Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Lethem's Fortress Fanboy

For all of my interest in difficult writers such as Beckett, Bernhard, or Barthes, pardon the alliteration--I can honestly say that my goal as a reader is to be thoroughly entertained. A lot of this turns into a negotiation with myself about whether I might be up to the task of writing the book I’m eagerly devouring. There’s often a reckoning that, maybe I can’t do it quite so effortlessly seeming as what I’m reading, but I’d like to imagine I can. Sometimes a book strikes those right notes and it restores my faith--even in the face of all the dire predictions for fiction’s posterity, let alone for any personal creative writing production--that there is some brave and talented soul doing the very thing I dream of.

So to be entertained. Though I was trained to pursue the careful and deep study of rhetoric, it’s usually not what I read for, or is only part of it. Though my entertainment does involve discovery: catching resonances, parsing well-turned sentences, discerning layers in fresh word choices and turns of phrase.

How many other writers are guilty of this behavior? Though you present your bold face, wary of giving undue praise, sometimes you conclude, hey, I could write this. I see I’ve said this--in regard to Jonathan Lethem, and here I'll admit to bad faith--before I’d ever read him. I’ll admit Lethem is one of those writers I truly thought was full o’crap. I even saw him at the JCC one year and didn’t give a lot of thought to what he was saying, just spent most of the time denying he had anything to say worthwhile to me. And now, approximately eight years after The Fortress of Solitude was published, I’m reading it and doing double and triple takes. For as imperfect as it is, I’m only halfway through the novel and realizing Lethem’s about as real the deal as there is. A writer to emulate, aspire to, kick myself about.

Lethem has dazzled me with the prose in Fortress. He’s made me jealous, doubtful of my own capacity to wrest such assured detail and scene for my own stories. How I ever doubted him!--I’m now a full convert. He takes a meandering, Dickensian stroll to even get to the key action of his novel; though you are flummoxed and enthralled, you are equally unsure: is this the novel I’m reading, really? For the ability to conjure in these pages feels effortless, that he could kind of go on forever and you’d probably keep reading just for the surprises. Granted, I didn’t even think I could be interested in the story of two kids, one white and one black, wanna-be superheroes and graffiti taggers growing up in Brooklyn in the seventies. Now I’m ready--I’m committed--to read every word Mr. Lethem wants to put to paper.

As if reading (and writing?) is to attain greater and greater highs, just when I’d almost given up on contemporary authors . . . but yet another bar has been set; I’d say it’s a crime this book didn’t win all the awards available. Such an effort reminds me of the dazzle of Augie March that can make a fiction writer wonder if they should rather take up surgery instead.

I always need a soft introduction anyway, unmediated by fashions or tastemakers (I know this can be argued re: Lethem), but I only wanted to read him based on the first story of his I’ve ever deigned to read, "The Empty Room", which is in issue #197 of Paris Review. I thought, I get it, clever, ah ha, I’ll have to check out . . . Like everyone else, I started following the dustup about Lethem’s take on critic James Wood’s take on this novel (credit to Wood, his review seems rather laudatory), and the analysis and growing comment thread at The Millions, I thought it might be time to delve deeper into the Lethem chronicles.

If past experience is any indication, I may find the rest of the oeuvre lacking. But with this novel, at least, Lethem broke the mold.