Yup, I Read Now

Motherless Brooklyn

6a00d83451bcff69e200e54f562b418833-640wiMotherless Brooklyn is more character driven than Fortress, the plot is more engaging (though, Lionel, the Tourette’s inflicted narrator, is more engaging than the whole of the who-done-it detective plot), and in the end it was just a more satisfying read. I can definitely see why Edward Norton would want to adapt it. But still, a lot of what I’ll call its Letheminess—simply meaning, superior prose masking a lack of emotional depth—got in the way of making it a book capable of moving me. That’s why this quote on the front cover is so confusing:

“The best novel of the year . . . utterly original and deeply moving.”—Esquire

While it may have been the best novel of whichever year it was published and there’s no arguing with its originality—although, I might take issue with the use of the word “utterly”—I can’t for the life of me figure out what could have moved this particular critic. On a sentence-to-sentence level, Motherless Brooklyn is beautiful. I can’t imagine ever being able to write as well as Jonathan Lethem so perhaps his sentences moved Mr. Esquire. But for me, a moving novel inspires more than admiration. A moving novel stirs something up inside of me, shifts me, forces me to re-read the last page or sometimes the entire thing all over again immediately. When a book moves me, I miss it as soon as the last line is read. Motherless Brooklyn was a good book, maybe even a great book, but it wasn’t moving.

I started this Lethem thing because of an article about his upcoming novel Chronic City—the description made it sound incredibly cool, as magazine descriptions are wont to do. Now, after finishing two of his most acclaimed novels, I’ve begun to look upon October 13 with some dread. Chronic City is going to be a long one according to Lethem and if his new batch of improbably named characters are as distant as the ones in Fortress and Motherless, I don’t think I’ll be able to finish the book. The weird thing about Lethem’s characters is that even when he gives me tons and tons of background info, even when he plainly lays out their psychoses, I still feel nothing for them.

Maybe that’s just a personal problem.

A side note: I think Lethem may have been channeling Watchmen with Motherless Brooklyn. Lionel is kind of a Rorschach character—the guy everyone thinks is crazy, the one who’s just a little too earnest. Also, the group of superheroes in Moore’s graphic novel were called the Minute Men, right? And Lionel calls the group of low-level thugs he belongs to, Minna Men. After reading Fortress and Motherless, practically back-to-back, I do believe that I’m starting to figure out who this Lethem guy is; and he likes his superheroes.


Juliet, Naked


…was finished in two days. I suppose it wouldn’t have been too difficult to read in a day but I’d rented the Emmy-award winning Little Dorrit miniseries early last week and the pull of those first two discs was astonishingly strong. (My Nick Hornby fanaticism’s primary ingredient, it would seem, is weak sauce.) Andrew Davies is responsible for this incredible adaptation and after some light googling I discovered that he also adapted the Colin Firth, A&E version of Pride and Prejudice—which is, of course, the adaptation that all other Pride and Prejudice adaptations are measured against. Judging from the bit of Little Dorrit that I’ve just watched and the one other thing of his that I’ve seen, it would appear that Mr. Davies can do no wrong.

After watching the first half of the miniseries I turned back to Mr. Hornby’s book but all of those wonderful Dickens characters lingered in my mind. Although I was reading a decidedly modern novel wherein much of the conflict revolves around the internet(s), thoughts of all those soot covered Cockneys persisted.

Dickens appeals to my most primal entertainment needs, this very basic desire to experience a great story—one with twists, turns, romance, humor, and debtors’ prisons. Everything about his work takes me back to this really innocent place. For a start, my earliest contact with his world was via Oliver and Company and then in 9th grade when we did Great Expectations, much of it was read aloud in class.

No one reads aloud anymore!

I don’t know but for me at least, there’s just something very wholesome about reading aloud (even when what’s being read aloud involves elderly shut-ins catching on fire).

As I made my way through Juliet, Naked, I was already plotting my next read. Dickens(!) My plans were only solidified when one of the characters in the Hornby book turned out to be a Dickens fan.

So I finished the Hornby quickly. It was good. Not mind-blowing or anything, and definitely not as enjoyable as High Fidelity, but it wasn’t a total disappointment—my (dubious) allegiance to Hornby remains unaltered (or something). (I will say this, though: Because one of the three protagonists is a self-doubting artist type there were some meta undertones and I couldn’t help but think that Hornby was using this book as a way of preemptively justifying any of its shortcomings.)

Anyway, that was on Thursday and my next move was to purchase David Copperfield or Bleak House or whatever. But Jesus, those books are thick. With no grade on the line I don’t know that I’d have the motivation to finish one. I’m going to need a little time for mental preparation, to build up my reading endurance before I tackle one of those bad boys. Or maybe I’ll just chuck the idea all together, finish the last two discs of Little Dorrit, and then go see the new Jim Carrey 3D version of A Christmas Carol next month.


I’m currently reading Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem and I already like it more than The Fortress of Solitude. My initial impulse was to attribute this to its more traditional structure; it’s more straightforward and feels less ambitious than the other one, so it’s easier to get wrapped up in. But that’s not fair. I think it’s just as ambitious as Fortress but that ambition is less transparent.

Farewell Fortress
September 29, 2009, 7:22 am
Filed under: Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude | Tags: ,

imagesI finished The Fortress of Solitude on Friday and making my way through those final chapters kind of reminds me of this seven day backpacking trip I went on the summer before I started at Northwestern: total hell but with this underlying feeling that I was going to be a better person for having had the experience. The book was good, and I stick by my earlier assessment of the first half of it. But the conclusion was so unexpected, structurally speaking, that I have yet to make up my mind about how I feel about the book as a whole.

Most of what has been written about this book (and what will be written about it in the future) focuses on content and I suppose the “cultural work” that a book about a white boy growing up in an inner city Brooklyn neighborhood is doing. It’s important to highlight that aspect of it, for sure, but in my opinion, The Fortress of Solitude is Lethem’s attempt at reinventing the novel (or at the very least opening up some new possibilities).

Part One is written in the third-person and though it becomes clear that Dylan Edbus is the protagonist, the book has this Dickensian omniscient narrator. It’s funny, but when I was in grad school we were encouraged to stick to one point of view character (though, I don’t know if that was just because I was doing short stories). It seems that a lot of what I’ve been reading—or rather, a lot of what I’ve been reading and enjoying—employs this sort of narration. I don’t think that Lethem is being gimmicky though. Brooklyn is a character in this book and it’s crucial that we get that full panorama.

The second part of the book called “Liner Note,” is just that—Dylan Edbus has grown up, he’s in his thirties, and in addition to being a journalist he writes liner notes for CD box sets. The idea behind this section is very cool—I felt like I was reading an artifact from the world of the book. This being said, liner notes are boring as hell. Unless you’re one of those people who lives and breathes music, I doubt you’ve ever even read a liner note. On some level I think that this section is a commentary on that while also underscoring Dylan’s complicated relationship with black culture.

All and all, “Liner Note” is about authenticity. There can be a sort of douchey quality to liner notes when it seems as though the writer is trying to educate the reader—this is essentially what Dylan is doing. It makes me feel a bit uncomfortable when I read a white writer’s exegesis of some portion of black culture (or Asian culture or Latino culture, etc). In spite of all of the research that may have been done, I can’t help but think that what’s being discussed lacks legitimacy—I’m sure that Lethem knows that I feel this way. Here Dylan is, a white man writing about a black musician—one he actually grew up next door to. He came of age in a primarily black neighborhood but does that make him more qualified to talk about this stuff? Can he somehow claim this history? “Liner Note” is interesting because it begs these questions but I didn’t want to read what Lethem/Dylan had written. Maybe if it was, like, four pages long but not fifteen or twenty or however many it actually was.

Part Three, “Prisonaires,” is Dylan’s first-person narration of his adult life. Even though it lacks some of the force of Part One, I actually preferred this section. I like dialogue driven fiction and that’s what this is (mostly) and the action has moved from Brooklyn to Berkeley. Maybe it’s narcissistic but I love it when something somehow related to me or my life or the things that I like pops up in something that I’m reading. It validates my existence. (OK, I guess that’s totally narcissistic). My favorite part of the book was this single sentence: “I had California girlfriends, a California apartment, and after I’d dropped out of classes from sheer disinterest, a California newspaper career, as a music critic for the Alameda Harbinger, the job an extension of some work I’d done revamping KALX’s moribund gazette.” I grew up in Alameda (the Bay Area’s answer to Mayberry).

The story takes a surreal turn in this final section—this is where that “superheroes” bit from that back cover blurb really comes into play—but this isn’t what troubled me. Like I’ve said before, I prefer surrealism and admire authors who are able to blend it with realism. What bothered me was Lethem’s brief shift back to the third-person. It was kind of abrupt and I’m still processing it, trying to decide if it worked for me.

So I continue to meditate on this book three days after finishing it. I don’t know, I think that’s a sign that Mr. Lethem did his job.

The Fortress of Solitude Chills at Work


The Fortress of Solitude gets a little sun, chats with The East Bay Express.


The Fortress of Solitude takes a siesta while I lock DVD cases.

The Office

iread (super new)There are some TV shows that I make it my business to watch every week and some that I prefer to watch at my leisure when they’re released on DVD. The Office falls into the second category. I took a small break from Mr. Lethem to polish off the last couple of episodes of season 5 and in the process believe that I may have uncovered the shows connection to the literary world. Michael’s boss’ name is David Wallace. This is a perfectly normal name that I probably would have ignored if it weren’t for John Krasinski’s film adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (which is being released this weekend). Although Krasinski is an actor and not a writer on the show, he must have had a hand in naming this minor character. It’s just too much of a coincidence (that no one else is nerdy enough to care about).IMG_0045

I’m becoming quite the little literary detective. How many more allusions will I discover?

A-one, a-two, a-three. A-three.

Camden College?

iread (super new)Dylan Edbus, the protagonist of The Fortress of Solitude, attended Camden College. When this bit of info drops, I just assumed that the school was real because I had no reason not to. Yet, as I continued reading, I began to think that it was Lethem’s invention (I couldn’t tell you what it was in the text that made me question the school’s existence). When I reach the paragraph where Dylan mentions that he and his roommate go to the End of the World, all those brain synapses and sparks and protons and electrons start doing their thing. Camden College is the same fictional school where Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction is set.

I haven’t read any of Ellis’ more recent work but in Less Than Zero and The Rules of Attraction he really takes the minimalist approach to description. Everyone is tan or not tan or not as tan as they used to be. There’s so much repetition in these books—which I imagine is supposed to emulate the inarticulate voice of 1980s youth—that they’re hypnotic, if that makes any sense. They’re kind of Gertrude Stein-esque and you’re looking for variation in the string of repeated words, hoping to figure out the deeper significance. I read The Rules of Attraction four years ago but the End of the World is something that I am able to recall simply because it was mentioned about 50,000 times by various characters.

The End of the World is a bar near Camden College.

According to my sources (Wikipedia) Lethem’s Camden and Ellis’ Camden are in different cities but I think that the End of the World indicates that they are the same school.
Case closed. I am a super sleuth. I am a legend.
Camden College is sort of the literary equivalent of Shermer High—the fictional school in all of the those John Hughes movies. Although it’s fun to imagine Ferris Bueller palling around with the gang from The Breakfast Club—maybe trying to get John Bender out of all those extra detentions he racked up—the one thing that always bothered me about that high school was that there would have been three girls walking around who looked exactly like Molly Ringwald.

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
September 21, 2009, 1:48 am
Filed under: Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude | Tags: ,


This book is, in a word, awesome. In two words, awesome awesome.

I bought it on a lark and really had no business throwing down the $16.41 it cost me (i’m poor), but the back cover was working for me. It’s hard for me to pass up a book where the words “superhero” and “gentrification” are side by side in the little descriptive blurb and the shot of Converse-sneakered Lethem sitting with his legs wide open, his bulge so nonchalantly, perhaps innocently, visible was just so bizarre. I needed to add the book to the stack of yet-to-be-read books in my cluttered (currently weird-smelling) bedroom.

The first 50 pages were a little rough. I found myself in that required-reading trance–kind of reading the words but not really processing anything. This happens with a lot of books, even ones that I’m excited about. But I think a sign of a “good” book is its ability to shake you from that trance–make it impossible for the reader to allow all of the words to blend and blur.

Lethem has a real talent for description, an ability that I, as a lame-o writer covet. But all of that description, as lovely and insightful as it may be, can feel impenetrable–especially right off the bat. When I start a book I think I’m looking for a strong voice or at least some action that will propel me forward. Reading the first page of this book, it isn’t clear who the protagonist is. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but I had to readjust my expectations. Once I sort of got a feel for the book, though, it was impossible to put down. I read something like forty pages on the bus to Berkeley and another fifty or so at work.

A full review of the book will follow soon–I’m hoping to finish it up by the end of this week. The new Nick Hornby comes out next week and I want to be free to read that once I (or have someone with more dollars) buy it.