A few months ago, I got a poke to do one of those silly “do this now” things on Facebook. We were asked to pick up the book lying nearest to us and quote a sentence from it on a particular page–I think it was page 58. The book near me at that moment, though I’d read it sometime prior, was Junot Díaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I grabbed it, flipped open to the directed page–and found there one perfect sentence. I remember thinking, “Damn, you can flip this book open anywhere and find perfection. Wow.” This book has gotten tons of attention–major prizes, big reviews, bestselling status–but it’s nice to see that a novel so well-crafted, so funny, so idiosyncratic, so…wondrous, can still capture the imagination of large audiences. If you haven’t read it yet, you should.
I think of Jonathan Lethem as the poet laureate of gentrification. This is true in the literal sense — in the case of the subject of this piece, The Fortress of Solitude, and to a somewhat lesser extent with his follow up to it, You Don’t Love Me Yet — in that he writes about neighborhoods in transition: Gowanus in Brooklyn and Echo Park in Los Angeles. But Lethem is also an author gentrifying genre fiction – noir thriller and sci-fi – as he did in his earlier novels Gun with Occasional Music and Girl in a Landscape. Perhaps it’s a kind of reverse gentrification, in that case.
The Fortress of Solitude is the tale of Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, friends across the color line in the evolving neighborhood of Gowanus or Boerum Hill, as it would come to be called. Their racial difference hangs over every interaction in the book, despite their shared tastes in comic books and music. Split into multiple parts, divided by something that already seems incredibly ancient – a liner note – the book is shot through with pop culture, punk rock trivia and super powers. At its best moments, the book perfectly describes a time and a place in near constant transformation, and in realizing two great characters, in Dylan and Mingus. At its worst, it leaves itself open to charges of a kind of forced exotification, as the adult Dylan seems to have collected artifacts of African-American culture – most notably an African-American girlfriend – as one might the relics of a lost civilization.
You have to admire Lethem’s bravery — he fearlessly addresses race in a way that most white writers wouldn’t dare. At the same time, he embraces his geek origins, blending together hip-hop, punk, graffiti art, avant guard film and comic book culture into a dazzling pastiche. While it will likely be his earlier book Motherless Brooklyn that solidifies his reputation, The Fortress of Solitude remains his “biggest” novel to date, a book that tries to stand next to the other greats of the decade. That it doesn’t entirely succeed does little to diminish Lethem’s stature as one of the decade’s great writers.
That is, before colleges offered courses in “flash fiction,” Davis was patiently crafting sentences “as clean as a bone” (to crib from James Baldwin) and joining these sentences together in small, miraculous assemblages. Here’s one from Varieties of Disturbance called “Collaboration With Fly”:
I put that word on the page,
but he added the apostrophe.
Here’s another, called “Lonely”:
No one is calling me. I can’t check the answering machine because I have been here all this time. If I go out, someone may call while I’m out. Then I can check the answering machine when I come back in.
Like the color fields of Mark Rothko or the sculpture of Donald Judd, Davis’ stories give off a disarming appearance of simplicity. However, as anyone who’s ever tried to work in her manner without collapsing into mannerism will attest, there is tremendous art behind the artlessness. These assemblages are, in fact, tools, their purpose to wrench us a little bit out of our habitual ways of moving through the world. The word Disturbance is characteristically apt and elegant – le mot juste.
As is “Variety.” Like Davis’ other sterling collection of this decade, Samuel Johnson is Indignant, Varieties of Disturbance intermingles stories in the classic Davis mode with longer and more unusual experiments. Several of these – “We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders,” “Mrs. D and Her Maids,” “Cape Cod Diary” – are among my favorite pieces here.
In Davis’ hands, things are both exactly what they are and not quite what they seem, and after an hour or so, Varieties of Disturbance starts to look less like a collection of experimental fiction and more like an adventure story: there’s no telling what the next page will bring.
(It’s also worth mentioning that this book has one of the best covers of the millennium.)
Be Near Me, by Andrew O’Hagan
The Beauty of the Husband, by Anne Carson
The Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction, edited by Álvaro Uribe and Olivia E. Sears
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood
The Book Against God, by James Wood
The Death of Sweet Mister, by Daniel Woodrell
The Diviners, by Rick Moody (Our review)
Do Everything in the Dark, by Gary Indiana
The Dog of the Marriage, by Amy Hempel
The Dying Animal, by Philip Roth
Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, by Carrie Tiffany
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, by Wells Tower (Our review)
Evidence of Things Unseen, by Marianne Wiggins
Falling Man, by Don DeLillo
The Farther Shore, by Matthew Eck
The Lazarus Project, by Aleksander Hemon (Our review)
Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name, by Vendela Vida
Like You’d Understand, Anyway, by Jim Shepard
The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst (Our review)
Love Creeps, by Amanda Filipacchi
The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, by Peter Orner
Servants of the Map, by Andrea Barrett
The Singing Fish, by Peter Markus
The Slynx, by Tatyana Tolstaya (Our review)
Snow, by Orhan Pamuk (Our review)
What Was She Thinking? : Notes on a Scandal, by Zoe Heller (Our interview)
When the Emperor Was Divine, by Julie Otsuka
When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Yonder Stands Your Orphan, by Barry Hannah
You Shall Know Our Velocity, by Dave Eggers
Zeroville, by Steve Erickson