Thereís Something About Jonathan
As I may have mentioned I have been listening a lot to Jonathan Richman of late. And it led to a strange event. For, there I was listening to 'Lonely Financial Zone', happily reading a terrific novel, when I realised that I was reading about someone going to a Jonathan Richman show. Ever since I have been wondering whether something like thatís happened before when Iíve been reading or listening to records. Sadly I wasnít listening to Subway Sect when I realised Jonathan Coe mentioned them, and I wasnít listening to The Action when I noticed Nik Cohn mentioned them. But I was listening to Jonathan Richman when I came across the reference to him in Jonathan Lethemís The Fortress of Solitude. And to use reluctantly my least favourite phrase: how cool is that?

How cool is Jonathan Lethem? Iíve read two of his books now (the other being Motherless Brooklyn), and loved every word of them. Iíve gobbled them up like some hopeless chocoholic let loose on a box of Belgian delicacies. He has a way with words, and evokes in startling tangential ways wonderful and weird rites of passage that are odd enough to be real.

What worries me particularly about The Fortress of Solitude are the reasons I love the book so much. The storyís fine, but I suspect what really strikes a chord are the cultural references. And thatís fine. As a book, I would place it somewhere between Jonathan Coeís Rotters Club and Michael Chabonís The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Indeed, the latter writer contributes a glowing endorsement for the sleeve jacket which states: ďHe has vividly and lovingly and truthfully recreated a world, a moment in history that I would have thought lost and irrecoverable. But most of all, from my point of view, he captures precisely ≠ as only a great novelist can ≠ how it feels to love the world that is, on a daily basis, kicking your ass.Ē

I remember reading a review of The Fortress of Solitude in the New Statesman (donít ask!), and the writer laboured on the preposterousness and possible thinness of the storyline. One of the many points this misses is the loving recreation Chabon refers to. I wasnít brought up in Brooklyn, but Lethem eerily unlocks a world I had lost where Marvel comics were an absolute obsession, and the strange superheroes so real. I absolutely adored the Silver Surfer, Daredevil, Ghost Rider, Fantastic Four, Howard The Duck, and so on. I had genuinely forgotten how these comics lit up the mid-Ď70s.

These comics are not something I have clung on to (despite the many musical references from the likes of T Rex, Suicide, The Teardrop Explodes etc), or thought much about, but Lethem wonderfully evokes the world where one would wait so eagerly for a new title. Ah yes, there was a newsagent on the Embassy Court parade which used to get American Marvel imports in every now and then, and they were so special.

The other vital thing about The Fortress of Solitude is the musical context which is wonderfully created. There are shades of George Pelecanosí DC Quartet (and King Suckerman in particular) with the soundtrack for growing up in Brooklyn, moving on through the punk and new wave explosion, into confused maturity, where perhaps uniquely in literature we have a main character listening to Maxine Brown and the Go-Betweens. And going to see Jonathan Richman. So donít expect me to be rational about this book.

And yet, these spot-on cultural references aside, Lethem does have a real gift. He does have a way with words, clearly enjoys creating rhythms, loves what words can do, and relishes putting these words in the mouth of people who society says should not know what to do with words.

The Fortress of Solitude
and Motherless Brooklyn are special books, and why shouldnít there be a new niche market for people who get excited about the Go-Betweens and Maxine Brown? If that niche only ever contains Jonathan Lethem then I will still be happy. I shall be seeking out more by and about Jonathan. In the meantime he has inadvertently made me rediscover The Teardrop Explodes, and maybe you will understand why? Well, I now think Kilimanjaro is wonderful because of all its stupid mistakes. But that, as they say, is another story!

© 2004 John Carney