Over the summer, Jonathan Lethem spoke to the Rail about Fortress of Solitude, his sixth novel.
Theodore Hamm (Rail): Your story is set against the backdrop of gentrification. We’re sitting here in Halcyon on Smith Street, a café that sells music along with ’70s furniture. Did you ever think that when you were growing up around here in the ’70s that your neighborhood would become trendy?
Jonathan Lethem: Smith Street for me focuses the paradox of gentrification so intensely. In the book I manage to reclaim a lot of the territory, and locate my affection for the Smith Street of my childhood. But in practical terms, Smith Street was a place that I was mostly trying to never be caught dead on. It was the gauntlet I ran on my way home from P.S. 93, my junior high school. So when I look at these restaurants—which I’m enjoying as much as anyone—the first thing I think is that even if I wasn’t from here, it’s exactly where someone like me would now be living anyway. By the time I finished the book, I found a way to embrace the contradictions of gentrification. I came to understand that the wish to live in a society that is classless, and that doesn’t disenfranchise anyone, is beautiful and poignant but also hopeless—and it absolutely won’t be solved on a block-by-block basis.
Rail: In writing the work, did you consciously resist any inclinations toward nostalgia about the neighborhood?
Lethem: Yes, because Boerum Hill has always been a patchwork, where different classes and cultures were rubbing against one another. It’s a zone of permanent transition. There used to be rooming houses where sailors and longshoremen lived, and there were Mohawk bars, near where American Indian workers lived. It was an incredible place to come to consciousness because it forced you into so much awareness of the contradictions. Turn any corner, like the one from Dean Street to Nevins Street, and a whole new set of meanings arises.
Rail: Is there a line between memoir and fiction in the book?
Lethem: It’s not one that I can draw for you, but I did want the portrait of the milieu—the neighborhood itself—to be almost documentary. Not that there aren’t fictional aspects or places where I fudge dates. I compressed the gentrification of Gowanus so as to bring it all under Dylan’s witnessing eye. But for people who know the area, or want to know the area, I wanted it to be a real portrait as well. Similarly, the characters are fictional composites, fragmentary representations of people I’ve known. The book invites a lot of speculation on the autobiographical elements because they are in there. It’s most germane to point out, for instance, that I don’t see myself only in Dylan, but I see big parts of myself in Abraham—his art making is really kind of a confession of a novelist’s trudging work. There are big chunks of me in Arthur Lomb as well. But the fact of the matter is that there wasn’t only one white boy in Gowanus when I was growing up—there were 15 or 20.
Rail: I’m wondering how universal you think the story is, at least for those of us who grew up in the 1970s. Personally, I could relate to it, even though I grew up in Evanston, next to Chicago. The town has a fairly large black population, and in your book, Mingus reminded me of some of my friends, whereas I also got my ass kicked by a guy named Rodney Muckleroy, who is like your Robert Woolfolk.
Lethem: I’m glad you can connect with it, but at the same time I hope that it doesn’t require any specific framework for it to be legible. Whether a story is universal is the kind of question you should never be asking yourself when you’re writing it. For me this book is obviously enormously specific, and intimate. Still, my editor at the London Review of Books wrote me a long letter explaining how the book seemed to be about his own childhood in England, and race was not an issue in his school days at all. Maybe it’s that the scrupulously personal story I’ve written invites personal reflection or emotion from the reader—at least that’s what I hope for.
Rail: Let’s talk about the race issues in the book a bit more. Throughout the book, you speak authoritatively about the black experience, in both positive and negative ways. Did you feel cautious in this regard, fearing a possible critical backlash?
Lethem: I guess that the reason I felt that I could write the book was that I didn’t really ever challenge myself to posture or pontificate about anything. I think that it’s foremost a book of characters, and so whether they’re black or white doesn’t matter. It was the way that I worked through these characters and understood their experience individually, rather than as members of any group. In Girl in Landscape (1998), I wrote a book from the point of view of a 13-year-old girl, and people would ask me how I thought I had the ground to stand on, to write from that point of view. I knew that if my project was to write from the female point of view per se, I’d be completely paralyzed. But my goal was to write about Pella Marsh, a character I invented and created out of big parts of my own emotional landscape.
Rail: But in Fortress, the main white character ends up a successful writer, and two of the main black characters end up in prison. So you are making a commentary.
Lethem: It’s a painful commentary, and there’s a lot in the book that isn’t resolved. It seems to be that the book just barely hints a taste of redemption for everyone involved by the end. But just barely, because I was contemplating things that I don’t have the answers to. I just wanted to articulate my sense of the meaning of the question—of living with the realities I know. And it’s not my place to control people’s reading of it.