Why do some novels take you forever to read, and others you zip through in hours? What is it that calls to the reader, “Keep reading! Don’t put me down!” or “Do you really want to keep going with this one?”
My father-in-law used to say that he felt guilty about not finishing a book, particularly if a friend had recommended it. He also felt he had an obligation to the author to finish reading their work, even if he wasn’t really enjoying it, simply because they had worked so hard to write it. I’m not sure I feel so strongly about finishing a book if it’s a clunker of a novel, but how to approach a novel that is critically acclaimed but not singing to you?
Recently I worked very hard to finish The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, a novel that I had been looking forward to reading for a quite while. It had been recommended to me by several friends who have similar reading taste to mine, which is always a good sign. However, I found the first section of the novel tough going. I found myself appreciating the novel rather than getting sucked in and enjoying it, which is never a great sign. When I find myself self-consciously overanalyzing my reading rather than simply reading, I know something hasn’t clicked.
So what was it in The Fortress of Solitude? I think for starters, I felt physically lost. Lethem sets the first part of the novel in Brooklyn of the 1970s, and I felt physically lost. I have no idea what the neighborhood looked like, and my visualization felt inadequate. But honestly, that can’t be the whole reason. I’ve read plenty of novels where I have no personal familiarity of the location, such as Anna Karenina. I certainly have no learned understanding of the farms and cities of 19th century pre-Revolutionary Russia – but the novel captivated me anyway.
I also felt lost, culturally. I am a suburban kid, with only a passing acquaintance with American city life. And the racial struggles of the 1970s are a piece of history that I read about, but never really confronted in the way that Dylan and Mingus, the main characters, do. The escalation of the drug culture through the novel, progressing from the pot smoking of the 70s to the crack addiction of the 1990s is another slice of American life that I have not experienced. But again, elements of cultural differences did not slow my reading of other books like The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, or Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan.
Perhaps I was misled by the jacket blurb, which says:
This is the story of what would happen if two teenaged boys obsessed with comic-book heroes actually had superpowers: they would screw up their lives.
I think Dylan and Mingus were well on their way to screwing up their lives before the superpowers ever make an appearance in the novel. The superpowers are incidental, and not the big game changer that I thought they would be.
I also found myself distracted by all the music references. I lost many hours of reading time searching for recordings online. This gem of a song plays a strong role in a scene, which I found on YouTube:
When the novel ceases to be about their childhood, and explores the effect of their childhood on their adult lives, that’s when my reading speed increased. And more interesting than the teenage approach to the superpowers is Dylan and Mingus’ adult approach.Lethem writes of the evolution of Dylan and Mingus’ superpowers, and it’s brilliant. Mingus puts away the ring that gives him the power to fly. He’s flying everyday, smoking crack, flying from high to high, from score to score. When Dylan uses the ring again, it does not give him the power to fly. Instead, he is invisible, an outward manifestation of his desire as a white kid to walk down the street without being hassled or “yoked.”
So while I plodded through The Fortress of Solitude – it took me a month to finish!- I am glad I did. The difficulty I had with the first section of the novel was secondary to the pleasure of the insights in the rest of the novel.
Please let me know your thoughts! What keeps you going in a novel if it seems to be going slowly? Do you keep reading, or set it aside?