The Fortress of Solitude

Jonathan Lethem

Book cover

This was a very good book, but in my mind, I can’t help but compare it to “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”, which is too bad because K+C is one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. Both take place largely in New York, both are about male friendship, and both are in some way about comic books. Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon are of the same generation of authors (born less than a year apart, actually).

First, Lethem is not quite the prose stylist that Chabon is. Although Chabon’s style is very ornate, I like it a lot, and I think it is a more interesting way to tell a story about boys growing up.

Second, I’m not sure exactly what the difference is, but I never loved Dylan Ebdus the way I loved Sammy Clay and Joe Kavalier. (Mingus Rude comes closer, maybe, but he fades out of the story too soon.) I think Lethem intended it this way, wanted Dylan to come off as a flawed character of uncertain merits. But Kavalier and Clay were both also flawed, and that didn’t get in the way of the lovable overflowing fount of humanity in each one of them.

It seemed to me like Lethem shied away from difficult topics when they presented themselves. Kavalier and Clay each had their own major personal crisis to wrestle with (separation from family, homosexuality) and Chabon depicts each of those struggles head-on. In contrast, Dylan Ebdus never confronts a real, adult problem–we see him struggling with schoolyard bullying and petty crime, and a collapsing relationship later that we never really care about. Mingus ends up having real problems, but he has already started to fade out of the story by the time they’ve begun, and their full extent is hastily narrated in one of the last chapters.

I also didn’t like the fantastical elements of the story. When they first started appearing, I assumed that they were supposed to represent the boys’ fantasies, and not to be taken literally. But as the book progresses they become a more and more integral part of the story until you have no choice but to accept them at face value. I should note that I’m a huge Murakami fan so I have no problem with surreal events, but HM seems to handle them much more artfully than does JL.

For all that, I did really like the book, and if my review is mostly negative, it’s only because it felt to me like the book came so close to being great, but fell just short in a number of ways.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars