Episodic narratives – Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude

Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude shows that the fantastic can be a way of not escaping the world, but exploring it in a very different way. Instead of relying on verisimilitude to allow the reader to escape the world. Jonathan Lethem’s work is a kaleidoscope of influences, some of which I see, some I do not. The enduring question of what one does about culture and influence is one that has been dominated to some extent by Harold Bloom’s work, to which the title of The Ecstasy of Influence is a nod, refusal and reaction. Rather than being surprised or anxious about creating something new, Lethem and his colleagues readily take on the influences and openly use them.

What is really being asked, by both Lethem and Chabon, is: if genre is escapist, what is being escaped? Conversely it also wants to know is whether genre is escapist or in fact, exploratory? It reveals the world in a new way. In Amnesia Moon, we see the travellers trying to escape from a series of virtual worlds until they come to the truth of the issue, that their life is a mediated escape from a catastrophe. Only by recognising the world as something artificial and malleable, can the travellers move on.

In the Fortress of Solitude, or the borough of Brooklyn as told from somebody who lives there, Dylan Ebdus is immersed in a world which is created of art. His father is an artists who obsessed over a film which he will never release. He and his friends become obsessed by comics in a way which only a fan can comprehend. He sees the world as shades of comic artists or in artists’ ways, such as de Kooning. In acts of youthful rebellion, Dylan and his friend, Mingus, become involved in graffiti and motion-tagging, the tagging of trains in motion. In a small way, the begin to explore how to write on the world and to make its fabric theirs, even if temporary and encoded in their own language.

Ruminating on comics, Lethem comments that the comics were “treated as a presence delicately alive, some piece of still-beating flesh that he and Dylan might be capable of fixing by their absolute fixity of attention, by their reverence”(p 69). Art allows them to see the world as something which is in need of attention and to begin to either fix or put it into a plaster cast for protection whilst healing. We come back to the Clutean view of the fantastic world, the seasonal cycle of the fantastic genres.

Admitting that it takes skill to read and maintain the overlapping layers of the episodic comic stories, Dylan, Art and Mingus’s obsessions encourage them to learn how to really see it. it is, however, Dylan’s relative outsider status means that he can see the shifting layers of the world, in a style reminiscent of Umberto Eco and the  way that he reveals the world in books and layers of story, but remains on the edge of them and thus resists their siren calls to become obsessively lost to the point where meaning is rendered moot.

By mixing and admitting many influences and the different media, this world is made interesting and more vital. At some point it allows Dylan to explore and tag the world. In tagging it he begins to learn and to apply a language to express the world. Perhaps I am tending towards the idea of semiotics, langue and parole but that is perhaps where the fantastic is at its strongest. Rather tan having to try to find the way of rendering the world as something which is slightly odd, the reader is encouraged into the world and allowed a variety of hooks and touch stones. We come back to the  New Weird bringing in of different types of influence but the story is not reliant upon the reader knowing the references to appreciate the story. It reverses the High Modernism use of influences where the meaning of the story can only be revealed by knowing the referents. Lethem and Chabon’s comic novels revel in comics history (the 1970s Marvel upheaval for Lethem and the need for superheroes in the 1940s for Chabon) but are not reliant on the reader knowing about this. It is a way of seeing the world and working through a passion. The Amazing adventures of Kavalier and Clay works as an alternate history and a Jewish novel and the Fortress of Solitude is a psycho-geography of a section of New York.
The title itself is a reference to Superman’s fortress where he retreats to from the world and recuperates. Lethem does this with culture but comes back out. It is a restorative tonic which allows him to develop his take on the world and use it as a touchstone though with the awareness that the world has gone and then come back to it.

Dylan has the same feeling. His father is lost in an obsession and work which the reader instinctively knows will disappear. We can see Mingus approach with the same obsessive attention to comics and their narratives. By accepting it as part of him but being able to move on, Dylan truly sees the world as it might be. He finds an escape velocity from the world but discovers new languages of describing it. His own control of the languages, dialects and tones means that he is able to move ahead.

By accepting, using and drawing from a range of genres and sources (including the detective and noir genres in Amnesia Moon and Motherless Brooklyn), Lethem talks about a part of New York and American cultural history and brings it to life. By trusting the readers to enjoy the work and to find the references, he allows and trusts the reader experience the world.

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