Just before the wedding (which went great, by the way—more later, but see here and here in the meantime), I finished reading Jonathan Lethem’s novel Fortress of Solitude, and I’ve been talking about it ever since. Maybe I’m just deprived from not reading any contemporary fiction in the run-up to the exams, but it seemed like the sort of book that could get everyone talking. After a couple hundred pages I knew I was going to want to blog on it, but I couldn’t think of how to get beyond “this book is really interesting” and thus make it interesting to those (probably almost all of you) who hadn’t read the book. Luckily Joe Kugelmass called my attention to Timothy Burke’s proposal for a “Department of Everything Studies” (by posting his own excellent response to it), and I realized the way in: the novel intersects with a debate, bubbling especially over the last few years, over the juxtaposition of pop culture with high culture (or the outright substitution of the latter with the former), in art, in academia, and in society at large. Incidentally, feel free to put invisible quotation marks around “high culture,” but to a large extent I believe in the distinction so I’m leaving them out.
What I’ve written below is pretty sprawling, and I don’t pretend to have a particularly clear thesis—except insofar as, once again, I propose the Middle Path. Instead, I want to use the book to examine some of the issues that surround the interaction between pop culture and high culture, including the canon, race and class, and “nerds,” and look at how academics might resolve these. (A note to those who haven’t read the book: I’ll try to avoid spoilers here, but obviously a certain amount of reference to the events of the plot is inevitable.)
The novel is about a white boy, Dylan Ebdus, growing up in largely non-white Brooklyn in the 1970s. It deals with issues of race, of family (both Dylan and his black best friend, Mingus Rude, have been left by their mothers), and popular art of all kinds—Dylan and Mingus are both interested in music, comic books, and, starting in adolescence, graffiti; Mingus’s father is a successful soul musician, and Dylan’s is an abstract artist who pays the bills by doing paintings for sci-fi novels. Moreover, the novel explores how, for young people especially, the choice of different cultural relics and fashions necessarily entails participation in a particular social scene, and thus acts to define not only one’s taste but one’s group and personality. This is true whether the individual means it or not—at one point one of Dylan’s middle-class, white high-school friends, wearing a leather jacket to show solidarity with the burgeoning punk movement, gives offense to a Puerto Rican gang member who wears his leather jacket as an emblem of his own community. More on the theme of self-definition later.
Fortress of Solitude falls short of being a great novel, mainly because the latter half of the book, dealing with Dylan’s adulthood, is not as interesting as the half dealing with his childhood and adolescence, which is as smart and engaging as just about anything I can remember reading. Without getting into too much detail, a character’s harassment by bullies (of any race) as a child becomes much less engaging when the character is an adult and should really have more important things to worry about. Nonetheless, the book is interesting even in failure, and I’m excited by the prospect of one day using it in a class on interracial friendships in American novels, alongside Huckleberry Finn (which, of course, also has a problematic second half, probably for similar reasons).
At a certain point in Fortress of Solitude, I began to realize that I was not only reading an extraordinary novel; I was reading a modernist novel, in the tradition of Virginia Woolf or, especially, James Joyce. I make this association based on three characteristics. The first is a decentered, experimental narrative voice. The narrator shifts significantly between the first and final half of the novel, and all three narrative voices—first, second, and third person—are used. Other narrative forms—liner notes, in particular—are reproduced as part of the narrative, and the narrator’s voice and phrasing changes depending on the character being narrated. The effect created by all of this is of a sprawling, extremely subjective world of competing consciousnesses.
The second quality that makes the novel modernist is a close attention to the moment-by-moment thoughts and words of the characters, even in apparently trivial conversations. In one scene, Dylan’s only pre-high school white friend (Arthur Lomb, about whom more later) asks him about his black friend Mingus:
“As I was saying, I noticed you talking to Mingus Rude, he’s an eighth grader, how’d you get to know him? Not that he’s in school much, huh. Still, it must be advantageous to be friends with, hurrh, that sort of person.”
Arthur Lomb’s speech bore like a small puckered scar a characteristic hitch of intaken breath in that place where he’d omitted the word black from the sentence but not from the thought which had given rise to the sentence. And that hitch of breath, it seemed to Dylan, was Arthur in a nutshell, making such a show of a card unplayed that he tipped his whole hand.
The third modernist characteristic of the novel, and the one I want to talk about for the rest of this entry, is its use of reference: the world of the novel is supported by a mesh of references to contemporary music, movies, comic books, cultural trends, and historical moments (the Son of Sam killings, e.g.), much in the same way that The Waste Land makes reference both to classical myths and figures and to modern ones (pop songs, the Great War).
Even before I started reading Fortress of Solitude, this was the characteristic that I was most curious about, because it marks the book as a member of a literary faction that is gaining both adherents and enemies. Long before I read this book I read a review of it by John Leonard in the New York Review of Books which contained a withering, exasperated critique of the practice of incorporating pop culture into literature. In fairness, parts of the review are very good criticism: “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”—that all seems right to me, including the part about everything going wrong. Which makes it all the more amazing that Leonard works himself into such a lather by the end of the review: after complaining that, by publishing stories by Lethem, Michael Chabon, and the like, “the slick magazines with the scratch and sniff ads for vodka and opium are willing to pay a bundle for bombast about ephemera,” he closes with a paragraph that stops just short of telling contemporary literature to get a haircut and stay off his damn lawn:
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. … 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 and 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. …
It’s easy to laugh at Leonard here—”the pop group Blondie” makes me think of how the dad in the comic strip “Curtis” refers to “‘rap’ music”—and to some extent he’s playing for a laugh. Nevertheless, amidst all the spittle, he is making a definite argument: that when literature neglects its own canon, its power to produce thought is lost. “Is it so unreasonable,” he asks early in the review, “to want to know more of what he thinks about Julio Cortázar and less of how he feels about Obi-Wan Kenobi?” (Note the shift between “think” and “feel”—to Leonard, our reaction to pop culture is never intellectual.)
The key to this dispute, I think—or more accurately, the key to Leonard’s misreading of Lethem’s book—is his use of the word “ephemera” to describe the kind of pop culture Lethem writes about. My take: of course it is. You would have to be extremely wide-eyed to claim that the song “Play That Funky Music, White Boy” (predictably used to torment Dylan in school) had some sort of lasting, vital effect on the larger world, and the same goes for all but a handful of the comics that Dylan, Mingus and Arthur collect, store in plastic sleeves, and eventually discard. But all of this is no more ephemeral—in fact, it’s a good deal less so—than the detail of what horse won the Gold Cup on June 16, 1904. Ephemera—cultural and otherwise—are the bulk of what make up ordinary life, particularly that of young people, and any modern novelist who tried to omit the ephemeral would be creating … something else.
The only way Leonard’s epithet would carry any sting would be if Lethem lost sight of this ephemerality, like people who talk about their role-playing characters as if they were real people. In fact, he is eminently aware of it. One example: two girls who live near Dylan are always singing lines from whatever song is popular at that part of the novel: a device that measures the passage of time by the brief, beautiful lives of radio hits.
Leonard’s misapprehension—that Lethem’s invocation of pop culture means he is convinced of its lasting importance—also manifests itself in his use of the term “New Dork” (bravo!) to describe Lethem and his contemporaries, the implication being that Lethem simply hasn’t been able to find anything to divert him but comics and thus is being hindered by them. Again, though, Lethem is aware of the difference between those who use popular culture to supplement and enrich their lives and personalities, and those who use popular culture as their personalities—who have, talk about, and think about nothing besides their pop culture interests. (This distinction is what led me and some friends of mine in college to divide nerds into classes, as Girldetective describes here, and also what led Lore Sjöberg to create the “Geek Hierarchy.”) Arthur Lomb exemplifies this in Fortress of Solitude: hearing him list, in one uninterrupted paragraph, his favorite Mel Brooks film, then his favorite Pink Panther (“The best Panther is probably Return“), then his favorite Woody Allen, Dylan begins to understand both the all-consuming nature of Lomb’s opinions and the uncomfortable similarities they share:
Positioning, positioning, Arthur Lomb was forever positioning himself, making his views known, aligning on some index no one would ever consult. Here was Dylan’s burden, his cross: the accumulated knowledge of Arthur Lomb’s policies on every possible question. The cross was Dylan’s to bear, he knew, because his own brain boiled with pedantry, with too-eager trivia ready to burst loose at any moment.
Moreover, Dylan perceives that, past a certain point, nerd-dom isn’t just taste, but rather personality:
On the same shelves as his comics Arthur Lomb kept mass-market paperback editions of Al Jaffe’s [sic] Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions and Dave Berg’s The Lighter Side. The snippy irony of the Mad Magazine cartoonists seemed perfectly matched to Arthur’s bitter views, everything funny in a not-funny-at-all kind of way. Sarcasm as something you practiced like karate. Later concealing your mute fury when nobody fed you the opening lines.
This is exactly the type of reference practiced by Joyce, or Eliot or Pound: the individual reference is not important in itself, but as a way of describing a character or situation, it is irreplaceable. Also similar is the deliberate obscurity: there is little explanation of what is being referenced, so if you’re not familiar with 1970’s-era Mad Magazine you will simply have to move on to the next reference. (I imagine the gist is clear if you haven’t read these cartoons, though I wouldn’t know—as a kid, I devoured old issues of Mad, and was not un-Arthur Lomb-ish.) The point is that Lethem cannot explain who Al Jaffee is, because Dylan would not and because that’s the way the world of nerds works: you either know about it or you don’t.
This characterizing effect of pop interests also belies Leonard’s opinion that pop culture—”obvious, blatant, standardized”—cannot, unlike high art, get at the truly individual and thoughtful. Clearly, what is “obvious” to one person can be defamiliarized by another, turned into something surprising and true. “Tags were no different from anything else: codes in layers, ready to be peeled away or overwritten,” writes Lethem about the graffiti that began to appear in the mid-seventies. Leonard’s “Obvious, blatant, standardized” obviously describes graffiti exactly, but it fails to account for the infinite ways we can react to the obvious, nor the unacknowledged and unconsidered nature of those reactions.
Some of those differences of perception are based in differences of race and class, which is the other reason why Leonard’s call for Lethem to “[close] his comic books for good,” in favor of the classics, is untenable: Lethem is writing about Dylan in his social and historical context, and in that context, people read comics, not Kafka. Furthermore, an author who wants to write about race in contemporary America really has no choice but to write about pop cultural interests, since racial identity is so bound up in them, and in the question of what it means to be a “nerd.” Arthur Lomb, as Dylan’s one white friend, in a way proves the thesis given in this New York Times Magazine article, that nerdiness is defined by extreme and self-conscious whitness; at the same time, he also shows the limitations of that thesis, since what he exemplifies is not a true identity but rather a willingness to assume a cultural persona, which can be switched out for any other. Thus, one can be a sports nerd, a gun nerd, etc.: the extreme of “nerdiness” has less to do with the specific interests (in comic books or anything else) than it does with using those interests in place of actual character. We see this when ultimate nerd Arthur Lomb, the whitest kid in school, soon finds himself doing a 180 and imitating the “sort of person” he earlier asked Dylan about:
Arthur’s eager mimicry produces a twee, mechanical version of Mingus’s hunched lope. He really is, in this sense, a toy: he’s turning himself into a Mingus-puppet. “Yo, them dudes were talking about Strike, man, they said he was there tagging up, but I didn’t see him. … Anyway, Strike’s okay, but I prefer Zephyr, I think he’s really got the most original tag, yo, man, you know what I mean?” … Arthur Lomb, it appears, contains multitudes: he’s managed this utter self-reformatting with the same sleazy facility with which he earlier dumped the Mets for the Yankees.
“Toy” is a pun: as Lethem tells us earlier, it’s what graffiti artists write over existing tags to disrespect them, but here it also implies a childish copy, unable to move on its own. Arthur Lomb chooses to have no personality—almost as a survival strategy—and thus is as susceptible to this minstrel show as he was to the borrowed identity of comic books: “Arthur was a phony, and Mingus would know soon enough. [Dylan] imagined Arthur saying, Yo, Mister Machine sucks, Jack Kirby can’t draw anymore, dang, but a number one’s a number one, yo, seal it in airtight plastic and put it on the shelf, that’s my policy, yo.” At the end of the novel, Arthur is a property owner in a gentrified neighborhood, causing Dylan to reflect on the difference between them: “It was a form of autism, a failure at social mimicry, that had kept me from the adaptations which made Arthur more Brooklyn than me, in the end. … So it only followed that Arthur Lomb would still be here, gobbling up Smith Street’s commercial real estate just in time to cash in on the yuppie entrepreneurs…” Lomb’s phoniness is identical with opportunism: the combination of his racial and social privilege with his lack of commitment to any clear identity allows him to position himself advantageously, just as he does in the endless chess games with Dylan. He idolizes comics and movies, and then he idolizes graffiti, but he doesn’t have a true appreciation of any of these things—only of the self-definition they provide.
Which brings me, at last, to the proposal for “everything studies.” By positioning myself against Leonard’s haughty canonicism, it would seem that I’d be in favor of Burke’s plan, which amounts to an acceptance, by English departments, of all forms of criticism practiced on anything. Isn’t this the natural alternative to Leonard’s “keep ’em all out” approach? But the genius of Fortress of Solitude is that it shows the difference between the genres, the reason graffiti has to be graffiti and DJing has to be DJing. Too many academics go from the premise that everything is a text to the premise that all texts are read in basically the same way, and I fear that Burke is one of them:
If I’m reading academic work about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I want to hear from people interested in the craftwork involved in how it tells stories, including assessments of its quality as a visual and cultural work. I want to hear from people who talk about its use of symbols. I want to hear from people who study how fan communities read and write the text of the show, and from scholars who examine how mass audiences that don’t categorize themselves as “fans” reacted to the show. I want to know how much money it made, and how it made it. …
The exact same openness goes if I’m reading academic work about Hamlet. All of that is fair game, all of it is interesting, all of it potentially germane.
In theory, this sounds immensely democratic, since no one seems to be able to say why Hamlet deserves literary analysis and Buffy doesn’t. But it’s not a matter of desserts, it’s a matter of genre, so in practice—and this is one area where I feel I’ve had a lot of experience—it ends up being phony analysis: without the expertise required to analyze film or art or graffiti, “studying” these things simply amounts to attempting literary close readings of works which, because they are not literature (I mean they are different in kind, not quality), do not reward them. I saw this again and again at the Popular Culture Association Conference four years ago; for instance, I thought I would enjoy a panel on zombie movies, because I like zombie movies. Instead, the analysis of the panel consisted of almost no work that could be called film or cultural studies, but rather of picking the lowest-hanging insights and indifferently presenting them to the audience. One paper identified racial tension as being a theme of Night of the Living Dead and then essentially stopped there, content with the level of analysis usually applied to Lord of the Flies in seventh grade English classes. When a cultural studies approach was attempted, the results were dubious: the same paper saw the imagery of Night of the Living Dead as having been inspired by the shootings at Kent State (which took place two years later), and saw a movie that took place before the Tonkin Gulf Incident as foretelling America’s defeat in Vietnam. These are sloppy mistakes, but they are also predictable, systematic ones: they are more extreme versions of the mistakes that must occur when we indulge our desire to collapse pop culture, history, and literary studies into a single point, without an interest in what differentiates them. This is why Dylan is able to superimpose Lomb’s “comic nerd” persona onto his “black” persona: Lomb has no interest in what it means to read comics rather than tag buildings.
To be clear, of course it sometimes makes sense to make use of pop culture and historical context to help us understand a work or period—I’m in the process of sketching out a project on early spy literature, so of course I watched Hitchcock’s version of The 39 Steps—and Leonard’s desire to see popular music and movies disappear from high art and the academy is not possible, let alone desirable. But Fortress of Solitude is a novel which contains tags, comic books, music, movies, and so on, in the service of a goal which could only be attained in the literary form. It is not about those things for their own sake. Similarly, as Kugelmass argues, we have to build a specialty—in this case, literary studies; in other cases, film studies and so forth—rather than simply writing about whatever we might like to write about. The reason to have a discipline in the first place is to understand why that discipline is important, and different from others. Without a disciplinary center, we become simply Lombesque: “positioning, positioning,” always drifting from mode to mode, looking for the one that will make people like us.