hook them pretty much from the beginning.

Colin McKay Miller I think that's true. We are an instant gratification society. I don't think that's necessarily hurt storytelling--in fact, some of those lumbering classics could have used a visceral editor to lean them up quick--but these days, we need to work on our endings. The oomph is spent way to early.

message 3: by Lee (new)

Lee I agree. Many contemporary writers hook you with a good set-up, but the denouement (whee! big word) is a total wash out. Even short fiction suffers from this. I guess the reader is supposed to be so wowed by the time the climax hits, she'll forgive everything that happens afterward.

Thanks for the warning, as I was considering reading this novel.

Colin McKay Miller Sorry I didn't respond to this sooner, Lee. My notifications no longer work, so I only see comments when I stumble across them.

It's still a good read, but after that first part -- where I thought it would enter my top-five for sure -- how could I not be disappointed?

Huh huh huh, 'denouement' has a lot of vowels and stuff.

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