Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Return of the Jedi Theory of Disappointing Sequels

  • Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude

Yesterday I finished Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, which I've been listening to for the last month or so in my car. For most of that month, I was enthralled. A semi-autobiographical account of growing up white and nerdy in un-gentrified '70's Brooklyn, the book is sprawling, its rotating, third person limited point of view rendering a complete-seeming world. The reader sees the protagonist's world from every facet, even those not available to the protagonist. (That creates dramatic irony folks. Good un!)

Then about half-way (or two-thirds? hard to tell on CD), the narration jumps forward 15 years or so and changes to the first person point of view of the protagonist. I won't say the shift completely loses me, but my interest was more like my interest in Return of the Jedi: I'd enjoyed the first two installments, so I'd plug along to see what happened to the characters, despite the fucking Ewoks.

In this formulation, what are the Ewoks? In the first part of the book, I'd gotten used to some insulation between me and Dylan Ebdus, the protagonist. With that buffer removed, I found myself uncomfortably close to a character whose self-centeredness and self-loathing are just a mite too much. Probably would not have been a problem, if the whole book were in first person, but the first section of the book makes a promise that the final section violates. Or to put it another way, it was just jarring.

Now, I think I see why Lethem chooses to do this. He wants to tell a story that takes place over a very long period of time. If you wanted to keep it all in the third person, you'd wind up with a similar problem with that big gap in time toward the end, plus the characters have scattered, violating the unity of place that makes the first section so great. You could also keep it in third person, and set up a frame story of sorts, though this is a shopworn trick that probably wouldn't appeal to Lethem's more avant-garde sensibility.

Myself, I'd have probably tried telling the story in first person from a third party character, sort of a Brothers Karamazov or American Pastoral approach. That's really hard to pull off, but Lethem's the one with the MacArthur grant. I'm sure he could do it.

Anyhow, I do love Lethem's writing. If you've never read anything by him, Motherless Brooklyn is an excellent place to start. The Fortress of Solitude is an ambitious novel that, in my reading, doesn't quite work out in the end. Still a must-read for those of us who already know we like Lethem's work.

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