Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Novel Soundtracks - Lethem's Fortress of Solitude

When I started reading Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude I got the idea that it would be cool to create a soundtrack for it. It's so rich with great music throughout the book that I had one playing in my head the whole time anyway.

So I started writing it down any artist/band references, and songs or albums that are referenced or coincide with the time mentioned. Man... 135 songs later I knew that it needed some whittling down and better guidlines. So I decided to only include songs from albums mentioned along with songs mentioned. Whew... that took it down to a manageable 54 songs, or about 3 CD's worth.

Playlist: Novel Sndtrck - Fortress of Solitude

Lethem has said this book is meant to work like a CD Box Set for a band. With the first section being music from the band (omniscient perspective and main story,) the second section being liner notes (quite literally, liner notes written by main character,) and the third section being the solo releases later on by the group (in this case, stories told in the first person by main characters Dylan and Mingus.)

The story takes place in 1970s Brooklyn, specifically Gowanus (or as it's known now through gentrification, Boerum Hill.) Young Dylan Ebdus' parents are among the first white folks to arrive, much the way Lethem's were in the early 70's. And from the start, Lethem throws you in the deep end and lets you learn how to swim in the miriad of details. This turns many a reader off at first, but it's purpose, I believe, is three-fold. One is to put you absolute in the time and place. Two is to create the incredible juxtoposition of the sequences involving the magic ring (more about that later.) And three is to highlight the 4 views you get through the novel, with the first holding you closer to the story then you want to be.

It starts you off with a bang:
Like a match struck in a darkened room:
Two white girls in flannel nightgowns and red vinyl rollerkates with white laces, tracing tentative circles on a cracked blue slate sidewalk at seven o'clock on an evening in July.
The girls murmered rhymes, were murmured rhymes...
It just continues with poetic prose that I had to resist from underlining when I read it at first - I cannot desicrate a library book... I just don't have it in me (now that I have the paperback, it's still too precious of a book for me to ruin, but it's chock full of scraps of paper w/ notes!)

The title of this tour de force refers to the 'secret sanctum' of Superman... an imprenetrable hideout carved into the solid rock of a mountain somewhere in the arctic, where Superman goes to relax, and conduct experiments.
Here I can keep the trophies and dangerous souvenirs I've collected from other worlds. Here I can conduct secret experiments with my super-powers and keep souvenirs of my best friends! I built it here in the polar wastes because the intense cold keeps away snoopers.
from Action Comics #241
This all relates metaphorically to the story with plenty of isolation that the various superheroes (read: characters) take upon themselves. Then the Superman reference is taken quite literally as the book takes on a magic realism turn with a magic ring that bestows superpowers upon it's bearer. The superhero turns are both jarring and enchanting as the book lies in such realism throughout, you get a headrush whenever it takes a pass at the ring.

You'll also notice title contains the word 'Solitude' which is in the title of one of the more popular magic realism novels to date, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Coincidence, or dual shout-out to both comic book and magic realism heroes?

One more thing that the book will be remembered for is it's description of the changing of grades at school.
Second grade was first grade with math. Third grade was second grade with a period in the schoolyard to play kickball...( follows with kickball story -p. 30)

Fifth grade was fourth grade with something wrong. Nothing changed outright. Instead it teetered.... The ones who couldn't read still couldn't, the teachers were teaching the same thing for the fifth time now and refusing to meet your eyes, some kids had been left back twice and were the size of janitors. The place was a cage for growing, nothing else.(p. 62)

Seventh grade was sixth grade desublimated, uncorked. It was Lord of the Rings trilogy to sixth grade's The Hobbit, the real story at last, all the ominous foreshadowed stuff flushed from the margins and into view. It wasn't for children, seventh grade.(p. 116)
Brilliant stuff... he nails inner city public schools, but universally, much rings true - seventh grade especially... that might just be mankind at it's absolute cruelest. Throughout the stages of school, Lethem points out that no one stays the same, everyone's a moving target: "Dylan never met anyone who wasn't about to change immediately into someone else." And so the same goes for the ring, it seems to be changing, as it's bearer requires different powers as they change throughout. With all these moving targets, it's no wonder why people don't connect.

In the end, when Dylan's listening to Brian Eno in the car, he recalls a moment in high school where he tried to share a new Clash or Ramones album with his father and ask him:
"Do you hear it? How great it is? There's never been music like this!"
"Sure," he'd say. "It's wonderful."
"But do you really hear what I'm hearing? Can you hear the same song I do?"
"Of course," he'd say, leaving me perfectly unsatisfied, leaving the mystery unplumbed...
The book, as a whole, is about trying to find someone who hears the same song you do, and realizing you never will; or that, if you do, you'll never fully know it.

Click here for the playlist


More:
The Amazing Adventures of Lethem and Chabon
James Frey's My Friend Leonard
Novel Soundtracks: Klosterman's Killing Yourself to Live
Novel Soundtracks: Hudgen's Drive Like Hell

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8 comments:

drake leLane said...

Lethem's Fortress of Solitude

* "Tell Me Something Good" - Rufus featuring Chaka Khan
* "18 With A Bullet" - Pete Wingfield
* "Car Wash" - Rose Royce
* "Play That Funky Music" - Wild Cherry
* "I'll Be Around" - The Spinners
* "Convoy" - C.W. McCall
* "Afternoon Delight" - Starland Vocal Band
* "Got To Give It Up (Part 1)" - Marvin Gaye
* "Disco Lady" - Johnnie Taylor
* "Fatbackin'" - The Fatback Band
* "Love Is The Message" - M.F.S.B.
* "Serpentine Fire" - Earth, Wind & Fire
* "Ffun" - Con Funk Shun
* "Fire" - Ohio Players
* "Que, Sera, Sera (What Will Be, Will Be)" - Sly & The Family Stone
* "King Tut" - Steve Martin
* "Basketball Jones" - Cheech and Chong
* "Mongoloid" - DEVO
* "Help From My Friends" - Parlet
* "All The Young Punks (New Boots And Contracts)" - The Clash
* "Air" - Talking Heads
* "Island Letter" - Shuggie Otis
* "Flying Easy" - Donny Hathaway
* "Rapper's Delight" - The Sugarhill Gang
* "Send One Your Love" - Stevie Wonder
* "Soft And Wet" - Prince
* "The Real Me" - The Who
* "Walk On The Wild Side" - Lou Reed
* "There Goes My Baby" - The Drifters
* "Bewildered" - James Brown
* "It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World" - James Brown
* "Move On Up" - Curtis Mayfield
* "What's Going On" - Marvin Gaye
* "Still Time" - Ron Sexsmith
* "Sky Saw" - Brian Eno
* "We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue" - Curtis Mayfield
* "You Sexy Thing" - Hot Chocolate
* "Don't Burn Down The Bridge (Cause You Might Wanna Come Back Across)" - Albert King
* "Mixed Bizness" - Beck
* "Straight Outta Compton" - N.W.A.
* "Sweet Thing" - Van Morrison
* "Walking Into Sunshine" - Central Line
* "Superfreak" - Rick James
* "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway" - Genesis
* "Into You Like A Train" - The Psychedelic Furs
* "Walk This Way" - Run-D.M.C.
* "Sweet Jane" - Velvet Underground
* "Track A-Solo Dancer: Stop! Look! And Listen, Sinner Jim Whitney!" - Charles Mingus
* "8th Wonder" - The Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash
* "The Breaks" - Kurtis Blow
* "Stare And Stare" - Curtis Mayfield
* "Stone Junkie" - Curtis Mayfield
* "Once In A Lifetime" - Talking Heads
* "Golden Hours" - Brian Eno

J Shifty said...

Bravo, Drake. This is an ambitious and well-executed project. I've been listening to it in shifts.

Haruki Murakami is a novelist who'd be ripe for a novel soundtrack playlist. A friend just loaned me Kafka on the Shore. I'll keep my ears open when I'm reading.

Call me pretentious and silly to consider the Rhapsody playlist a creative medium, but I'm enjoying the unique expressions folks are coming up with...

drake leLane said...

Great idea... I'd forgotten about him. I loved 'Hard-boiled wonderland and the end of the world' and it had quite a few cultural references (namely Bob Dylan.) I've got a couple good ones stashed away in the back of my mind as well. High Fidelity, is pretty obvious, but The Time of Our Singing (Richard Powers) is a recent one that works well too.

I gotta say I really like the Playlist Haiku idea as well. I've been so up to my eyeballs at work, I never got to finish any of the ones I started, but I think I found a strategy - Guided By Voices song titles. If you're searching for a title with the right syllables, all you got to do is check their catologue and there's bound to be one that tickles the surreal bone.

Anonymous said...

my book club just finished fortress of solitude. I had the same idea you did and am so psyched that I found your playlist online! off to itunes to prepare the soundtrack for tonight's discussion. thanks much.

drake leLane said...

that's great... I actually handed out mix cd's (double albums) of the novel soundtrack for all that finished the book in our bookclub.

you'll have to tell me how your bookclub meeting goes...

bamako said...

Thanks!
I had the same idea. I wanted to make a special gift for a friend of mine: the fortress of solitude + the soundtrack. since i'm italian, and my friend is italian too, i thought it was good to give her a musical soundtrack for better understanding that wonderful book. all those references to music are not to clear for an italian reader (i'm a music addict but she isn't). i was beginning the incredible work when i thought: let's see if there's another fool around who did it. thanks again, really.

Nyet Jones said...

Oy! I just spent the last week doing this as well - but I didn't pare it down at all. Here's a link to my version of the list:

http://nyetjones.blogspot.com/2008/07/fortress-of-music-tude.html

Cool to see so much overlap / same choices from albums!

Nice work - I know it's quite a chore to compile something like this.

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