The In-Between World of Vikram Lall

by M.G. Vassanji
ISBN: 0385659903

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A Review of: The Fortress of Solitude
by Andrew Steinmetz

Dylan Edbus, white, lives on Dean Street, in a mostly black and Hispanic borough of Brooklyn called Boerum Hill. Not far off, are the projects, Wyckoff Gardens and Gowanus Houses. Growing up, the surrounding couple of blocks comprise Dylan's universe, and not a very friendly environment it is. For all intents and purposes, this whitey is on the moon.
It is the 1970s. Dylan's parents, Rachel, a half-wit hippie, and Abraham, a reclusive maker of animated film, have moved the eccentric household into one of the neighbourhood's brownstones. When advised by a neighbour that Dylan will attend school with children who will never learn to read-children who will not accept a white boy in their midst-Rachel nonchalantly responds that this "is a problem for him to solve." Poor Dylan is a test case, the sole subject of a social experiment hatched by his mother.
"Underberg", part one of the novel, is spellbinding. Dylan is immersed in street culture but it is the reader who is baptized by Lethem, doused in graphic urban sidewalk scenes, each one a stylized "slice of human graffiti." Lethem is at his Brooklyn-best as a child anthropologist: kids on the block occupy social hierarchies, playing games such as kickball, wallball, spaldeen; they learn the laws of motion and physics, and assimilate social norms; over time, they fit in (or not), they gain street credibility (or not) and survival instincts (or they disappear). Dylan participates in these special olympics, well kind of-achieving what he can-more or less happy to fade into the scenery, for he is ever aware of his precarious status.
Soon enough Dylan's mother will disappear (to a hippie commune) and is never heard of again, excepting a series of cryptic postcards. At home, Abraham is on his way to becoming a successful, though self-hating, commercial artist. Limitlessly self-absorbed, he offers Dylan little more than a roof over his head.
So it's back to the streets for Dylan, to inhabit an antediluvian world where a sense of dj vu is the operating principle: where Dylan and his peers act on communal instinct, on "knowledge you couldn't have guessed you already had."
Lethem writes about childhood with deft fingers, building our belief in the altered state of ten-year-olds by deconstructing, scene by scene, the epistemology of his child protagonist. The dreamlike quality of day-to-day growing up is catching. Lethem describes this way:

"Sometimes the kids didn't even look at each other. You could argue for hours about who said what or who was really there when something important happened. Pretty often it turned out that someone hadn't been there in the first place. The girls never confirmed anything for anyone, though you'd supposed they were right there, watchingdays were full of gaps."

Dylan himself has "a certain translucency, a talent for being ignored." Yet when he goes to public school, he is put in a headlock and yoked by the neighbourhood crews and homies to the accompanying tune of street dialect: "Hey, white boy, come here. What you laughin' at, fool? Dang. Boys laughin' at his own self'."
Dylan's luck changes the very day (August 29, 1974) he meets Mingus Rude. "Mingus was a world, an exploding bomb of possibilities." Mingus is black. He becomes Dylan's best friend and loyal protector, although he has his own problems, which begin at home. He lives with his father, a former Motown Artist. Barrett Rude Junior has gold records to show, but right now, Barrett is a stay-at-home coke addict.
Mingus Rude and Dylan Edbus live parallel lives that intersect for right and wrong reasons. Mingus skips school and, early on, does graffiti instead of drugs, but his tag (Dose) is a dead give-away: he's about to deal his future to drugs. Dylan himself must decide between a compromised life on the street and living in a Fortress of Solitude (an allusion to one of his comics and to his father's hermetic lifestyle).
At this juncture, Lethem adds something unexpected to the mix. Magic realism and Aeroman. Aeroman is a local superhero. He is a drunk named Doily, who wears a cape and a ring and fights crime, jumping from low rises to surprise muggers. He enters Dylan's consciousness from out of nowhere, and we, as readers, are just as stunned to make his acquaintance. Whether or not Aeroman is for real is never settled for us by Lethem. And if the ring has special or imaginary powers, none of its magic rubs off on Lethem's prose. The writing wavers. The proper terminology, I think is maybe realism'.
In time, Dylan and Mingus inherit Aeroman's ring and the cape. They stop doing graffiti and become superheroes in their own right, using the Aeroman paraphernalia as back up for their flights of courage. This is where the book ultimately falls apart. The problem, for the reader, is one of assimilation. Grafting the ring's magic powers onto Lethem's ultra specific Brooklyn, proves as difficult as Dylan's attempt to be assimilated into Boerum Hill in the first place.
Decades pass. As time goes on, punk replaces funk, and Dylan gives up his homemade Aeroman costume for a black motorcycle jacket, one of the "Brando-Elvis-Ramones variety."
By the end of "Underberg", Dylan has moved from a subliminal awareness of his surroundings to a more standard mode, a franchised adolescence. We leave behind the innocence and the metaphysical genius in every child, for the mainstream. Lethem has shifted gears, from the realm of the No-Logo to the marketplace of soundbites. Unfortunately for the reader, a "reference-peppered palaver which comprises Dylan's only easy mode of talk" does not do for adolescence what Lethem's semi-autistic Americana has done brilliantly for his childhood.
"Liner Notes", the slim middle section of the novel, recounts the life and career of Mingus's father, Barrett Rude Junior, lead vocalist of the Subtle Distinctions. It also segues the reader into the life of the grown-up Dylan, a rock critic, "enthralled by negritude," who writes for a company called Remnant Records.
In "Prisonaires", part three of the novel, we enter First Person Dylan. Real problems arise here. Twenty-something Dylan treads on thin-air prose: Dylan with a girlfriend, Dylan with a movie idea, Dylan with a job living in California.
While Dylan goes through some soul searching ("the intricate boundaries of race and music" are his "obsession and inheritance"), Mingus is put through the prison system.
Now let's do the math: One-the son of a gold record calibre Motown artist has a criminal record. And, two-the son of a commercial artist, is writing liner notes for a label that repackages Motown for the Big Box boomers.
What are we supposed to think?
That Dylan,white, who never belonged, neither in Brooklyn, nor in California, has been able to make a go of his life, while Mingus, black, cut from the fabric of Boerum Hill, didn't stand a chance?
To be fair, the novel isn't as colour coded as all that.
Near the end, Lethem brings in religion. Dylan is Jewish. Most readers will respond to this with an automatic I knew that/no I didn't' switchback. Dylan's own girlfriend, Abigail Ponders, cross-examines the witness for us: "Dylan, I thought you always said the fact that you were Jewish was, like, the least defining thing about you."
Coming so late on, the ensuing dialogue which "entertains" Dylan's Jewishness cannot hide from its own disingenuous complexion. Like Aeroman's first flight, Dylan's Jewishness doesn't stick, but it begs the question: since when is a novel set in Brooklyn with a Jewish protagonist, by a writer with a Jewish mother, not about being Jewish?
If "Underberg", the glorious beginning of the novel, is any clue, I'd say the answer is when a writer unearths that sweet chariot, childhood, that swings low beneath the towering distinctions of race and religion.

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