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Fortress gives us SO much to think and talk about, but I keep circling back to the same curious issues. First, narration. As I near the end of the novel, I’m struggling to understand why Lethem chose to switch narrators halfway through, using the third person so successfully in “Underberg”, then giving Dylan direct narration in “Prisonaires”. I came to love the narrator’s voice in Underberg, and grew so used to the rhythms and snappy pace that I actually found myself cringing at Dylan’s language. It feels awkward. I puzzled over this for fifty pages or so, then realized that perhaps my objection lay in the fact that, actually, the voices are incredibly similar, easily conflated. Take, for example, the parallel panels Abraham appears on, with Dylan as child, and then Dylan as adult, in the audience. The narrations are not terribly different:
“Brakhage was charismatic and orotund and evoked Orson Welles on television. Like Welles he suggested a greatness both distant from itself and fully at rest, in this case scarcely bothering to taste the air of adulation in the room” (138).
“Now the microphone was taken by Blumlein, whom Francesca had claimed as Abraham’s only friend on the panel. Being moderator, Blumlein took it upon himself to prize open the jaws of the clam- to find a way to force Abraham Edbus to acknowledge and address his admirers” (342).
Although Dylan, the narrator, does insert himself periodically, I never get the sense that anything he says wouldn’t have been articulated by the former, edgier, more authentic narrator. This may be unfair, but I like and “buy” Dylan less in the second half of the book. Another, kinder reading is that Lethem’s third person narrator is Gowanus, “the street”, and that Dylan absorbs (or appropriates) this perspective so entirely that it necessarily emerges in his adult voice.
Another issue: sex. More specifically, Lethem’s handling of sex, friendship, race, and power. It’s impossible to talk about any one theme without allowing for the others. Dylan and Mingus obviously present the most overt demonstration of their intertwining. The balance of power in their relationship is forever in question. On the one hand, Dylan’s whiteness makes him vulnerable, but it also makes him effortlessly a part of the dominant culture, even before he’s truly entered it. On the other hand, Mingus acts as protector and gives Dylan access to the culture of the streets. It seems that for a large part of their formative years, Dylan needs Mingus more than Mingus needs Dylan. But when they engage in mutually consented to, secret sexual acts, does the power equalize or shift into an even greater imbalance? [Consider this comment on what takes place that first afternoon in Mingus’s basement: “The world was unnamed, you wore disguises, were Inhumans. Mingus’s room was another Negative Zone, under water, under the house, detached form Dean Street and whirling away to another place” (205).] Or can we read these scenes as nothing more than hyper-sexualized teenage male libido finding release in a safe space?
It’s also important that Mingus is the product of a white woman/black man coupling, a dynamic awash in sex-race-power stereotypes. And that Dylan cultivates the reversal of that match-up later on, with Abby, cannot be ignored.
Also very interesting, though given only glancing mention, is Francesca’s own upbringing in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Dylan (and here’s another example of the remarkable indistinctiveness of the two narrations) describes Francesca by saying, “A woman who, despite her immigrant’s name, had lived all her life among the postwar generation of New York Jews, Francesca spoke in their manner and recognized them as one recognizes oneself” (338). I couldn’t help but notice that Godbey’s argument falls down here, unless Francesca could also be said to have appropriated a Jewish identity to authenticate herself.
The sexual and romantic relationships all deal in race (and power is a given). I’d love to know how others reacted to this aspect of the book.