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 [...]

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.

"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:
[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.

- tom moody 10-25-2003 9:34 pm

"english teachers, librarians and people who give out book awards" --- what are you trying to say about librarians, we only like what gets read by oprah's book club?
- linda 10-26-2003 9:44 pm

Heck, no! I've rewritten the last paragraph of my next post to try to make it clearer what I'm griping about here. It's not librarians per se, but rather a literary establishment whose definition of a good book heavily favors the "realistic" coming of age story.
- tom moody 10-26-2003 10:30 pm

scenario 1: Lethem absconds from freakdom to write a broadstroke, dumbed-down piece of Americana and secure himself a spot in the cannon.

scenario 2: Lethem has a story that's hard to tell and feels to him like his 'big novel' but, due to his recent success, loses perspective and writes something kind of cliche instead of something amazing.

scenario 3: Lethem pulls all the pieces together and smashes out a novel that hits a whole wack of people, and defines a cultural moment ( a la Cryptonomicon).

Tom, finish the book!
- sally 10-28-2003 3:24 am

Must...finish...Lethem book. (It's 153 pages and he's up to the 7th grade.) Must...find...out...what happens in eighth grade...

Seriously, I'm trying.
- tom moody 10-28-2003 10:24 pm

Am now up to page 263. He's still in high school. Must...find...out...what happens in college...
- tom moody 5-09-2007 11:10 am

I take it back! I read it a few months ago. It is way way way too long. The story is pretty confessional, which I don't mind, but I wouldn't say it was a super amibitious narrative, it just keeps going on and on, is all. There was some good stuff here and there. I liked the hapless art-nerd father, sending his son go off to school everyday to get yoked. But Lethem should have cut out all the superhero parts and thrown them in the garbage. Also maybe all the parts when the character is an adult. Don't you think its funny that the story about growing up motherless in Brooklyn is called Fortress of Solitude and the story from inside the mind of a guy with turrets syndrome is called Motherless Brooklyn?
- sally mckay 5-09-2007 4:05 pm

Good point(s). I don't know if I can finish it. It's been very stop and start (obviously--including a 3.5 year hiatus from reading).

I agree the superhero parts don't work, they have a tacked on quality. That should have disqualified it from "great book" status right there.

There are many funny lines and cutting observations. I'm not liking it overall because while it seems true when describing "universal" pop cultural moments and childhood experiences, they're not particularly important ones, and at the same time he's tweaking most of those moments (like the inaccurate comic book references I mentioned, or 90s anachronisms in 70s speech) so that my trust is constantly undermined, and it feels like clever fiction.

There is a real undertow of depression and melancholy beneath the zaniness and I'll have to give the author credit for getting a reaction out of me but again it's not an experience I want to have--it feels like angst without any depth.

The stuff about the father's "hapless" art career is funny but really vicious. That guy (don't know if he is based on Lethem's father) is one lucky MoFo to have a day job in sf illustration and be making abstract films at night and not have to do any of the many shit jobs out there but Lethem cuts him no slack. Everything he does seems silly, worthless and ridiculous--Lethem's comments about his film and understanding of abstraction seem like the classic callous things said about artists by people who don't appreciate art.
- tom moody 5-09-2007 4:55 pm

Well, maybe you should skip ahead and just read all the father bits. His story does develop in a kind of interesting way.
- sally mckay 5-09-2007 5:28 pm

I'm gonna keep trying to finish it.
- tom moody 5-09-2007 5:43 pm

Fortressblogging: finished! The second half sailed along. I just had to get through childhood and adolescence, which I wasn't keen to revisit any more than the author seemed to be. I liked the second half more; the exhaustive regression of the first half made more sense because of it. Some of the most compelling writing--Mingus Rude's life as a prison artist and crackhead--happened in the last 50 pages, and made Dylan's childhood ordeal of getting yoked every day seem trivial. Maybe that was the point--I'm not sure.

The first person tale of the adult Dylan (the liner note writer) reminded me of Richard Ford--the asshole narrator who has everybody else's number. This persona is a little hard to square with the book's sentimental message about "looking to the middle spaces." Slight slippages in tone, persona, or intent seem to be constant in Lethem's fiction. (Sometimes Motherless veered into sheer pulp.) He contains multitudes, I guess.
- tom moody 5-13-2007 8:25 pm