I read Cloud Atlas with two contradictory impulses: first to let loose a yodel, dance a fandango, wrestle an alligator, seize strangers by the hair and hold them firmly until they, too, read this shockingly beautiful Matryoshka doll of a book; second, to pout alone in the darkness under my desk. My first reaction was as a dazzled reader who saw each movement of the book as David Mitchell one-upping himself with his genre-bending (historical, mystery, science fiction), his sublime prose, his broad and breathtaking ideas. The other was as a writer who was intimidated almost to petrification by the mere idea that such a book exists and was written by someone of my generation. It is hard not to make sweeping pronouncements after having lived this book, and, still under its spell three years after I read it, I would say: yes, yes, yes, this is the way novels should be written, with such electric ambition, with such exhilarating sweep.
Growing up in Scotland, I knew several farmers who pronounced with Delphic confidence on the weather. On a clear December day they would forecast a blizzard; in the middle of rain they would claim a drought was coming.
In the spring and summer of 2001, people who were listening could hear The Corrections coming. This oddly titled novel, by this interesting writer, was finally about to emerge. It was published on September 1st. and, despite everything else that happened that autumn, there was an unusual degree of excitement around the book, not just among critics but among readers. People read it, people talked about it, people registered that something important had occurred.
The novel itself opens with a storm. “You could feel that something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder.” In the gorgeous, cascading pages that follow, those gusts blow through the Lambert family. Illuminated by Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant prose, bill paying, grocery shopping, depression, Christmas holidays, a walk to the corner shop become subjects of breathless interest and, often, wild humor. Over and over he gives us the deep pleasure of seeing the world around us – and the world inside us – in new ways. For once, the prophets were right.
Snow on the mountain. The winged horseman is coming. Read The Corrections.
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.
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