Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is a small miracle, a novel in the form of a letter from the Reverend John Ames, 76 and dying, to his 7-year-old son. There are strands of plot in the book — flashbacks involving Ames’ abolitionist grandfather; the explanation of how Ames met his young wife and became a father so late in life; and the story of his friendship with his neighbor Reverend Robert Boughton. But Robinson is really interested in extended rumination, charting Ames’ thoughts about mercy, mortality, forgiveness, grace and doubt in great detail. The pace of these thoughts requires an initial patience from the reader that is amply rewarded. The book’s modest, carefully planed language and its concern with primary human needs make it timeless, but it’s hard not to also marvel at and appreciate the way it functions as a timely corrective. While the proudly ignorant hardcore religious right and arrogant preachers like Richard Dawkins shout past each other, Robinson addresses faith in a way that is both spiritually generous and intellectually serious. Here is religion not as a political cudgel or a claim for moral superiority but as a thoughtful balm for an attentive individual soul.
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. Read an excerpt from Fortress of Solitude. A Fortress of Solitude literary soundtrack. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
● ● ●
● ● ●
● ● ●
Months before Ian McEwan's Atonement was published in the U.S., the galley was being passed from bookseller to bookseller at Book Soup, where I worked at the time. My usually jaded coworkers were effusive, and by the time they had passed the book on to me, my interest was piqued. Atonement introduced me to McEwan, one of the leading literary lights of the last 25 years, a prolific and sometimes controversial novelist. It proved to be quite an introduction. Atonement is told in three parts, nestling the mannered charms of an English country house up against an arresting tale of Britain at war, and it has an ending that turns an admittedly accomplished but conventional novel into a gut-punch of a book that toys with the idea of the reliable narrator and gets one thinking about the ethics of story-telling and the power that a writer has to bend history to his will. McEwan was a Booker winner in 1998 for Amsterdam, but it was Atonement that cemented him as that rare thing, the literary superstar. Read an Excerpt from Atonement. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers