24 April 2007

Close, But Then The Cigar Exploded

I'm sorry to say that my earlier reservations about Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress Of Solitude turned out to be well-founded. No, I didn't find any more factual errors, and as one correspondent points out, those I did find could be matters of perception over which reasonable people could disagree. But there was a nagging sense, especially once the story shifted from Brooklyn to Berkeley and from the third person to the first, that something was going to go terribly awry, and it did.

Perhaps I overstate the case. I still enjoyed the book enormously, and don't regret for a minute the time I spent reading, nay, devouring it. But unfortunately Lethem couldn't leave well enough alone; he took a cracking good story and, in what looks to me like a misguided attempt to turn it into Great Literature, sent it careening off the rails before it could reach its destination.

I won't get too specific, not wishing to spoil the book for those who haven't read it yet (I'd still recommend it, especially for its chronicle of Brooklyn in the 70s and 80s), but let's just say a tenuous but forgivable subplot woven throughout the book morphs near the end into a full-fledged bout of what looks like South American-style magic realism. That in turn gives way to some hippie-dippie musing on "spaces" and "moments" that runs entirely counter to the gritty authenticity maintained by the characters throughout the first four-fifths of the book.

Lethem is prodigiously talented; there's no denying that. His ear for dialog is impeccable, and his ability to establish scenes and moods nearly so. It's a pity he couldn't have continued playing to his strengths rather than stretching himself into realms where there was no need to go. On the other hand, while I haven't read any of Lethem's earlier books, I've been led to believe that they're more self-consciously arty (the blurb for one compares him with Pynchon and DeLillo) and that TFOS represents an admirable several steps back from that literary phantom zone, which could augur well for future efforts.

But as to how The Fortress Of Solitude ended, well, I should have seen it coming when Lethem rhapsodized about Remain In Light, which of course is the album when the Talking Heads started to suck as a result of David Byrne dragging in that hokey-cokey world beat stuff. If he can write a novel that's like the first two Talking Heads albums - direct, real, to the point - Lethem will have created a true masterpiece. He very nearly pulls it off with TFOS, but then at the last minute chickens out and has to go all Life In The Bush Of Ghosts on us. Oh well, maybe next time.


Jesse said...

I tried to read this book several times but couldn't get into it.

He has a dystopian novel that I quite enjoyed called "Gun, With Occasional Music" though.

SKiP said...

Related, or unrelated he will be reading from his latest book at a Park Slope event this thursday...


I'd go if not for the fact that I will be parrot-sitting in Manhattan.

I'd go on extrolling the man's virtues in principle, but I had better read one of Mr. Letham's books first!

I'm under the impression whenever I finally get my vonneguteque sci fi novel written , I won't be asking you for a critique ;)