The Fortress of Solitude (novel)

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The Fortress of Solitude
First edition cover
AuthorJonathan Lethem
Cover artistJacket design by Marc Cozza
Jacket illustration by Rebecca Cohen
CountryUnited States
Publication date
September 16, 2003
Media typePrint (hardcover & paperback), audio cassette, audio CD, and audio download
Pages511 pp (first edition, hardcover)
ISBN0-385-50069-6 (first edition, hardcover)
813/.54 21
LC ClassPS3562.E8544 F67 2003
Preceded byKafka Americana 
Followed byMen and Cartoons 

The Fortress of Solitude is a 2003 semi-autobiographical novel by Jonathan Lethem set in Brooklyn and spanning the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. It follows two teenage friends, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, one white and one black, who discover a magic ring. The novel explores the issues of race and culture, gentrification, self-discovery, and music.

Explanation of the novel's title[edit]

The Fortress of Solitude was the fictional abode and headquarters of Superman. Though his main residence was Metropolis, Fortress of Solitude was the only place Superman could truly be himself, as shown by the statues of Superman's Kryptonian parents that adorn the interior. In the novel, the Fortress of Solitude acts as a direct metaphor for Dean Street, Dylan's childhood neighborhood. Though Dylan eventually went on to Camden College in Vermont and University of California, Berkeley, the Brooklyn neighborhood always remained his true home, much like Superman's Fortress of Solitude. Dean Street held the most meaning to Dylan as the last memory of his mother, the place where he first met Mingus, his shelter from the racial tensions of Brooklyn, and, in general, the street where he spent his entire childhood.[citation needed]


Dylan Ebdus - Protagonist, the son of Rachel and Abraham, an artist father and a Brooklyn native mother. He has a hard time adjusting to the neighborhood until he meets Mingus Rude. As time passes on they grow apart, Dylan goes to Camden College in Vermont, while Mingus goes to prison in Brooklyn. Dylan attempts to find to rescue his friend and restore their relationship.

Abraham Ebdus - Dylan's father, an avant-garde artist. After Rachel abandons the family, he becomes more introverted, shutting himself in the attic to paint cels of his animated film, a masterpiece that will never be complete. In order to support himself and Dylan, he turns to painting garish science fiction book covers, a field in which he eventually becomes prominent. His relationship with Dylan is strained.

Barrett Rude Jr. - Former lead singer of a 1960s, moderately successful soul group called The Subtle Distinctions. He had a number of hits at that time, some of which were sampled by current artists. More importantly, he is Mingus's father, and a musical icon for Dylan. Throughout the novel, he struggles with cocaine addiction.

Arthur Lomb - Dylan's only white friend during his elementary and middle school years. Arthur persuades Dylan to apply to Stuyvesant, a public high school. However, Dylan is accepted and Arthur is not. The two follow different paths throughout the novel: Dylan goes on to college and eventually California, and Arthur stays in Brooklyn and assumes the role of Mingus's right-hand man, participating in drug deals and graffiti. When Dylan visits Arthur at the end of the novel, Arthur is a landlord and has opened a chic bistro, adding to the general gentrification of the area.

Robert Woolfolk - Nicknamed “Willfuck” by Henry, Robert plays the role of Dylan's arch enemy who has the knack of showing up at the worst possible times. Over the course of the novel, he trashes Dylan's first bike, yokes him repeatedly, and holds him at gun point during a drug robbery. Robert ends up in prison with Mingus. When Dylan visits the two in prison, Mingus persuades him to offer the ring to Robert to help Robert escape. However, Robert's attempt at a flight escape ends in his demise.

Mingus Rude - Son of Barrett Rude Jr. and childhood friend of Dylan Ebdus. One of the most prominent characters in the novel. He moves to Dean Street after Dylan does, and the two quickly become friends. Their friendship evolves over the course of the first part of the novel.

Rachel Ebdus- Mother of Dylan Ebdus. Is a character of the book who, in the beginning is mentioned very little, but is a big part of Dylan Ebdus's world.

Major themes[edit]

Racial tension[edit]

As one of only a few white children growing up in Brooklyn's public schools, Dylan faces a whole childhood full of public embarrassment and “yokings,” mild forms of mugging and bullying common among elementary school and junior high children. Because of this racial tension, Dylan and Mingus’ friendship exists on almost secret terms. On Dean Street, the two are best friends; at school, they are barely acquaintances. To get through his school years, Dylan befriends another white boy named Arthur Lomb. The two, however, take different approaches to the racial tensions in their neighborhood: while Dylan goes to an elite and predominantly white public high school, Arthur uses Mingus and Robert Woolfolk as models for his lifestyle.

Graffiti art[edit]

Graffiti serves as a status symbol in Lethem's Brooklyn. Often, the tags served as a new identity for the artists, as shown in Part 3 of the novel, when Mingus is referred to almost solely by his tag name Dose. Dylan, though he dabbles in the world of graffiti art with Mingus, never develops his own tag name but instead uses Mingus' name Dose in an effort to further merge himself with his best friend. "Things are radically simplified: the white kid's stopped looking for his own moniker, been encouraged by the black kid to throw up his perfect replication of the black kid's tag instead. Dose, Dose, Dose. It's a happy solution for both. The black kid gets to see his tag spread further, in search of bragging points for ubiquity, that bottom-line standard for a graffiti writer's success. . . . What's in it for the white kid? Well, he's been allowed to merge his identity in this way with the black kid's, to lose his funkymusicwhiteboy geekdom in the illusion that he and his friend Mingus Rude are both Dose, no more and no less. A team, a united front, a brand name, an idea." (pg. 136) Arthur, on the other hand, strives to distinguish himself with the tag name Art, but never reaches the level of importance that Mingus achieves. In later years, Mingus’ talent for graffiti art carries him through his years of prison as both a source of income and pride. Graffiti art is also juxtaposed with the avant-garde art of Dylan's father, Abraham.

Music as a culture[edit]

Throughout the novel, Lethem seems to group people into distinct cultures by the music they listen to. Dylan is torn between the world of R&B, funk, and hip-hop opened for him by Mingus and Barrett Rude Jr. and the world of punk and classic rock expected of him by his classmates at Stuyvesant High School and Camden College. Eventually, during his years as a DJ on the UC Berkeley student radio, Dylan emerges as a mix of music styles and cultures, which eventually leads to his profession as a writer of liner notes. Part 2 of the novel is a direct reproduction of Dylan's liner note about Barrett Rude Jr.'s music and life. The references to music appear everywhere throughout the novel, even in the names of the two main characters, who were each named after different musicians (Bob Dylan and Charles Mingus).


The Fortress of Solitude opens with Isabel Vendle's vision of converting the brownstones of Gowanus into a classy new neighborhood called Boerum Hill. Though the novel leaves the theme of gentrification as Lethem follows Dylan's childhood, it is revisited at the end of Part 3, when Dylan returns to Dean Street to find it almost foreign. To Dylan's surprise, Arthur has remained in Boerum Hill and, instead of fighting the gentrification, catalyzed it by opening several chic shops and bistros.

Friendship vs. love[edit]

Dylan's friendship with Mingus is often blurred with admiration, such as the strange desire to “take a pick to his nappy-ass ‘Fro” (pg. 206) and the short scene of homoeroticism that follows. At the end of the book, in Part 3, Dylan refers to Mingus as “the rejected idol of my entire youth, my best friend, my lover.” (pg. 441) The ring acts as a recurring symbol of the connection between Dylan and Mingus.

Drug abuse[edit]

The novel chronicles the movement of America's drug addiction, from marijuana in the 1960s and 1970s to cocaine in the 1980s and 1990s. Cocaine is a central object in the book, almost becoming a character with its own actions and personalities. It is also the source of many characters’ troubles. Because of cocaine, Dylan is expelled from Camden College, Barrett Jr. wastes away to a waif, and Mingus spends much of his adult life in and out of jail.

Father-son dynamics[edit]

Three father-son relationships evolve throughout The Fortress of Solitude: Dylan & Abraham, Mingus & Barrett Jr., Barrett Jr. and Barrett Sr. Abraham and Dylan's relationship is strangely empty and aloof, but is marked by a reconciliation and silent understanding set to Brian Eno’s “Another Green World” that serves as the ending to the entire novel. Mingus and Barrett Jr.’s relationship is also aloof, but is marked by the two common passions for music and illicit drugs. Barrett Jr. and Barrett Sr.’s relationship grows increasingly strained and violent as the novel wears on, ending in a loaded confrontation that involves all three generations of the Rude men.

Jonathan Lethem in 2007

Literary style[edit]

Stylistically, the two main parts of the novel are written as a) a third-person narrative ("Underberg" - part one) and b) a first-person narrative ("Prisonaires" - part three) with distinctive dialogue, though toward the very end of the book dialogue-intensive scenes and the brief entry of “Liner Notes” (part two) by Dylan are introduced to mirror his alienation from society. Since the work covers Dylan's life from the time he was a child to his growing independence and moral detachment from Brooklyn as a young man, the style of the work progresses through each of its thirty-four chapters, with the complexity of language gradually increasing. However, throughout the work, slang and music are used to portray indirectly the state of mind of the protagonist, and the subjective impact of the events of his life. Through the use of these sly literary devices Lethem intends to capture the subjective experience through music, rather than to present the actual experience through prose narrative.

Literary significance and reception[edit]

A common point of criticism of The Fortress of Solitude is the misplaced idea of the magic ring that confers the abilities of flight and invisibility. Though it does tie in with the sporadic comic book theme, it seems a jarring departure from the stark traumatic reality of Dylan's childhood.[1] Some critics see it as almost a gimmick; the glaring unreality of superhero fantasy is an unforgettable and almost unforgivable trait of the book. On the other hand, the magic powers of the ring only enhance the innocence, idealism and, to a degree, naiveté of Dylan's childhood. Our main characters soon learn that “[it doesn’t] solve much of anything. A caped crime fighter is powerless against the shape-shifting demons of racism. A white boy might dream of becoming invisible, while a black man, whether or not he's read Ralph Ellison, might worry that he already is.” (A. O. Scott, New York Times)[2]

Another recurring issue is the switch from third person narration in Part One of the novel to Dylan's first person perspective in Part Three. Lethem intended this change to show the reader the pure, idyllic quality of innocence and childhood and the abrupt ending that Dylan experiences. As he said in an interview, “I did want to portray the kind of dream quality that childhood has. Being pulled out of it at the end of that section is sort of a rupture. Even though on the face it's a difficult childhood that Dylan has, it seems like a paradise lost once it's lost... You do become closer to him in the sense that first person forces an identification, but I think it's an uncomfortable one then because he's kind of a shit in the last part of the book and you loved him in the first part... I think there's almost a sense of betrayal that you feel when you encounter the small-mindedness of his adult life and the puniness of his moral sphere." (interview by Jay MacDonald, 2003) This switch is often viewed as detracting, since the adult Dylan is less evocative than the boy. However, this also supports the counter-argument that Dylan's first person narration only strengthens the fact that he has become hollow and hopelessly lost.

Allusions and references[edit]

The novel takes place in the early 1970s and spans the next two decades, making references to many political and artistic events during that time. At one point, the main characters are affected by the resignation of Richard Nixon. They discuss the effects and ramifications of the New York City blackout of 1977, the benefits of the Fresh Air Fund, and the explosion of the punk scene at CBGB. There are also passing references to the capture of David Berkowitz, the legitimacy of the Yankees' World Series victory, and the importance of Devo.

Camden College, where Dylan attends, was first introduced as the college attended by the protagonist in Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero. Both Ellis and Lethem attended Bennington College, which served as the inspiration for the college in Ellis's works.

Awards and nominations[edit]

Nominated for the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations[edit]

A film version, directed by Joshua Marston, is currently in pre-production.

A musical theater version conceived of and directed by Daniel Aukin with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman and book by Itamar Moses was produced by New York Stage and Film and Vassar College's Powerhouse Theatre in the summer of 2012.

The world's premier of the stage version was on March 13, 2014, at the Dallas Theater Center.[3]

Publication history[edit]

2003, United States, Doubleday ISBN 0-385-50069-6, Pub date 16 September 2003, Hardcover


External links[edit]