Works of art can be better than the real world, and maybe even redeem it, but not even Marvel comics can be “both safer than life and fuller, a better family. That they couldn’t give.” According to Lethem, the first song John Lennon recorded after the Beatles’ breakup was called “My Mummy’s Dead.” Listening to his own past, he hears something that sounds similar: “Each of my novels, antic as they may sometimes be, is fueled by loss. I find myself speaking about my mother’s death everywhere I go in this world.”
“IF BLACK BOLT EVER UTTERED A SYLLABLE THE WORLD WOULD CRACK IN TWO.”
Hardboiled bittersweet, that’s Conrad Metcalf, the private investigator in Gun, With Occasional Music (published in 1994 and reissued in 2003), a Philip Marlowe, a Lew Archer, but also a Primal Scream in a Brave New Noir: “The thing I wanted wasn’t lost in the past at all, and it never had been. It was lost in the future. A self I should have been, but wasn’t.” Never mind the Sam Spade case he thinks he’s working on, which involves the torture and murder of a sheep. Keep your eye on the kangaroo. Or the sow, ape, and dachshund, all of whom are “evolved.” We are living in a near future of animal hybrids and designer drugs (Acceptol, Regrettol, Forgettol, Believol, Avoidol); of cash registers that play orchestral music when the drawer’s open, trash cans that flourish trumpets, water fountains that spout pop tunes, parking meters that strum Hawaiian bottleneck guitar, and tape-deck cranial implants of your own memories edited so you can safely answer any question; where “spoken-word news” and the printed word are against the law, and psychology students go door to door ringing your bell to read out loud from Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents.
Already you are smiling. What amazed about Lethem from the start was this amiability, this ramshackle construction, this loose-limbed ambling through the genres. To each pulpy occasion, instead of masks or capes, he wore sneakers, sweats, leather, shades. He licked the language as if it were a lollipop: “I’ll have my lips removed as soon as I learn a way to whistle out my asshole.” But also from the beginning he was bereft. In Gun, With Occasional Music, see the creatures called Babyheads. The near future has decided that it takes too long to grow a kid, during which they are too noisy and ask too many questions, anyway. So, using the same “evolution therapy” that got kangaroos up and talking, scientists fiddled with the human growth process and managed to speed it up so much that you now see toddlers at “babybars” with little yellow fish on their red jumpers and cigarettes tucked behind their ears.
In Amnesia Moon (1995), where Jack Kerouac and Philip K. Dick will meet Mel Gibson’s Road Warrior and Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert after the bombs have fallen on America, the sky is purple with radiation poisoning, the mountains are full of biochemical amnesiac fog, and mutants from the “rupture” think they can talk to dolphins, almost everybody is bereft. Chaos, for instance, is a character personified here as if Lethem were Milton or Hobbes; he lives in the projection booth of a multiplex in Hatfork, Wyoming, and is forever dreaming someone else’s dreams. And then there is Melinda, the fur-covered adolescent girlchild, some kind of selkie out of Celtic folklore, hitching a ride with Chaos to Emerald City and the Wizard of Oz. And Edie, who seeks to improve her Finite Subjective Reality but always flunks her bad-luck test. Not to mention Case Hotchkiss, Everett Moon, Vance Escrow, and Dawn Crash in the Submission District of San Francisco, where, after the fragmentation caused by bombs, they long for “a sort of viral coherence”; they wait for Godot and gestalt.
If Amnesia Moon is Pynchon Lite, like Pynchon’s Vineland, it is also the Philip K. Dickiest of Lethem’s novels. Except that Dick was a paranoid pillhead—genuinely convinced, according to his most recent biographer, that telepathic Soviet scientists tried to jam his neural frequencies by bombarding him with abstract splatters of Kandinsky and Picasso from the Hermitage—whereas Lethem is known to hang out at McSweeney’s, where the writers want to make a community; and the coherence he longs for throughout his books, the gestalt, is family.
As She Climbed Across the Table (1997) sounds funnier in synopsis than it reads on the page. Alice, a particle physicist, disappears through the looking glass at the university computer center into “a false vacuum bubble” which may or may not be a homegrown black hole. Philip, the anthropologist who loves her, is jealous but helpless. Alice is smitten with “an absence or failure to happen” and “an explosion of metaphor into a literal world”—which takes a phenomenal form she calls Lack. Only after light bulbs, slide rules, bowling shoes, ashtrays, pomegranates, and a boxed edition of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark have all vanished into Lack will Alice decide to follow. What nobody realizes is that Lack, hungry for meaning, has borrowed his personality from Alice, who doesn’t approve of herself. Nor is the resident deconstructionist, George De Tooth, much help: “Physics seeks to dismantle the surface, perceive behind it, to a truth comprised of particles; I argue against depth wherever I find it.”
So Don DeLillo’s White Noise meets Richard Power’s Galatea 2.2, except that DeLillo and Powers go deeper. Still, there is one of the best seduction lines in or out of any academic novel: “What I would be interested in seeing is you exhibit your tropism.” And surely DeLillo himself wrote these sentences: “That morning forest fires to the north produced a carpet of ash that reddened the skies. The sun glowed orange in the east, an eerie morning sunset. The gray flecks settled in a fine coat over windshields, automatic teller machines, and public art.”
But back to family, about which Girl in Landscape (1998) is especially eloquent, a prose riff on John Ford’s The Searchers but it is also Lethem’s Passage to India, as well as a wonderment in which a Catcher in the Rye reads the Martian Chronicles in a Little House on the Prairie. Pella is thirteen years old, living beneath a poisoned earth with her younger brothers, when their father, Clement, loses an election and their mother, Caitlin, dies of a brain tumor. So it’s off by freezer ship to the Planet of the Archbuilders and a frontier settlement on a “landscape of remembrance,” a dream terrain of eroded spires and ancient tombs, with black sand and mourning sculptures, fish potatoes and lynch mobs, indigenes with evocative names like Hiding Kneel and Truth Renowned, and miniature deer so quicksilver swift they might very well be ghosts.
On this “Planet of Withheld Explanations,” the adolescent Pella experiences the terrors of adult sexuality (“The girl’s body was pretentious with womanhood”), Lethem finds his first fully fledged character, the reader emerges from a sci-fi western more complicated than he was going in, and we glimpse the homesteading to come in the Brooklyn of Rachel, Abraham, and Dylan in The Fortress of Solitude. Once upon a time, the mother, Caitlin, told her strong, smart daughter Pella: “Don’t you think arms are brave? They just go on, they never get tired or give up or complain.” So when Pella, the pioneer woman, raises a new town on an old planet, she already has not only a name for it, Caitlin, of course, but also a motto worthy of a Vonnegut: “Be brave like an arm.”
Motherless Brooklyn (1999) is the novel favored by readers of Lethem who’d rather he hadn’t entered the mainstream, a peculiar resentment indeed on the part of people who otherwise complain that the mainstream unfairly disdains their populist subversions, their pulp-proud underground, their monastic cells and hermetic texts. About the mainstream: love it or leave it. To want to eat the flowers and sleep in the Hide-a-Bed of the very same rectal-thermometer establishment whose walls you have pledged to “tag”—do your graffiti—seems to me to be uncool. But Motherless Brooklyn, in which Lionel Essrog is only one of many orphans in the hired-muscle and private-eye service of a smalltime hood, is way cool, as if Tony Shalhoub’s Monk, the obsessive-compulsive TV detective, and Philip Roth’s Mickey Sabbath had teamed up to solve an Oedipal crime. Lionel, moreover, speaks in tongues. Like Mozart and Malraux, he is afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome. He can’t help turning everything he hears into a linguistic freak show, “spirit or animal possession, verbal epileptic seizure, whatever,” with “a flapping, inane mouth that covered the world in names and descriptions,” and “no control in my personal experience of self.”
What happens as Lionel, determined to avenge the murder of the mafioso who got him out of St. Vincent’s Home for Boys, follows a deadly trail from a Yorkville zendo with some very odd monks to a Sushi Oceanfood Emporium on the rocky coast of Maine, past recollected images of Marlon Brando, Ross MacDonald, Daffy Duck, and the Green Hornet, is a brilliant game of verbal tags. (“Ducky fucking Bent!” should appeal to baseball fans who will never forgive the Yankee shortstop Bucky Dent for his playoff home run against the Red Sox.) Not only is the narrator unreliable; he has run amok: “I’m a tightly wound loose cannon.” He could be compared to Benjy in The Sound and the Fury, or Oskar in The Tin Drum, or the Hunchback of Notre Dame; to a Greek who can only talk in vehement dithyrambs, an Elizabethan stuck in iambic pentameter, a waterbug in Kafka, an elephant in Aida, or Gogol’s nose. And, as usual with Lethem, Lionel blames himself for what he’s lost:
Is guilt a species of Tourette’s? Maybe. It has a touchy quality, I think, a hint of sweaty fingers. Guilt wants to cover all the bases, be everywhere at once, reach into the past to tweak, neaten, and repair. Guilt like Tourettic utterance flows uselessly, inelegantly from one helpless human to another, contemptuous of perimeters, doomed to be mistaken or refused on delivery.
Nevertheless, remember what your mother told you. BE BRAVE LIKE AN ARM.
So we arrive at last at The Fortress of Solitude (2003), and the 1970s Brooklyn boyhood of two friends, the white Dylan and the black Mingus—salt and pepper, race and music, levitation and transparency. Just how resonant can a decade be? What if nothing else for the rest of your life will ever be as meaningful as how you felt in the seventh grade, being beaten up on your way home from school? Play That Funky Music, White Boy. Is it possible to grow up at all, much less up, up, and away, in a novel named for Superman’s polar hideout, a hope chest and a memory bank with its own lab and its own zoo, where the Man of Steel from Action Comics went whenever his nerves were frayed—a novel that is itself a nest of cellars and attics, of batcaves in which Dylan with his secret identities may be downstairs practicing sarcasm as if it were karate, while his artist-father Abraham is upstairs painting jackets for sci-fi paperbacks and killing time with blobs of light, even as Mingus’s singer-father, Barrett Rude Junior, on the next block over has drawn the shade to darken the room where he burns freebase cocaine in a glass pipe?
By now you have heard that nerdy Dylan’s bohemian parents, avant-garde Abraham and radical hippie Rachel, move to Boerum Hill in Brooklyn just when the neighborhood is deciding whether to decay some more or gentrify, because they believe in community. And they send Dylan to public school, rather than St. Ann’s or Packer, because their liberal principles say they should. And Dylan, naturally, is victimized, headlocked (“yoked”) every day by black boys from the projects, one of whom steals his bike, for which theft his sorry ass will then be kicked by earth-mother Rachel herself, earning Dylan an enemy for life. And he will be naked before this enemy when his feckless parent, the Red Queen, “Rachel, the Symbionese soccer mom,” suddenly deserts him, disappearing into the sexual and social revolutions with a grown man as serious about comics as Dylan himself. She will never see her son again, although, signing herself “Running Crab,” she does send back the occasional, cryptic postcard. (“Brooklyn was simple compared to his mother.”)
And then, miraculously, Dylan is befriended by supercool Mingus Rude, equally motherless but effortlessly gifted, the mulatto son of a celebrated soul singer: “an exploding bomb of possibilities.” As if they are characters in the comics they consume like oxygen, Mingus and Dylan transcend their streets. Games of stickball and skully, movies starring the dead Bruce Lee, comics featuring a Human Torch, an Invisible Girl, and Mole Men, weed-smoking, break dancing, Motown, hip-hop and funk, Yoo-hoo, Etch A Sketch, Spirograph, and Pixy Stix, all seem staged for these brave two, a private safari into the continent of being boys. They will fly high over stoops and bodegas, the public school, the House of Detention, and the Brooklyn Bridge. At first the purpose of their upward mobility is to tag walls that can’t contain them, paint their names on every page in Brooklyn’s book: “Under oblivious eyes, the invisible autographed the world.” Later, though, Dylan and Mingus turn into crime-stopping vigilantes. And we are asked to believe they actually fly. From a homeless superhero who fell off a roof, they inherit a ring that lets them drape a cape and levitate.
A magic ring conferring the ability to fly would seem to belong more to one of Lethem’s earlier novels than this masterly, lyrical scan of childhood, a ligature of fellowship and blood ties. Before everything goes wrong about two thirds of the way through, Solitude has been perfectly poised between sense and stress, aura and object, the man who remembers and the boy who was there. So saturated is its phrasing, so tactile with the first charged feeling of each sight, sound, smell, and sinew, that it seems that popular culture might really be the solvent in which contradictions of class and race dissolve. Even after Dylan and Mingus are discovered in a homoerotic scrum—as if they had been choreographed by the Freudian critic Leslie Fiedler in a Huck and Jim, or Ishmael and Queequeg, or Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook pas de deux—when white Dylan goes off to Stuyvesant High School, Camden College in New England, Berkeley, California, and a vile career in rock criticism, while black Mingus goes to crack cocaine and prison, both passages are, if perhaps perfunctory, nevertheless plausible. But then that magic ring shows up again, behind bars, where instead of letting anybody fly away, it renders them invisible.
Only in a comic book, and not very often there, will a magic trick harmonize the races or bring back your missing mother. Solitude, copping out, didn’t so much cheat the reader as it threw up its hands and shrugged us off: I give up. Irony hasn’t done the job, or nostalgia, either, so why not try wishful thinking? In this, we seem not to have advanced an inch in at least four decades. Some may recall the essay Norman Podhoretz wrote for Commentary in 1963, “My Negro Problem—And Ours.” As Dylan was “yoked” in Brooklyn in the 1970s, so Podhoretz, in his very own version of “Play That Funky Music, White Boy,” reported “being repeatedly beaten up, robbed, and in general hated, terrorized, and humiliated” in Brooklyn in the 1930s. And as Podhoretz concluded that America’s race problem could only be solved by “miscegenation,” by making color “disappear,” so Lethem helpfully bequeaths Dylan an African-American girlfriend in third-world Berkeley.
But Podhoretz is busy these days attacking ex-friends and invading Mesopotamia. And how come Berkeley in these pages seems so much more educational than Bennington College? Lethem, who went to Bennington for a bit, calls it Camden in The Fortress of Solitude. So did Bret Easton Ellis call it Camden in The Rules of Attraction, and Jill Eisenstadt, too, in her novel, Far Rockaway, where Ellis had a walk-on. But Donna Tartt called it Hampden, even though The Secret History was dedicated to Ellis and some of us wondered about Tartt’s student dope dealer with the mob connections. A dope deal likewise figures in Dylan’s stay at Camden. But unlike either Ellis or Tartt, Lethem failed to notice any incest, gang rape, or murder. And Bennington probably wonders if any of these stoned, horny, ungrateful, and uncomprehending pissants ever went to class or read a book or had a thought or mustered a fierce feeling about anything other than Devo or Marvel.
Which brings us full-circle back around to comic books and popular culture. I’m glad to learn from The Disappointment Artist that Lethem’s father is more interesting than Dylan’s was; that his mother, unlike Dylan’s, didn’t abandon her boy out of narcissism; that Jonathan, unlike Dylan, has siblings. And I am sorry that none of us can fly, besides which we’re opaque. But it is time this gifted writer closed his comic books for good. Superpowers are not what magic realism was about in Bulgakov, Kobo Abe, Salman Rushdie, or the Latin American flying carpets. That Michael Chabon and Paul Auster have gone graphic, that one Jonathan, Lethem, writes on and on about John Ford, while another Jonathan, Franzen, writes on and on about “Peanuts,” even as Rick Moody confides to the Times Book Review that “comics are currently better at the sociology of the intimate gesture than literary fiction is,” may just mean that the slick magazines with the scratch and sniff ads for vodka and opium are willing to pay a bundle for bombast about ephemera.
But all of it makes me itch. Welcome to New Dork! We have been airpopped and multimediated unto inanity and pastiche. Philip K. Dick and Stan Lee get made into Hollywood movies. Alienation and sexual terror have their own sitcoms, fashion statements, and marketing niches. The middle finger and the Bronx cheer are required courses in cultural studies. Boomers have made sure that their every febrile enthusiasm since Pampers will last longer than radioactive waste, on digital cable or DVD. Gen-Xers are just as solipsistic; anything that ever mattered to them must have been profound, even, say, Debbie Harry of the pop group Blondie talking to MTV while a sirocco blows in one of her ears and out the other and neurons die like flies. BITE MY CRANK, SUPER GOAT MAN!