Thursday, March 22, 2007

Powell and Lethem

If you haven't read Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, you should. It's a classic (she says who doesn't get to decide these things), a brilliant novel, an often jeering riff or graffiti "tag" on Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. The first allusion to A Dance to the Music of Time comes on p. 50:

"One day she thrilled, almost drunkenly to scratch with a ballpoint pen in the pages of Anthony Powell's Casanova's Chinese Restaurant_, breaking a taboo of seventy-eight years: she heard her father's voice then, a shred of memory, commanding her reverence for the leather-lined vault of his library. There might be nothing worse than defacing a book, but now she felt the urge to drop them, half read, from her deck into her overgrown garden. She would only need to turn her wrist, let her grip slip once more. She knew she'd quit, one way or another, drop the book or simply die, before finishing the twelve volumes of Powell's novel, his Dance to the Goddamn Music of Time. Powell had written too much, taken too much of her time already, and she punished him by scribbling in his book, a wavering row of lines, like some hieroglyphic tide."

This is so brilliant: I almost can't express how brilliant it is. Because in this gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood of the '70, hieroglyphics, graffiti, comic books, Star Wars, funk, and science fiction take the place of Powell's cycle (traditional literature), classical music, and Andy Warhol's art. Scrawling is somehow necessary: art is for everyone. There is no prep school or Oxford: it's public school, Stuyvesant, maybe City College. Lethem outlines class as: the upper-class woman who wants to gentrify the neighborhood, a woman who can't read Power after observing middle-class whites and blacks in the brownstones (artists, singer), middle-class blacks in the projects, Purerto Ricans, and Italians. Abraham, a single father and artist, has given up painting since moving to Brooklyn and has now documents his life painting on film and designing paperback covers. A black singer and divorced father has given up his lurcrative career to move to Brooklyn (he does drugs and watches football) but compromises by going back to work as a singer in a bad funk band (he's the only one who doesn't dress like a pimp). Dylan is the main observer, the artist's son who has to figure out how to be a reader, a writer of "tags," white, and not get beaten up every day by the blacks. (He's one of three whites in his public school.) The types are surprisingly similar to Powell's in many ways, sans prep school: Mingus is one of the most important characters, likable and able to move easily between black and white; Widmerpool is a fawning bootlicker, a boy named Arthur, a chess-playing nerd who fakes asthma attacks to escape violence and who has figured out how to latch onto Dylan and Mingus for protection.

It's fascinating: it's a scribble on the pages of Powell. It's "okay, Powell, this is you, privileged, in England, and this is us." Something like that.

It's the class distinctions that have always gotten on my nerves in Powell. They're much easier to understand in Lethem: there's more going back and forth.

Anyway, some of you might be interested in this book. I'm...FASCINATED. How could anyone be so brilliant?