The Fortress of Solitude is a coming of age in the city novel that captures the emotion of childhood’s isolation and desire for belonging in a uniquely powerful way. Its uniqueness is its strength. The coming of age novel is not new, often trite and draped in clichés, written by authors who are more interested in plot than understanding and empathy. For The Fortress of Solitude, this is not the case.
The setting for Dylan Ebdus’ childhood is Brooklyn in the 70s. And every sentence used to portray it feels as draped in graffiti as the brick walls that comprise the city. The language and descriptions are surprising and delightful, making no sense at all (“Eighth grade’s a distant rumor, a tabled issue, and Dylan knows from experience that the summer between might change anything, everything”), until they make perfect sense. Then the understanding of a world you may or may not know anything about grows stronger, and your empathy for Dylan, trying to find his place, begins to bloom (“But the stories you told yourself– which you pretended to recall as if they’d happened every afternoon of an infinite summer– were really a pocketful of days distorted into legend, another jailhouse exaggeration, like the dimensions of those ballpoint-crosshatched tits or of the purported mountains of blow you once used to enjoy, or how you’d bellowed an avenger’s roar when you squeezed the trigger of a pistol you’d actually brandished in self-pissing terror. How often had that hydrant even been opened? Did you jet water through a car window, what, twice at best? Summer burned a few afternoons long, in the end”). I enjoyed these sentences as much as I enjoyed the novel, amazed at where they ended considering where they began (“The key to mostly anything is pretending your first time *isn’t*”), and in awe of the strange comparisons that shouldn’t work but do (“The cars rushing below knew nothing. People in cars weren’t New Yorkers anyway, they’d suffered some basic misunderstanding. The two boys on the walkway, apparently standing still they were moving faster than the cars.” And “Winter days were static glimpsed between channel flips.”). They created an air of unreality to the story of Dylan’s childhood that connected with my relationship to my childhood which seems completely unreal to me but one hundred percent true. An emotional stamp on my brain rather than a movie to be rewatched at my leisure. And as I journeyed through Lethem’s book those emotional stamps were pressed and triggered, and I recalled my own experiences that were fashioned after Dylan’s.
That unreality plays out further in the plot devices. Specifically, a magical ring that can make its wearer fly or later, turn invisible. Lethem is able to bring Brooklyn to a vibrant reality rooted in conjured images, so when a drug addicted superhero falls from the sky and bestows his power-imbuing ring on Dylan, it feels out of place. Yet the weight of significance of the ring as it weaves in and out of the conscious narrative is undeniable. This disparity between significance and clarity is off-putting, and probably at the core of why The Guardian called it “a ruinously unconvincing subplot.” But I am a sucker for magical realism, and I connected with superheroes as a child in a similar but less devastatingly needy way as Dylan and Mingus and Arthur. I felt clarity in my understanding of believing you could transcend the world you lived in, the lifeline that superheroes provide for children.
The ring thing was admittedly strange and felt underdeveloped. Like an idea for a book that never panned out, the vestiges still clinging to the plot’s skeleton like a malnourished subplot. But maybe necessarily so. Dylan’s discovery of the ring and subsequent sharing of that secret with Mingus bound them together in a shared experience inside of their shared experience. It was the physical manifestation of their friendship. It gave them a shared responsibility to each other that both of them felt as they wandered the streets in an ill-fitting super-suit looking for crime, but only actually stopping themselves from getting yoked. At the end of the day, they never quite understood that it was themselves they were trying to save. The ring was the physical secret that bound them to each other. They used each other to discover their hormonal young bodies and as an outlet for their insecurities and fears. And it was the physical representation of the link that brought them together again after years and the color of their skin sent them tail spinning into vastly different lives as adults.
All of the unspoken elements of a child’s ascent to adulthood were imbued into that magical ring, and so it remained an ever-present part of the background. A plot device used to flesh-out the unstated and subconscious narratives of our lives. Instead of seeing Mingus strive to defend his street from dealers and gangsters-which we discover he did towards the end of the novel-we see him arrested for breaking up a drug deal, dressed as Aeroman. We are able to see Dylan try to make things right for Mingus by giving him the ring. We follow Dylan’s dance of dependence and belonging as the ring shifts owners and usage over time. We get to glimpse, early in the book, the fate they are trying to transcend, as Aaron X. Doily crashes to earth, disgusting and near death, and passes the ring to Dylan, hoping he might fare better. It became the shorthand for all the complexities that go along with the fantastic writing and character work in this book.
I found myself questioning whether the ring’s power was real or perceived. There was no indication for most of the book that anyone other than Mingus and Dylan-children given to fanciful thoughts, and who wanted to believe in its power-witnessed the ring work. In fact, every indication was that it did not work, its power was present only in their solitude. Dylan was only able to use the ring when no one was watching, which is why he gave it to Mingus, who used it to bust drug deals-an act Mingus was capable of without flight. And no tale was told of him using the ring to do so, until he was arrested as Aeroman, where it was reported that he jumped from a tree rather than flew (who was right?). Before that he had tried to use it to save Dylan from a yoking but ended up merely jumping into the river and floating away, unable to fight the current in his cape and ill-fitting suit. Even Dylan’s invisibility was aided by distractions (knocked over ice buckets and skewed papers) until he snuck into jail to free Mingus. A scene that seemed to show the ring’s undeniable power. But the story had already been told, and I had gone through the book questioning the ring’s power. But it didn’t matter. Whether the ring made Dylan and Mingus capable of flight was inconsequential. The ring had made Dylan and Mingus believe they were capable of flight. It made Dylan confident enough to leap and catch previously unobtainable spaldeens, and I envied them for it.
So the ring is strange. More than a little. But so is growing up. It’s an act of facing and overcoming the strange. And Dylan has a lot of strangeness to sift through as he finds his place as a white kid in Brooklyn in the 70s. The ring thing is just one way he, and we, can try to make sense of it all.
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