I've never interviewed a novelist before. Musicians, yes, quite a few of them, most of whom spend their careers in aloof stupors, desperately trying to protect their secrets (or at least pretending they have secrets to protect). Lethem, however, seems as if he can't reveal his fast enough, especially when it comes to his writing and his recently published sixth novel, The Fortress of Solitude, his most autobiographical work to date.
The reason I'm here is that Lethem, in addition to being a distinguished novelist -- Motherless Brooklyn won him the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction -- is also a crazed music fan, a fact exemplified by his editing The Year's Best Music Writing 2002, but taken to entirely new levels in his latest book. A coming-of-age story, Fortress traces the life of Dylan Ebdus from the pre-gentrified streets of 1970s Brooklyn to the tree-lined streets of 1990s Berkeley. Along the way, it weaves in the genesis of graffiti and hip hop and punk, and it tells tales of '70s funk and soul, of the Talking Heads and Brian Eno, of experimental film and science-fiction novels, of comic books and hippies and Hollywood producers, of crack and weed and prisons. Shit, even Berkeley's KALX-FM shows up.
One of the book's foremost themes is that of race relations: Dylan is white, his best friend Mingus Rude is black, and Dylan's attempts to reconcile the disparities between the two cultures drives the narrative. But Lethem agrees with my suspicion that Dylan's relationship to music is as revealing as his relationship to Mingus and black culture at large.
"I kind of gave [Dylan] my problem of how much the black music that I was surrounded with meant to me," says Lethem, "and yet I couldn't make a comfortable identification with it for a long time. ... When I listen to [the Spinners'] Philippe Wynne or [the Temptations'] David Ruffin or ['70s soul vocalist] Donny Hathaway sing now, I'm a very happy member of the congregation. ... But it took a long time for me to take the ironic brackets away from my understanding of that stuff."
Dylan longingly seeks a similar connection to both culture and music, first as an outsider in his neighborhood's mostly black hip hop and graffiti scenes, then as an insider as the hipster with street cred in Lower Manhattan's burgeoning punk arena. (Like the rest of the book, these sequences are rendered in a virtuosic language as uniquely musical as the movements described.) Finally, he becomes a music critic, earning his keep writing liner notes, articles, and even a screenplay about long-forgotten black musicians. For Dylan, music -- especially soul music -- becomes the itch he can't scratch: Understanding how and why it affects him becomes his obsession.
What the book illustrates so beautifully is how Dylan's obsession with the sounds he's transfixed by is the byproduct of his dire, self-conscious obsession with comprehending himself. Anyone who has sustained a long-term relationship to music can understand this idea. Think about the first song that ever struck you, the first record or tape or CD you ever bought. Before you could ever figure out how or why, these things just hit you -- bam! -- suddenly you were playing Kajagoogoo's "Too Shy" like it was instructions for living. But is there a logic to that? Does there need to be?
Like so many of us, Dylan fixates on the music of his past. When we catch up with him in the '90s, he's still dwelling on the songs that haunted him as a kid (like "Play That Funky Music" by Wild Cherry) and the musicians he was drawn to but never completely understood (such as Brian Eno). There is nary a discussion of contemporary music, black or white, and I can't help but point out to Lethem that his book seems to be making the point that the late '70s was the last period of popular music we can today romanticize with any dignity.
"The thing about early hip hop and early punk," he explains, "is that it was genuinely amateurish in a way that persists and adhered in the music for a while. But that was pretty late in the game for that to work anyway, you know? It was kind of like a last flare-up of something that had been true up until the corporatization of rock circa -- what would you say, '71 or '72? It might have seemed kind of monolithic by the end of the '70s, and yet then these two movements [hip hop and punk] come along.
"One of the subjects of the book is these [flare-ups] of utopian preserves in the midst of [a] corrupt class and capitalist-ridden world, where hierarchies and exploitation are the rule. Nevertheless, there's these kind of moments where someone has a commune, or a bunch of kids are playing together on the street and they're integrating and they don't even know it, or a bunch of hippies move away to Indiana and they buy some land and they have a place that's actually utopia for a little while -- the fragility but persistence of these bohemian preserves. And, you know, the Sugar Hill Gang and certain parts of the New York punk scene and the English punk scene are these brief oases where there's a kind of utopian preserve. ... For that little moment, people have kind of come together in a glorious innocence and created a space where something can be played out that's rather beautiful."
Ultimately, The Fortress of Solitude is a book about searching out the roads that lead us back to these fleeting utopias. As a music writer, Dylan leaves a trail for people to follow but simultaneously erases it: In pointing out the transcendence of a particular song or album, he's also distancing his readers from that transcendence, having permanently intellectualized something that was previously just an impulse, a feeling. It's both beautiful and tragic, and for Dylan it means he may never have communion with those things he loves. He may never be fulfilled. And he knows it.
"The question is -- and it's not just sociological, it's not just race," says Lethem, "the question is: How would his guilt and self-consciousness play out if he weren't in a racial environment?"
Because this novel is so autobiographical -- Lethem grew up on Dean Street, where most of the book takes place; he's an avid music consumer; he lived in Berkeley for years; etc. -- one wonders if the writer has answered that question for himself.
"One of the things I feel I was learning as I wrote the book was, you know, thinking about [my old] neighborhood in terms of gentrification, it's so easy to say, like, 'Oh God, there was this displacement and all the money came and pushed away something so beautiful,' as though there was one simple thing that had been present before the displacement. But in fact, these moments -- it's an endless series of collapsing oases. There's never one thing, there's always a negotiation. Utopian moments arise and they can be valued, but the illusion that there was just a golden time and all is lost is way too easy. It's not really like that."
Now Lethem has to leave. He's off to another book signing and is running late, so he leaves me stewing in the hotel bar, mulling over our conversation. I order a drink and sit there for a while, more confused than ever. Then, something Lethem told me comes to mind:
"I think it's lucky for me that I didn't write about music [as a critic], that I never professionalized my anxieties about that material. And I think in a way it's unlucky for Dylan that he writes about it. It's better that I stayed kind of wondering and wrote fiction instead."
Shit. Better make that a double.