Friday, May 31, 2013

Lethem Binge

a repost from last year and, I guess, part of my ongoing influences series...
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If you're like me (and for your own sake I hope to God you're not) when you find a new author that you like you simply have to read everything by them that you can get your hands on, bingeing horribly on their words for weeks at a time until you just can't read anymore. I suppose Tolkien was the first author I consumed like that, devouring The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and even the largely unreadable Silmarillion in the Christmas holidays of 1979. A few years later I read the entire Raymond Chandler oeuvre in one week and when I discovered Cormac McCarthy a few years after that it was a wonderful sensation knowing that I was probably the only person in my high school that had heard of him. I had to hunt high and low to find copies of his books in Northern Ireland, but hunt I did and had Cormac McCarthy polished off in a fortnight. My Dostoyevsky binge in my first year of law school took me an entire term and my eccentric Melville completist phase took over a year (you try reading Clarel some time (or better yet don't)). As you get older you're unlikely to run into authors you haven't read before but when you do and you get one you like it can be just as fun. I wolfed through the David Mitchell collection in a week a couple of years back. Earlier this year I went on a mad dash through Michel Houllebecq (the hilarious Platform is the one to read there) and over the last month I've been reading the collected works of Jonathan Lethem. Like all the best novelists Lethem is very hit and miss. (Mediocre writers don't experiment and thus don't have epic failures or epic successes.) His early science fiction novels are ok as far as they go but his early mystery novel Motherless Brooklyn is unique, strange, funny and all together brilliant. It's the story of a detective with Tourettes trying to discover who knifed his boss and left him in a Dumpster in Brooklyn, but it's the characters and the style that really sing here not so much the plot. After Motherless Brooklyn Chronic City is a bit of a disappointment: a washed up child star and a pothead Rolling Stone essayist dick around the Upper East Side of Manhattan while the child star's astronaut fiance is stuck on the International Space Station. Lethem's true genius comes to the fore the narrower his focus gets and this is the case with his masterwork The Fortress of Solitude which is about life on one block in Brooklyn in the late 60's and 70's. It's clearly heavily autobiographical and although the blurb says that its the story of the friendship between two boys, one white and another black, it's actually about much more than that. It's a kind of history of the gentrification of Brooklyn and along the way we get tales about the music, fashions, street culture, stick ball games, comic books, graffiti styles, food, folk wisdom and life in general during the 70's. I loved Fortress of Solitude, it's such a rich, dense book, every page brimming with good stuff. It reminded me so much of my life on Coronation Road in Victoria Estate, Carrickfergus during the 70's - a street that was also full of kids playing arcane games with colourful eccentric characters by the score. Dean Street in Brooklyn is a mix of rich and poor, working class, middle class, artists, dreamers, blue collar city employees, with the added dimension of complex race politics. Lethem was lucky to have grown up in such a rich and fascinating environment for a writer and he's done justice to his source material.
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Too many novels these days don't have a good line in the whole book, Fortress has good lines in virtually every paragraph. Lethem doesn't push the prose, he just is patient enough to distill the sentences into economical nuggets of universal truth. There are a few negatives of course: the book is long and does outstay its welcome a little when we jump from the crazy energy of 70's Dean Street to the narrator's college years; I also wasn't completely convinced by the magical realism which I can't talk about at all without giving away major spoilers. But these are minor quibbles - the ending is terrific and like I say the first two thirds of the book is utterly brilliant. 
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This has been a great reading year for me and I'm happy to say that in the last few months I've read two modern American masterpieces, Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding and Jonathan Lethem's wonderful Fortress of Solitude.