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Jonathan Lethem's Gun With Occasional Music and Amnesia Moon read like better-adjusted Philip K. Dick: what's missing in authentic brain-addled paranoia is (almost) made up for in wordplay pyrotechnics. Motherless Brooklyn represents a quantum leap: suddenly an emotional undertow appears beneath the dazzling language and off-the-wall premise (a detective with Tourette's). The emergence of its unlikely heroes from a Brooklyn boys' home keeps the reader on the verge of tears, while the Tourette's creates constant suspense, because you never know how or when the protagonist's outbursts will get him in trouble.
Suspicions about the newest book, The Fortress of Solitude, should have been aroused when some fool came out in Salon, pre-release, calling it the greatest American novel. That's clearly the kind of accolade Lethem's after, because he's turning his back on that silly surrealistic stuff and Writing About His Childhood, thus satisfying English teachers, librarians, and people who give out book awards. Cause for concern number 2: the main characters are named Dylan Ebdus (a Jewish kid growing up in all-black Gowanus in the 1970s) and Mingus Rude (his black best friend). Bad, obvious sociocultural call.
This isn't a review, because your correspondent is only 153 pages into the 511 page book. I keep putting it down; I had already finished Motherless Brooklyn in this same amount of time. I'm enjoying the snippets of cultural criticism, written by the same guy who rhapsodized about nerdy collecting of Dick paperbacks and the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name (Marvel Comics) in the pages of Bookforum and who wrote so engagingly about Prince and Don Martin in Motherless. Like Motherless, parts of the book make me sad, but other parts seem really contrived. (Just as Mingus is about to get Dylan in tight with his homeys by taking him on a subway-car-spraying expedition, a white woman walks up and asks Dylan if he needs any help, thus tagging him irrevocably as a privileged white.) I found more humor and pathos in the fall of Dylan's father from artist to paperback cover hack, as captured in this passage, where the book with his first published cover arrives in the mail, wrapped:
When he finally tore it open a shudder of self-loathing went through him, and he nearly ripped the package in half down the center [...]"R. Fred Vundane" breaks me up every time I think about it. This is Lethem getting in touch with his inner sci fi nerd, and it's more convincing than the race theme, which as Joshua Cohen writes in the New York Press, seems awfully sensitized:
Neural Circus by R. Fred Vundane, the first in a series called the New Belmont Specials, heralded as "Mind-Warping Speculative Fiction for the Rock Age." Jacket art by Abraham Ebdus: a third-rate surrealist landscape or moonscape or mindscape of brightly colored yet somehow ominous biomorphic forms, indebted to Mirů, indebted to Tanguy, indebted to Ernst, indebted even to Peter Max, and repaying none of those debts in the least. The art department of Belmont Books had overlaid his gouache-on-pasteboard with an electric yellow sans serif font meant to resemble computer screen lettering. Abraham Ebdus wished now he'd denied them the use of his real name, substituting a pseudonym instead, as the author apparently had: A. Fried Mothball or J.R.R. Foolkiller. The colors he'd applied with his own brushes hurt his eyes.
[T]he great white-written New York race book, especially Jewish/Black book, has already been written: The Tenants by Bernard Malamud. Published in the '70s as a direct response to racial tensions in post-hippie New York, itís a heartfelt novel that makes Lethemís attempt seem too little and too late. [...] In the last pages of Malamudís masterwork, [the protagonists] end up killing each other; whereas Lethem, expounding upon the decades, offers something some critic or marketing exec would call "more complex" or "nuanced" or "textured."More when I've finished the book. If I do.