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The Rock Novel and Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude

The last section of Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (2003) opens with the protagonist Dylan getting dumped by his girlfriend Abby.  As Abby screams at him, she sorts through his CD collection and finds one by a non-fictional band, Dump, an off-shoot of the group Yo La Tengo led by bassist James McNew. “What’s this, Dump?,” Abby asks, “You actually listen to something called Dump?  Is that real?” Abby takes Dylan to task for evading intimacy, for his rude enthrallment “with negritude”—she is black, he is white—and, crucially, for his collection of CDs.1 The narrative of this couple’s demise is punctuated by a cataloguing of 1980s and 1990s independent college bands and the early soul and blues artists who made their music possible.  In what follows, I am going to explain why.  Starting in about 2000, rock and roll started to get noticeably more play in the novel, and indeed The Fortress of Solitude, published the same year independent film guru Richard Linklater released The School of Rock (for Paramount), is part of a new subgenre in contemporary American fiction: what I call the rock novel. 

Abby accuses Dylan of being obsessed with “sad black folks.”  As they argue, she tosses his CDs on the ground one by one, reading the names of the artists aloud to comment on Dylan’s misery, a brand of abjection the narrator will eventually associate with his “funkywhiteboy geekdom” (136):

“Let’s see, Curtis Mayfield, ‘We People Who Are Darker Than Blue’—sounds like depression to me.”  She chucked the CD to the floor. “Gladys Knight, misery, depression.  Johnny Adams, depression.  Van Morrison, total fucking depression.  Lucinda Williams, give her prozac.  Marvin Gaye, dead.  Johnny Ace, dead, tragic. ”  As she dismissed the titles she jerked them down from the shelf, the jewel cases splitting as they clattered down.  “Little Willie John, dead.  Little Esther and Little Jimmy Scott, sad—all the Littles are sad.… Gillian Welch, please, momma.  The Go-Betweens?  Five Blind Boys of Alabama, no comment…. Brian Wilson, crazy.  Tom Verlaine, very depressed.”   (315)

Abby’s accusations resonate with the familiar view that white practitioners of rock and roll appropriate their material from African Americans, and James McNew’s band is a typical example: fronted by a white man, Dump’s 1998 release “That Skinny Motherfucker With the High Voice?” is an album’s worth of covers by the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.

We will return to this racial dimension of Lethem’s novel.  First, let this fact go on record: rock and roll became a salient aesthetic category in the American novel at the turn of the twenty-first century.2  The contemporary American novel’s tendency to cannibalize rock seems most obviously announced in the jacket design for Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue (2012).  Complete with perfectly scaled record label—glued, as on a vinyl LP, right on the novel’s cover, listing its chapters as if they were recorded tracks—Chabon’s book jacket makes vivid a new cultural fantasy: the American novel has transmogrified, has become an album.  We find rock in a broad swath of the best contemporary American novels, and all partake of the desire for cultural melding Chabon’s cover crystallizes.  Rock features importantly in virtually all of Rick Moody’s fiction, for example, starting with the 1994 Ice Storm.  In that novel, Moody, who is himself a rock enthusiast and musician, encapsulates Paul Hood’s adolescent exile in a scene in which he and his girlfriend, who is vomiting her drugs and alcohol out onto the street, stand outside of a Big Star show at Max’s Kansas City in downtown New York.3  The American novel’s turn to rock is also clearly what fuels Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (2011).  Egan’s Bosco describes adulthood as a move from being a “rock star” to being a “fat fuck no one cares about” (96).  Dana Spiotta’s 2006 Eat the Document, whose title is taken from the 1966 Bob Dylan documentary for ABC that was never shown, features a fugitive protagonist who remakes her identity by naming herself after Caroline from the Beach Boys song, “Caroline, No.”  And rock is no trivial concern for these writers: for many of the best American novelists now writing, rock and roll provides more than a novel’s worth of material.  Spiotta’s 2011 Stone Arabia centers on the loss by a sister of her former-rock-star brother, and Lethem’s 2009 Chronic City, in which protagonist Perkus Tooth, who does not connect with any girls at all, is meaningfully glossed in his relationship to the Rolling Stones’ 1978 album Some Girls.  Perkus comes to be defined in particular in relation to the song “Shattered.”  Lethem repurposes the Stones megahit for his novel, employing its “shadoobie” giddiness to add serious meaning to Perkus’ own shattering dissolution as a human.4  In a 2011 keynote address at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Rick Moody announced that the “synergy between the pop song and the contemporary novel” is now “endemic” to the craft.5

This tendency has led rock writing to stray into the pages of the New York Times Book Review, where rock critics in the twenty-first century publish their musings about novels.  In June 2012, pop enthusiast Howard Hampton observed that some of his “favorite music writing of the last decade has turned up in novels,” and in September of the same year, rock writer Jay Ruttenberg noted that four of the novels he had recently read just happened to be about rock.  This coincidence led him to wonder “whether rock music, long rumored to be deceased, was functioning better on the page than in the recording.”6  In what follows, I will explore the question of what this means for the novel as a genre.  Over the decade or so after 2000, novel after novel takes some feature of rock and roll as basic to its project.7  Why?  Why has rock started to matter so much to American novelists, and what change in the novel does this tendency perhaps mark?  What should we make of the fact that we encounter in so many contemporary American novels material we are more accustomed to finding in columns written by Robert Christgau, Peter Guralnick, or Greil Marcus?  Is this another reason to point out that the novel is a dead form?8

R.I.P.  R.E.M.

The rock novel is in part a generational phenomenon: these writers were all born in the mid- to late sixties: the British Invasion years in rock, when Christgau, Guralnick, and Marcus were all in their twenties.  But the appearance of these novels also comes at an endpoint of sorts in the history of rock and roll music, an end marked by three crucial events in the first decade or so of the twenty-first century: the 2011 breakup of R.E.M., the most successful of the 1980s college bands; when the mega-corporation Clear Channel crushed college radio by going private in 2008; and the ascendance in 2005 of American Idol to most watched television series.9

In retrospect, the independent college radio bands whose CDs end up strewn on the floor of Dylan’s apartment, along with similar artists to whom Lethem refers throughout the novel— the dB’s, Lucinda Williams, R.E.M., Ron Sexsmith—comprise a canon of white independent musical artists who began recording on vinyl and ended up on iTunes, and who gained notoriety on independent college radio stations in the 1980s and 1990s.  The rest of the musicians in this novel, including the fictional soul has-been Barrett Rude Junior, are the “black folks” from which rock and roll historically sprang.  Lethem incorporates rock music into funkywhiteboy Dylan Ebdus’ thoughts because the indie-rock artists with whom his protagonist is affiliated institutionalized a historical experience of self that these novels memorialize.

It is the rock novel’s portrayal of this experience of self that raises the question of whether the novel as a genre has been altered by rock.  And things do seem different.  In Spiotta’s Eat the Document we find Jason, teen-aged son of protagonist Mary Whittaker, spinning Beach Boys records on his turntable.  Jason explains that listening to Pet Sounds through his headphones creates a sense of community, but Spiotta frames this view parodically.  Jason achieves only a virtual community, the only version of social life available to those N. Katherine Hayles and others call the “digital subjects” of the computer age.  As Jason puts it:

the thing of it is I don’t necessarily feel connected to Brian Wilson or any of the Beach Boys.  But I do, I guess, feel connected to all the other people, alone in a room somewhere, who listen to Pet Sounds on their headphones and who feel the way I feel.  I just don’t really want to talk to them or hang out with them. (76) 

In this moment and in others like it found in rock novels, the presence of the virtual might lead us to worry, as critics from T. S. Eliot to James Wood have been doing for over a century, that the novel is finally a dead form.10  We might be concerned that the turntable is the first in a series of impersonal technologies that undo humanity, and that its ubiquitous presence in these novels is a sign of the genre’s self-defeating collapse.  Whether we celebrate or mourn the apparently disappearing bodily human, what Ian Watt identified in 1957 as the novel’s “private orientation”—that which aligned the novel with Descartes and Locke in creating the modern self—seems altered by the presence of virtual bodies that rock music brings to the form.11

But rather than simply killing off the novel, contemporary American novelists who make use of rock and roll preserve the genre, update it to make it suitable for life in the twenty-first century.  Rock novelists revivify the novel by reanimating, precisely, “private experience,” but in the context of the posthuman, a moment Mark McGurl has associated with a “critical fiction” he calls the “posthuman comedy.”12  In The School of Rock, recall, Led-Zeppelin-obsessed proselytizer of rock (played by Jack Black) Dewey Finn gets his elementary students into the Battle of the Bands by telling the organizers that the kids are “terminal,” that they are dying of a rare blood disease called “stick-it-to-de-man-eosis.”  Jack Black as Dewey says: “the last thing they wanted to do before they bit the dust was play battle of the bands.”13  In less parodic but related ways, rock novelists address questions of mortality with reference to what they identify as one of rock’s key formal attributes: its ability to render the personal public and anonymous, as  well as the reverse—its ability to render the anonymous singular. These novels indicate that to be human is not just to be mortal; it is to be diminished by the relative brevity of mortal existence. This is an understanding of mortality that science—as McGurl, Wai Chee Dimock, and others have taught us—describes as “deep time.”14 Contemporary novelists look to the rock lyric to supplement private experience in this context, to reassert it, but without Romantic inflation.  As we shall see, it is the rock lyric as public expression in “the Anthropocene” that helps rock novelists to achieve a version of the novel’s private subject.

Named in 2000 by chemist Paul J. Crutzen and marine scientist Eugene F. Stoermer, the designation of the present as a geological epoch called the Anthropocene comes from the scientific knowledge of a past before and the prediction of a future beyond humans.15  As Crutzen puts it, “the present,” is a “human-dominated, geological epoch,” and this idea emerges across disciplines as a sense that humans are insignificant.  In making explicit humanity’s inevitable and rapid move toward “biting the dust,” the idea of an Anthropocene—an epoch that eclipses the Romantic self because of its acknowledgment of humanity’s marginality—alerts us to the possibility that “there will be a time,” to borrow from theorist Claire Colebrook, “when the human species might be read as a scar on an earth in which ‘man’ is no longer present.”  Bruno Latour has said that in the Anthropocene, “the time of time” has “passed.”  And, according to historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, a “shared sense of catastrophe” unites humanity in this context.  A similar set of concerns has led philosopher Quentin Meillasoux to ask the question, if thinking itself is younger than the earth, what does it mean to think about the origin of the earth?  In his words, “How are we to grasp the meaning of scientific statements bearing  explicitly upon a manifestation of the world that is posited as anterior to the emergence of thought and even of life?(9-10).16

But why rock and roll?  What does rock music do for novelists writing in the Anthropocene?  In a memorable moment in School of Rock, iconic slacker Dewey marshals exceptional gusto to merge his voice with Robert Plant’s screaming in the first bars of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” which is blasting through the stereo speakers of his toxic-exhaust-spewing van.17  The comic delirium Jack Black’s performance produces in this scene, in which Dewey is transporting elementary school children off-campus in a vehicle whose expiration seems imminent, might suggest that rock offers a frivolous if affectively potent diversion in humanity’s similar careening.  Considered from the vantage Linklater et al offer here, the rock novel might seem like the novel’s last “battle of the bands” before the human “bites the dust.”  Even James Wood, who charged that rock makes the characters in The Fortress of Solitude “hollow,” has confessed to participation in such exuberance.  Gatekeeper of the high-literary—Lethem calls him “the most apparently gifted close reader of our time”—Wood takes on shades of Linklater’s rock nerd when he avows, in a 2009 essay on Quadrophenia (1973), “The Who playing at full throttle is, for me, one of the indices of life.”18  “Everyone secretly wants to play the drums,” says Wood in a yet another article about The Who—this one his homage to drummer Keith Moon—“because hitting things, like yelling, returns us to the innocent violence of childhood.”19

Schadenfruede, then?  Rock is bodily, novels are not; the affect created by hitting things and screaming is what these novelists—mired in realism, an aesthetic category which Sianne Ngai calls the “merely interesting”—seek.20  Surely this is right.  I would like to suggest that in addition, though, rock and roll offers novelists a way to thematize solutions to the crisis of self that humanity’s impending expiration creates.  In particular, rock novelists find in rock an experience of the middle—of averages.  They suggest that this average, if it cannot restore humanity to its former centrality, can make us feel better about our insignificance by lending hyperbole to it.  In The Fortress of Solitude and other rock novels we find authors suggesting that this middle is the best anyone can hope for given the utter marginality of the human.  As we shall see, rock and roll is the aesthetic mechanism allowing for this redefinition of Watt’s idea of “private experience.”  In rock novels, we find a private self that has been returned from the brink of complete dispersal, from a sense of the self’s nothingness.  Instead of a restoration of Romantic genius, though, rock novels offer a deflated version of self, a human whose diminishment is a key feature of its new significance.

Before examining this in Lethem, it might be instructive to consider the same fictional move in Thomas Pynchon’s 1966 The Crying of Lot 49, which I argue elsewhere is an important predecessor for the rock novel.21  Mucho Maas, Oedipa’s disc jockey spouse, tries to convey the bliss of being on acid and listening to the Beatles’ 1963 “She Loves You”: “When those kids sing about ‘She loves you,’ yeah well, you know, she does.”  Mucho exults, “she’s any number of people, all over the world, back through time, different colors, sizes, ages, shapes, distances from death but she loves.  And the ‘you’ is everybody.”22  For Mucho this togetherness amounts to a mathematical increase, a way for him to be literally mucho mas, much more.  And notice that, emerging as it does so close to Civil Rights Act of 1964, this “togetherness” includes a blending of “colors” among other distinctions.  If this assimilation of personal experience to public lyric feels like inter-racial merging to Mucho, his boss Funch worries that he is becoming “generic” (114): Mucho “hasn’t been himself,” Funch tells Oedipa.  And Oedipa asks, “who…pray, has he been, Ringo Starr?…  Chubby Checker?…  the Riteous Brothers?”  (114).  Even if Pynchon is making fun of Mucho here, which he surely is (listening to the line in an ad, “rich chocolatey goodness,” brings him the same groovy sense of oneness with the color brown), the rock lyric enables the author to portray Mucho as more; in letting “she loves you” speak for him Mucho can be the “you” that is “everybody.”  He can be a giant rock star—John Lennon or Paul McCartney—and, at the same time, he can be the “sad black folks” from whom the Beatles and other rock giants “borrowed” to create their music.  Where the rock lyric provides shelter for his insignificance, even if it is unspecific and generic, Oedipa, in her affiliation with more literary construals of meaning, remains lost.  Is The Crying of Lot 49 the novel’s swan song in the onslaught of rock as the more influential cultural force?  Any way you read it, Mucho’s oneness with everyone illustrates why rock holds such appeal for contemporary American novelists.

Returning now to the breakup in A Fortress of Solitude, we can understand more clearly why Dylan’s record collection figures so importantly in the novel.  Abby charges Dylan with modeling his love for her on an attachment to his CD collection, and in particular to the black artists and the musical genres they created.  Nothing in the novel suggests that she is wrong.  This leads to her stinging accusation that Dylan “collects” her like an early soul record: “ ‘I said to myself, Abby, this man is collecting you for the color of your skin’ ” (317).  That Dylan’s feelings for humans are mediated by his relation to records by black people has already been confirmed when we discover what Dylan is thinking about at the beginning of the scene: “she made a picture—one suitable, if you discounted the Meat Puppets emblem on the thin stretched white shirt, for the jacket art of an old Blue Note jazz LP” (309).  When Abby leaves, Dylan indicates that the intimate facts of their relationship, so far portrayed in novelistic dialogue, can, like Mucho’s, be more succinctly put in terms of a lyric from one of his records.  Dylan picks up the one CD that had “skated to the top of the small heap” (316) when Abby storms off; it is the 1970 soul recording, Syl Johnson’s Is It Because I’m Black?  With this, Lethem performs the signature move of the rock novel: he glosses his fictional character’s consciousness with reference to a historically real recording by a musical artist.  Soul artist Syl Johnson helps Dylan read Abby’s interior thought, just as the litany of CDs, including the one by Dump, helps emphasize to the reader that she is about to “dump” Dylan.  In Fortress of Solitude as in the rock novel generally, narrative expressions of the private individual are characterized as better encapsulated in soul and rock’s punchy aphorisms.

And crucially, as the assimilation of individual thought to the lyrics of early black soul and jazz artists renders particular characters generic, this process makes them postracial, construing race in utterly constructivist terms.  Consider the easy overlap Lethem portrays in Dylan’s mind between a Blue Note jazz record and the Meat Puppets.  Whatever circuitous route has led from Blue Note artists to this 1980s indie-college band, the image conveys no sense that rock is stolen from black music.  We might consider in this regard novelist Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue.  The characters this white author creates are almost all African Americans, and his vinyl nerds collect soul and jazz LPs.  What to make of the fact that, in this almost entirely black world, it is the white Carole King’s “It’s Too Late” that genericizes its charactersand this during a  black soul musician’s funeral?23  Is this a happily postracial nucleus in deep time’s galactic sprawl of doom?  Or is Chabon’s Archy a racist version of Nick Hornby’s Rob Fleming, the collector-geek in blackface?  What I hope my reading of Fortress will show is that Lethem in particular connects the dots between apparently postracial art forms—specifically the contemporary novel and indie-rock—and black culture.24  Lethem’s Dylan is a classic rock nerd, a collector-geek like those in Telegraph Avenue, and he is cut from the same cloth as High Fidelity’s Rob Fleming.  But in the contemporary rock novel, we find Hornby’s quaint indie-rock dude traded up, promoted within a broader cultural “school of rock” to a full-blown, novelistic self with the sort of private dimensions that allow for this kind of historically specific examination, even in deep time.  As we shall see, Lethem’s Dylan clarifies that persistent inequality indicates that there are crucial remainders in humanity’s “shared sense of catastrophe.”25

The British Hornby must be credited with contributions to the rock novel, to be sure: his High Fidelity (1995) and Juliet, Naked (2009) are key.  And when we consider that rock plays a crucial role in Jessica Hagedorn’s The Gangster of Love (1996) and Salmon Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) as well, we might decide that it makes sense to describe the rock novel as a global phenomenon made possible by the end of the Cold War.  Francis Fukuyama suggests as much in his seminal essay when he notes that the “end of history” manifests itself in the fact that “rock music” is “enjoyed alike in Prague, Rangoon, and Tehran” (3).  But in thematizing the extent to which black vernacular culture, in particular blues and soul, have contributed to rock-nerd identity formation, Lethem returns this global, anthropocentric phenomenon to that thorny and historically particular American “love” of blackness that Eric Lott, and Bob Dylan after him, identified as also “theft.”26  In a 2007 essay for Harper’s, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” Lethem described Bob Dylan’s infamous use of specific blues melodies and lyrics on “Love and Theft” (Dylan’s title includes the quotation marks) as issuing from an “appropriating, minstrel-boy self” (59).27  Lethem’s fictional Dylan is an “appropriating minstrel-boy self” too.  In what follows, I am going to argue that Lethem and his cohort turn to the figure of the rock nerd, among other reasons, to find a way to explore without inflating social features of human existence like race and history—even in postracial, posthuman, and global contexts.  Chakrabarty makes the useful observation that the “geologic now of the Anthropocene has become entangled with the now of human history.”  The rock novel straddles these nows. 

Approximately Infinite Universe

Finding an average between the giant Bob Dylan and the nobody Dylan Ebdus is what the experience of finding a self looks like in The Fortress of Solitude.  Dylan’s best friend from childhood, the African American Mingus to his white Dylan, ends up in prison.  Toward the end of the novel Dylan sits on the floor of the prison outside of Mingus’ jail cell and hallucinates that he is tiny.  Dylan describes this experience as “a recurrence of my childhood micropsia” (487).  The hallucinations micropsia and macropsia are neurological difficulties with scale: in micropsia, or “Alice In Wonderland Syndrome,” the sensation produced is of being “bigger than usual.”  Lethem’s narrator has it wrong; Dylan feels tiny, and so he experiences what in 1909 was described as “Lilliputian hallucinations,” or macropsia28:

Seated on the chill concrete, I felt a recurrence of my childhood micropsia, a night terror I thought I’d left behind at age eleven or twelve, in my bedroom on Dean Street: the sensation that my body was reduced to speck size in a universe pounding with gravitational force, a void crushing against me on all sides.  The ailanthus branches brushing the back windows had seemed to me then like the spiraled arms of distant galaxies.  (487) 

Dylan’s sense that his body is a “speck” in a “universe” that is “crushing” him comes along with a feeling that the very distant is very close—that the “ailanthus branches” outside his window are the “spiraled arms of distant galaxies.”  Varieties of these perceptual confusions with scale are repeated again and again in the novel, and these ways of viewing of the world—as too far away, too close, too big, or too small—characterize its central organizing logic.29

When adolescence hits, Dylan finds his explanation for macropsia: “According to Mr. Winegar, science teacher, the universe was reportedly exploding in slow motion” (118).  Lethem’s point seems to be that macropsia aptly captures something about the condition of a self in the Anthropocene: here is a human defined in terms of the neurological, an evolutionary being whose extinction is, by virtue of this physicality, made apparent as inevitable.  Macropsia’s disorienting logic comes up again and again in Fortress: Aaron X. Doily is both a flying superhero with a magic ring and an utterly degraded, abject “pee-stained” (100) homeless man: “where the flying man’s eyes ought to be white they’re that same pee-stain color, as though he’s somehow urinated even into his own eyeballs” (100).   Over the twenty-five years the novel spans, Abraham Ebdus, Dylan’s father, creates an abstract film by painting directly onto the “celluloid frames” (9) one at a time every day.  Abraham’s film, like the two Dylans, and like the poles of Aaron X. Doily’s status, vacillates in a wildly all-and-nothing economy, between being an all-consuming activity that slows time down almost to halting and an utterly compressed sped-up version of actual time in Abraham’s film: after twenty-five years, Abraham’s lifetime masterpiece takes under thirty minutes to watch (357).   When at one point a teen-aged Dylan pushes his glasses back on his nose, the narrator observes that the “glasses were shit, made of shit, part of the contemporary ocean of plastic.”  Abraham “did what he could,” we are told, with “a tiny screwdriver,” “tighten[ing] the screws, doing his miniaturist’s work.  This was the level at which things could be improved” (87).    The “ocean of plastic” from which plastic shit emerges and the “miniaturist’s work”; the ability to fly and the “pee-stain” eyes; twenty-five years and thirty minutes: Lethem presents Dylan’s maturation as a reckoning of the massive with the tiny—the universe with the speck of self.

Lethem’s novel is not called Fortress of Solitude because it is about comics, then, although certainly Lethem presents Dylan Ebdus’s discovery of comics as seminal in his personal development.  Lethem chooses this title because in the now of the Anthropocene solitude as the coherent subject’s fullest expression is also hyperbolic, a cartoonish parody of the potent subject: the superhero.  Dylan derides Superman as one of DC Comics’ “jokes, ruined by television”; Superman was the “antithesis” of Marvel heroes, “laughable,” he says.  Even as he disparages Superman, though, Dylan characterizes his father as a version of him.  “In truth,” Lethem’s comic-book voice says,  “Superman in his Fortress of Solitude reminded you all too much of Abraham in his high studio, brooding over nothing” (65).  The Superman rubric is fitting.  His hyperbolic potency notoriously expresses the experience of human diminishment lived by co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Jewish immigrants in Cleveland—“planted in the Midwest,” as Jules Feiffer put it in 1996—“during the birth of native American facism, the rise of anti-Semitism, the radio broadcasts of Father Coughlin.”  Superman delivered a fantasy of the potent subject Feiffer described thus: “Underneath the schmucky façade lived Men of Steel!” (4).  Lethem construes Bob Dylan, born a generation after Jerry Siegel and similarly a Jew raised in a midwestern city, as the adult version of Superman, thus drawing a clear line: rock music is the adult version of comic books.  Abraham is Superman too, but the speck version, the version who “broods over nothing,” the nothing to which Bob Dylan contributes his increase.  Dylan Ebdus’ mother Rachel clarifies that rock stars are indeed the superheroes of the adult world—a feature of adult life, like sexuality, that Dylan will understand only when he grows up: “Children like Ringo…  Boys do.  Girls like Paul.  He’s sexy.  You’ll understand” (11).  In the rock novel, the adult enlightenment of the bildung is construed as grasping and incorporating the hyperbole of rock stars into the self.

I Wish I Was Your Mother 

In his review, Wood complained that Dylan Ebdus seems “rather incredibly” to stop thinking about his mother after she leaves.  But the world of macropsia is not the world of the psychoanalytic mourner.  It is the world of the human being who must make sense of personal experience in terms of the inhumanity that surrounds it, so that Rachel’s absence, not so much loss in itself, is a small version of that vaster sense of being lost—an index.  Dylan’s first act in the novel is to kill a kitten by accidentally stepping backwards on it in his back yard, and Lethem presents this as an event that can be assimilated, one that the space of Dylan’s four-year-old consciousness can accommodate: “Dylan was too young to understand what he’d done, except he wasn’t; they hoped he’d forget, except he didn’t.  He’d later pretend to forget, protecting the adults from what he was sure they couldn’t handle: his remembering entirely” (4).   The way in which this emotion fits into Dylan’s consciousness—as “remembering entirely”—indicates a correlation between Dylan’s thoughts and the world.  The kitten accident is finite.  His mother is not.  Rachel is equated with another kind of knowledge, a kind the child Dylan associates with information too infinite to grasp:

She was wild with information he couldn’t yet use….  She was too full for the house, had to vent herself constantly into the telephone, and too full for Dylan, who instead worked Rachel’s margins, dodging her main force to dip sidelong into what he could make sense of.  (11) 

Dylan’s excessive, “venting” mother is presented as the first of many indications that knowing and feeling are limited, that his mind is tiny in the context of infinity.  Emotion is construed here as the speck whose appearance of monumentality protects from the infinity Rachel marks.  And although the novel signals Rachel everywhere, a fact that Wood inexplicably misses, it is not mourning that Rachel’s absence inspires since her presence was never entirely graspable in the first place.

Thus, in the second section of A Fortress of Solitude, entitled “Liner Notes,” Lethem portrays Dylan as a music geek to show that rock history, like guilty knowledge, constitutes only a small version of time in the infinite.  Lethem presents rock history as staving off what Meillasoux describes as a world “that is posited as anterior to the emergence of thought and even of life,” of which particular LPs, in their association with Rachel, emerge as reminders.  In his review of Fortress, William Dereciewicz observes that “[g]eekdom resists the informational avalanche through the impossible strategy of seeking to master it.”30 “Liner Notes” responds to Rachel as lost, but in a mastery that resembles Abraham’s “miniaturist’s work,” the grasping of a piece of the infinite that she indicates.  This section of the novel eschews regular novelistic convention, presenting as narrative the liner notes Dylan has written for a Remnant Records box set of “The Subtle Distinctions,” the fictional 1970s soul band that features Mingus’ father Barrett Rude Junior.  The “Liner Notes” section of the novel is entirely comprised of Dylan’s portrayal of an actual moment in popular music history.  Although Barrett Rude Junior is a fictional character, almost everything about his career as Dylan has catalogued it in “Liner Notes” is based on obsessively gathered, accurate historical facts concerning rock trivia.  Even the rock critic Dave Marsh—frequent writer for Rolling Stone, once editor at CREEM magazine—makes an appearance here, as having included Barrett’s fictional band in his geek tome Heart of Rock and Soul, a book Marsh did in fact write in 1989 (300).  Dylan as narrator puts the fictional Barrett Rude Junior at the historical Hi Records with Memphis soul producer Willie Mitchell, and as later working with Motown’s Norman Whitfield.  Like his guilt over the kitten’s death, this actual history of popular music into which the fiction is inserted is offered up to the reader as a comforting limit in an infinite time.  This is a key feature of the rock novel: its presentation of human time and emotion as graspable forms of the infinite, as purely invented, created by humans to provide comfort.  Rhodes Blemnar, Dylan’s boss at Remnant Records, finds this history lacking; his response to “Liner Notes” is to accuse Dylan of being “full of shit.”  This modulation from the “Liner Notes” section to the novel—Fortress of Solitude as also f.o.s.—seems a self-critique of this non-novelistic segment.  And indeed Part Two reads as incomplete, an inflated version of the human now.

It is of course tempting to read this novel—along with Motherless Brooklyn—in therapeutic terms, since Lethem’s own mother died during his teen years.  But what then, do we make of the presence of the mother as a recurring and important figure in the rock novel?  It turns out that the Romantic experience of hugeness that rock provides in the Anthropocene also characterizes the category of the maternal in the rock novel.  A look at Spoitta’s Mary in Eat the Document will clarify how this works: Mary is a 1960s radical whose political activism has gone awry.  Based on Black Panther sympathizer Katherine Ann Power, Mary spends her life on the run for murder, and over the course of the novel she sheds her identity and takes a new name three separate times.  In order to do this, Mary turns like Mucho to the rock lyric, and decides on “Caroline” as her first new pseudonym.

At the same Rock and Roll Hall of Fame conference cited above, Jennifer Fleissner followed Moody in giving a keynote discussing the relation between literature and rock.  Arguing that the pop song is now a ubiquitous fragment in the everyday, and that novels employ rock “less to tell a personal story than to access a historical one,” Fleissner observed that Spiotta’s Caroline is taken from a Beach Boys song, “Caroline, No.”31 The Beach Boys are form Hawthorne, California, and when Mary decides to become Caroline, she writes down the specifics of her new self in a “document” that clearly refers to the novel’s title: 

Her age: twenty-two.  Birthplace: Hawthorne, California.  Name: Caroline.  Hawthorne was just another suburban town in California, which you could bet was more like all the other suburban towns in California than it was different, and it would do just fine even if her favorite band was also from Hawthorne.  And Caroline is a pretty girl’s name that also happened to be the name of the girl in one of her favorite songs. (9)

The idea of the suburbs here perfectly captures what Spiotta wants from the Beach Boys reference. “Caroline” and “Hawthorne,” generic as they are, are what keep Mary from being nobody, by lending the cultural hyperbole of the Beach Boys to what later is described as Mary’s “subtracted state” (223)—what we might call her menos.

When Mary again changes her name, this time to Louise, she gets pregnant and has a baby, a baby who will grow up to be the rock nerd Jason whom we have already encountered enjoying Pet Sounds alone in his room.  When Louise begins tending to the baby she feels “a cosmic calm” (233) in protecting him.  Motherhood, like the Beach Boys’ name “Caroline,” makes her feel less subtracted—mas.  Fleissner usefully identified in Eat the Document a “different kind of growing-up story, this one involving moms with a rock ‘n’ roll past.”32  As such a mother, we will add, Louise is also “no longer a unique being in a unique position” (Spiotta 233).   Being the mother of a human thus emerges in the rock novel as modeled on a relation to rock and roll—here, the Beach Boys.  We find this comparison again in Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue in which there are parallel plots—one involving Archy and Nate’s collection of vinyl; the other, their wives’ delivery of babies.  Record collecting and midwifery perform the same function in the Anthropocene: they organize their objects, LPs and mothers, to create a sense of graspable comfort.  Archy cites “a combination of OCD and existential panic” (34) as the reason for his collecting tendencies, and in the rock novel these comforts are symptomatic. As symptoms, mothers and LPs symbolize private experience in that their designation of psychological origins eclipses any “now” outside of human history. To borrow from another of Fleissner’s works—her reading of Motherless Brooklyn—symptoms emphasize the human capacity to “generate,” as Fleissner puts it, “a clarifying link between brain and world,” one that refocuses us from the etiology of the symptom to humans’ capacity for pleasurable organization of the world.33 Understood as the mechanisms by which humans stave off “existential panic,” collecting records and loving mothers engage both nows under examination here.  Thus, if for digital subjects it makes sense to say, in N. Katherine Hayles’ memorable phrase, “my mother was a computer”; for subjects in the Anthropocene as construed in the rock novel, “my mother was a turntable” might have more resonance. 

Brother Louie

Fortress clarifies that neither of these claims manages to do away with human importance entirely.  When rock novelists incorporate rock music, they do so not to unseat the novel but to clarify that rock has been a key element in contemporary novelists’ vernacular sensibility.34 In Fortress, we also find the suggestion that rock lyrics offer the novelist a model for a more ethical, because less human-centric, mode of creating symbols.  After Barrett Rude Junior snorts a line of cocaine “clear into his lower gut, into his balls and dick” (104), Lethem presents Barrett’s mind in the act of songwriting: “Nigger, he thought.  Nig-guh, major falling to minor, an interval of sevenths” (104).   Lethem next presents his narrator as engaging the word Barrett thinks in a more obviously novelistic, rather than in a songwriterly, version of expression: “Fugitive melodies lurked in the space between syllables, niggers themselves crouching in the dark” (104).  The failure to write this song is cast as Barrett Rude’s:

Under the marimba and the Mister Softee jingle he breath-chanted nihhh-gahhhh, nihhh-gahhh, the tune, let’s admit it now, going nowhere, unfolding into nothing but itself.  Nigger would be a song unsung, more dust blown away.  (106)

But the more serious failure is that of the omniscient narrator.  Barrett’s initial articulation of the word—“Nigger, he thought—becomes musical in the repetition: “Nig-guh.”  When the narrator takes his turn, though, the term goes from being an innocuous, essentially physical response to snorting a line of cocaine when uttered by Barrett Rude to racist epithet.  The narrator spins the song lyric into fiction by animating the apparently de-racialized, meaningless term, turning it into a category of characters: “niggers themselves crouching in the dark” (104).  The novelistic repetition re-infuses the word with racial insult—why is this narrator assigning this term to people who “crouch”?—but it also illuminates the first use, the “Nig-guh” in Barrett’s consciousness, as the white Lethem’s construal of a black soul singer’s thoughts.  This is a version, in other words, of a white artist making use of a black art form.

The question thus raised is whether there is any ethical difference between the two instances, and in particular whether the first is fetish or homage.  The ethical slide occurs when the narrator exits the realm of vernacular culture and moves into novelistic omniscience.  So, for example, when Mingus first introduces Dylan to his father, Barrett wonders why Dylan is allowed to be in his house.  This prompts a moment of free indirect discourse: “The whiteness of the boy in the black man’s house” (74).  It is hard to know whose consciousness is being recorded in this moment: is Dylan feeling his “whiteness” in the “black man’s house,” or is Barrett?   Either way, what the omniscient narrator records here is the sense that there has been a transgressive entry into a “black man’s house,” a narrative invasion to match Dylan’s physical entry.  This is clearly a moment of self-consciousness.  Lethem thematizes his own ventriloquizing of black vernacular culture—moments like “Fuck you lookin’ at, man?” (85)—to announce that they are to be understood as “minstrel-boy” appreciations.  In other words, there is a difference, Lethem suggests, between the two uses of the N-word.  The second is blatantly racist, and the first—the use of the term by Barrett—is self-consciously appropriating homage.  This accords with the idea Lethem proffers in his 2007 essay for Harper’s Magazine, in which he suggests that all artists, from the metaphysical poet John Donne to Bob Dylan, must plagiarize in order to originate.35

Still, the transposition of Barrett’s failed song into narrative casts narrative depth as always ethically questionable, raising yet another possible use of rock music: do rock novelists turn to it for its depthlessness?  Is the rock novel part of the general aversion to symptomatic reading, an embrace of what Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best have described as “surface reading”?36 The entry by a white author into a black mind is contrasted with Barrett Rude’s response to finding out that Dylan’s mother is gone: 

“Your mother know you’re here?”

“Dylan’s mother’s gone,” volunteered Mingus from the couch.

“You’re mother’s gone?”

Dylan nodded.

Barrett Rude Junior weighed in.  Dylan’s presence in his room was explained, that might have been his first conclusion.  Then, in slow-motion, something else dawned.  Dylan sensed it in Barrett Rude’s heavy-lidded gaze a flare of tenderness, felt it like a headlight’s beam turning to enclose him. 

“Mother’s gone, but the boy is keeping it together.”  Barrett Rude Junior spoke the sentence twice.  In the first rendition the words emerged thick, deliberate, tongue-mashed.  The second was a lilting echo of the first, the line now a song of admonition, a beguilement.  “Mu-tha’s gone, but the boy is keeping it together.” (74)

Here, Barrett’s soul-song response to Dylan’s obvious loss is a moment of “enclosing” “tenderness” that “dawns.”  From “tongue-mashed” articulation to “lilting echo,” nothing has changed except the pronunciation and the “lilt”; the line is thus completely transparent, an artistic rendering of a personal fact with no symbolic aspect, no creation of a referent.  Like “Nig-guh,” here is the creation of a soul lyric in narrative—it turns a meaningless thought in Barrett’s mundane life, “Nigger,” into a maxim, a phrase featured as itself rather than elaborated as symbol.

Dylan muses, “Did Barrett Rude Junior remind him of Rachel?  Or was this only the longest the word mother had been strung in the air since Rachel’s vanishing?” (74).   Barrett does not refer to Rachel so much as remind Dylan of her, and Lethem presents this as an effect of Barrett’s ethical refusal to invoke her as a referent.  Without talking about Rachel, without invoking her in depth, Barrett conjures her, and this brings a comfort, a plenitude of Rachel in cultural expression that would otherwise be experienced as her impossibly vast loss: “Dylan felt she’d drifted into the room, a mist or a cloud, a formation” (74).  The soul song recasts Dylan Ebdus’ experience via the logic of macropsia—from the small personal experience of loss to the anonymous but monumental experience of culture.  Like graffiti, which Lethem’s omniscient narrator describes as “syllables drained of meaning,” (77), the lost mother becomes syllables involved in shifts from majors to minors.  “Mu-tha’s gone, but the boy is keeping it together” becomes a “beguiling” pop lyric, just as Barrett’s N-word remains diverting and outside of meaning until the white narrator translates it into prose.  To be sure, this is an affirmation of surfaces.  But as we shall see, Lethem also suggests that novel form inevitably engages in depth.  What exonerates the novel—what prevents its omniscience, for example, from being simple racist intrusion—is its self-conscious “funkywhiteboy” admiration for African American vernacular culture as its starting point.   Here, we might conjecture, is an idea of the novel as achieving, if not surface itself, something like what was meant by the title of R.E.M.’s first album: the novel as Murmur (1983).

Bringing It All Back Home

Watt finds in Robinson Crusoe an “echo of the redefined aloneness of Descartes’ solus ipse,” modulated, as he puts it “into an anguished sense of personal loneliness” (91).  This is what Fredric Jameson describes in The Political Unconsciousas the “private feeling” that separates bourgeois subjects into “monad[s].”37 In Fortress, anonymity seems at first to be a way of eschewing privacy, of dispersing it into versions of the generic—into the rock lyric.  Before Rachel leaves, neighborhood bully Robert Woolfolk steals Dylan’s bike, and Dylan is afraid that Robert will beat him up for accusing him of doing so.  After hiding out in his room for several days, Rachel sends Dylan back onto the street:

He’d detected in himself a certain translucency today, a talent for being ignored.  Rachel had flushed him from a four-day hide in his room, from a retrenchment into the secret power of his books and pencils, into the mysteries of eavesdropping on Abraham’s footfalls and Rachel’s clangor on the telephone, into the dreary conundrums of the Etch a Sketch and the Spirograph, and something in his conjured solitude had followed him out onto the street, then reversed itself to drape all over him anywhere he sat still.  (46)

Anonymity here, Dylan’s pleasing sense that he is being ignored, is defined as “translucence,” a “reversal” of the privacy achieved by being inside with his “books and pencils.”  This is what the anonymity of the rock lyric will later give him: it is Dylan to which “Mu-tha’s Gone” refers, but a Dylan made translucent because unreachable as a specific self.

But it turns out that Dylan is mistaken.  He is not “translucent” on his street—not anonymous at all.  In fact, in the rubric of the rock novel, what appears as anonymity is hyperbolic specificity, and indeed here Dylan’s exile into “everybody” collapses into exposure of his most private self.  After he hangs around the stoop long enough, the kids on Dean Street inform Dylan that while he was hiding out Rachel beat Robert up in retaliation for stealing the bike: “ ‘Your mother kicked his ass, right out on Bergen Street,’ ” Henry said.  ‘He was crying and everything’ ” (47).   Dylan’s feeling of being nobody is a misperception: he is famous, the  kid whose mother beat up the scary kid from the projects.  This leads Dylan to invoke a version of himself that sounds posthuman: “Could there be a distant island or hidden room where your life took place without your knowing? ” (47).  But Lethem dramatizes the ultimate failure of pure anonymity, even in a world where life can “take place” without you.

When Dylan recognizes his anonymity for the exposure it turns out to be here, Lethem creates a skewed primal scene in which parental copulation—what for Freud is a powerful origin in the Wolf Man’s personal history—is a public event to which everyone is privy except Dylan: “It suddenly seemed that Henry and every kid on the block might know the sound of Abraham and Rachel fucking and fighting at night, that only Dylan was protected and blind” (48).  What Freud understands as the most ultra-private, secret element in one’s personal history is thus construed as the street’s, and privacy seems abolished.  But even if fragments of his personal experience get re-assigned—seem to belong to everyone—it is still Dylan’s shame to which the experience gives rise.  “Dylan saw now,” explains the narrator,” “that it wasn’t strict invisibility that had cloaked his presence on the street, had kept him wavering like a mummy on the sidelines, but instead his mother’s hidden act hovering over him, a force field, a pale blur of shame” (48).  Shame defines a “translucent” self of another sort: not an invisible one, but one that exposes, a paradoxical self that is, in being utterly permeated by the social world, shown to be private.  Dylan thus emerges as the solus ipse achieved through dispersal. 38

This is not a simple return to the monad.  Dylan as private self has, like Spiotta’s Mary, incorporated a giant everybody into his nobody—or, to put this slightly differently, has incorporated a nobody into his now somewhat less anthropocentric me.  And the assertion of this version of self, the self as average, is simultaneously an assertion that racial distinctions matter, even in an epoch in which humans are understood to be bound by a “shared sense of catastrophe” above all else.  After all, the move from Dylan’s personal loss to the anonymous line, “Mu-tha’s gone, but the boy is keeping it together” does not utterly anonymize him.  The soul lyric does, on first glance, seem to work the way Mucho’s everybody does, in this case to give the white, Jewish Rachel the black name “Mu-tha” and thus retroactively to confer blackness onto Dylan himself.  But the deracialization clearly does not work; the novel ends exposing Dylan as a middle-aged, white guy listening to Brian Eno in the Midwest.  When Dylan and Mingus become interested in graffiti as adolescents, Dylan eventually stops “looking for his own moniker,” and starts to “throw up his perfect replication of the black kid’s tag instead.  Dose, Dose, Dose” (136):

What’s in it for the white kid?  Well, he’s been allowed to merge his identity in this way with the black kid’s to lose his funkywhiteboy geekdom in the illusion that he and his friend Mingus Rude are both Dose, no more no less.  A team, a united front, a brand name, an idea.   (136) 

Dylan recognizes even at a young age that the idea of the tag “Dose” as a “brand” melding him with Mingus is an “illusion.”  And when Abby later accuses Dylan of collecting her for her blackness, she is registering the same failure.

Lethem is at pains to show that the novel as a postracial art form is subterfuge, and he accomplishes this correction by exposing the inequality that subtends “minstrel-boy” affirmations.  It is the African American Mingus who ends up a withering crackhead and then incarcerated, not the white Dylan.  And indeed, almost all of the black children on Dylan’s block end in prison:

Now it wasn’t just Riker’s which brimmed with faces from the yards. It was the big upstate houses like Auburn, too, as though the system was inadvertently reassembling the city and its factions here, 1977 trapped in the amber of incarceration.  (482) 

Recall that it is on the floor outside of Mingus’ prison cell that Dylan identifies his macropsia.  For Chakrabarty, the “shared sense of catastrophe” in the Anthropocene hardly does away with the now of social history.  In his words, “climate change may well end up accentuating all the inequities of the capitalist world order if the interests of the poor and vulnerable are neglected.”39 We might wonder whether Lethem wants us to encounter in Dylan’s sense that he is a speck both the planetary distances that deep time makes vivid and the social ones that seem harder and harder to bridge in the twenty-first century.  Mothers index the vast, as we have seen, but the vast, those “spiraled arms of distant galaxies” in Dylan’s bedroom, also index elements of the everyday.  Whether under the auspices of the prison system or indie rock, Lethem suggests that private experience persists, even in the Athropocene.

The Middle of the Road

In the third section of the novel readers are shifted back from “Liner Notes” to traditional first-person narration as if to acknowledge that this is, after all, just a realist novel.   The presentation of the realist first-person as an average—here of the omniscient narration in Fortress’ first section and its surface-y narration in the second—is employed to re-introduce Dylan as, after all, a white, middle-aged fuckup.40   At the beginning of this section, Dylan describes Abby in openly racist terms as a “brown puppet” (310); and later, as an invisible intruder into the prison where Mingus ends up, he contemplates raping a female guard named Sweeny as she “hummed Cher’s Believe to herself, and farted too” (451).  About midway through the section, after he moves to California, Dylan earns the appellation “Oakland’s Bernhard Goetz” (419) because of a botched attempt to use his superpower of invisibility to fight black drug dealers.  When Robert Woolfolk jumps off the gun tower, Dylan has given Robert a ring that Robert thinks will make him fly.  Dylan neglects to tell him that the new superpower conferred by the ring is invisibility, and as a result takes the blame and describes himself as a “killer” (499).  This is a cataloguing of inflated human imperfections, one Lethem offers as the ingredients in his reaffirmed, average realist self.41 The fact that even flaws are presented in hyperbolic terms—Dylan is a sexist, raping, murdering Bernhard Goetz—indicates that the first-person role into which the middle-aged Dylan has arrived brings something of rock’s potency into what Ngai calls “the interesting.”   Dylan is a mundane self whose very mundanity is achieved in the author’s hyperbolic portrayals of fallibility.

This combination of hyperbolic and the mundane is offered in this novel as a middle borrowed from rock and roll music: something between speck Dylan and His Bobness that encompasses both and yet admits to social position.  At the very end of the novel, Dylan reaches for a CD on a road trip back to California, and, driving out of the Midwest, he muses abstractly about “middle spaces.”  He finds he has grabbed Brian Eno’s 1975 Another Green World and realizes he has avoided listening to it because, like albums by the Talking Heads and Patti Smith, it seemed to occupy a “middle space”: “I considered now that what I once loved in this record, and certain others—Remain in Light, ‘O Superman,’ Horses—was the middle space they conjured and dwelled in” (507).  Declaring that “we all pined for those middle spaces” (508), Dylan is transported by the Eno record to an earlier moment, the last time he had listened to it riding in a car: “I always associated it with driving, with miles rushing beneath headlights and my eyes.  I associated it with one drive in particular” (506).   The Eno record collapses the drive back to California at the end of the novel, Dylan’s present, back to that other “drive in particular,” the drive home to Brooklyn after picking up his belongings from the college that expelled him.  This moves the end of the narrative, already in the middle of the country, back to the middle of the narrative, when Dylan was about half the age he is at the end.

The present-day Dylan narrates that earlier drive through a snowstorm with his father, and remarks that in those days he generally avoided middles, avoided Eno, Patti Smith, and the Talking Heads in favor of Barrett Rude Junior and his “defiant, unsubtle pain” (508).  Perhaps so, but Lethem has presented soul as the crucial origin of rock music’s middles, and rock, Lethem suggests, has something the novelist of the twenty-first century wants: not only an intensity to stave off the affective subtractions of the “merely interesting,” to return to Ngai once more, but an ethical tendency toward half-expression.  Rock provides an anonymizing generic, perhaps, but one that also specifies; the work of the rock novel, it seems, is to dialectically transform this generic, postracial, boring form of expression to an affectively more powerful one that announces its racial specificity.  The novel returns us via Another Green World to the middle of the narrative, and as the title of Eno’s album attests, rock music helps the contemporary novel manage a world diminished by the possibility of “another” world entirely.42  Early on in the novel, Mingus and Dylan gaze at some impossibly huge graffiti inked on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the description alludes, I think, to what rock novels want to achieve: “The walkway’s slats were uneven, some rotten.  Just an armature of bolted wire lay between Mingus’s and Dylan’s sneaker tips and the pulsing, glittering water.  The bridge was an argument or plea with space” (77).  Just as the bridge refutes the space between the giant graffiti tag and these boys—allowing them to span it without concern—the rock novel bridges, as “an argument or plea,” between the tiny and the vast, creating a productive if self-consciously terminal refutation of human finitude. 


Writing for, literary scholar Ivan Kreilkamp makes the shrewd point that rock emerges in contemporary novels as that which “allows novelists to think about their genre’s own relationship to storage media, and about what happens to art when it sheds long-standing material forms.”43  We might consider the rock novel as the confluence of two versions of “storage media,” and conjecture that the goals of the rock novel, as perhaps expressed in the cover design for Telegraph Avenue, involve collapsing one kind of physical record into another in order to stave off what appears to be the inevitable disappearance of both.  In this regard, we might consider Telegraph Avenue to be a particularly apt comment on obsolescence and note that the teen-aged character Jules switches from eight-track to iPod at the point in the novel where Archy gives up vinyl to become a real estate agent in 2008.  The irony of the “real” in “real estate” is explicit in the novel, and at the close of 2012, the year of Telegraph Avenue’s publication, readers will have the hindsight to recognize that real estate agents as well are about to become obsolete.  The rock novel raises questions about any human endeavor in a world no longer interested in physical objects at all. 

This concern extends in Eat the Document to human bodies.  Early on, Mary explains the reason for her obsessive personal hygiene: “You might be in the midst of chaos, terrified, but the ritual of your self-tending radiated from you and protected you” (5).  In rock novels generally, LPs stand in for everything “real” that is abandoned in the twenty-first century: the pages on which these novels are printed, the bodies whose brains conceive and whose fingers write them, houses, physical community.  Jameson identified attachments to the body as evidence that the novel is involved in the proliferation of centered subjects.44  We might read Chabon’s ultra-thingy LP/novel cover, then, as a redoubling of the physical meant to defend against unbearable virtuality, and to find in this rock novel as well confirmation of the novel’s private self.  The physicality of the cover thus trumps Chabon’s title, which suggests the reverse.  Isn’t it, after all, the futility of preserving the physical in a virtual world that is conveyed in the road called Telegraph Avenue, named as it is after the first technological instrument Marshall McLuhan argued made roads obsolete?45

As I have already intimated, the rock novel clarifies that the novel in the Anthropocene is not dead.  Nor does the rock novel allow for the simple suggestion that the centered subject has disappeared as the novel’s central concern.  We might return to Watt to consider that even in The Rise of the Novel—published in the mid-1950s, the decade that saw the birth of rock ‘n’ roll—impersonal technologies emerge as crucial to the novel’s instantiation of the private self.  Watt argues that the “impersonal authority of print” (198) was key.  Perhaps it makes sense, then, to acknowledge that the impersonal has always been part of the personal; perhaps the generic and anonymity have been part of the private all along.  When, in his discussion of Clarissa, Watt describes the cult of letter-writing that motivated Fielding as a “microphone already tuned to the tones of private experience” (193), we might be tempted to claim that all novels, at least as filtered through Watt, are rock novels. Still, if the digitization of the book comes along with a weakening of print’s authority, perhaps the private experience this authority guarantees is in fact under threat.  But if that is the case, then rock novelists’ interest in lost and disappearing documents is recursive, ultimately protective of private experience.  These authors are writing novels, after all—ones that are printed on paper.  Maybe if I “eat” the document rather than losing it to digitization, I can be sure at least that I still have a body.


I am grateful to Jennifer Fleissner for inspiration, encouragement, and willingness to read the earliest, messiest, longest version of this.  I have done my best to respond to her brilliant comments, and to those provided by Mark McGurl who also graciously agreed to read an earlier draft.  I began thinking about the rock novel when I was organizing a conference for Post45 with J.D. Connor and Amy Hungerford at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, “Post45@The Rock Hall.”  I thank J.D. and Amy, whose work in conceptualizing the conference helped immeasurably with these ideas.   Lauren Onkey and the Rock Hall deserve thanks as well for their immeasurable generosity in hosting us, as do Post45 Steering, The National Humanities Center, Oren Izenberg, Gordon Hutner, the anonymous man at the MLA in Boston (2013) who asked what difference genre might make to this argument, and to all who participated in the November 2012 Post45 conference in Stanford.
1. Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude: a Novel, 1st ed. (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 457.
2. Precedents can be found, to be sure.  One might begin with Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), which I discuss in the body of this essay, or, to go back a bit earlier, with the less influential Harlan Ellison’s Spider Kiss (1961).  Fugitive poet Donald Davidson wrote Big Ballad Jamboree (1996) in the mid-1950s, but the novel was only published posthumously in the 1990s.  Although Davidson’s novel contains important elements of the rock novel, its focus is the link between Southern literature and electrified country music—the so-called “Nashville Sound”—in particular.  Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street (1973) and Brett Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero (1985) are also important early examples of the rock novel, and from the UK, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (1996) stands out as crucial to its establishment.  We might also include Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments (1989), and Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues (1995) as influential as well.  Harlan Ellison, Spider Kiss (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1996); Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49, 1st Perennial fiction library ed (New York: Perennial Library, 1986); Don DeLillo, Great Jones Street. (Houghton Mifflin, 1973); Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985); Nick Hornby, High Fidelity (Riverhead Trade, 1996); Roddy Doyle, The Commitments, 1st Vintage contemporaries ed (Vintage, 1989); Sherman Alexie, Reservation Blues, Reprint (Grove Press, 2005).
3. Moody performs in the band, the Wingdale Community Singers, and has collaborated with numerous independent rock singers.  Moody has written about rock and roll for The New York Times Book Review, is a regular contributor to The, which features Moody’s own column “Swinging Modern Sounds,” and he published a book of music writing in 2012. Wingdale Community Singers, Wingdale Community Singers (Plain, 2005); Rick Moody, “Swinging Modern Sounds: The Means of Production,”, Blog (April 1, 2009),; Rick Moody, “Led Zeppelin, Gods of Rock on the Celestial Staircase,” The New York Times, December 27, 2009, sec. Books / Sunday Book Review,; Rick Moody, On Celestial Music: And Other Adventures in Listening, 1st ed. (Back Bay Books, 2012).
4. Rolling Stones. Performer, Some Girls [sound Recording]. (Beverly Hills, CA.: Virgin Records, 1980).  Lethem’s 1999 Motherless Brooklyn features a protagonist with Tourette’s Syndrome who is notably obsessed with The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, and in 2002 Lethem co-edited the Da Capo Best Music Writing of 2002.  In 2007 Lethem wrote his follow-up to Fortress, the novel You Don’t Love Me Yet, titled after a song by psychedelic rock legend Roky Erickson, and in that novel again his musical affiliations are apparent.  In 2012 Lethem published Fear of Music in the 33 1/3 series, and his web site features uncollected writings in which he waxes philosophical about the Clash, the beauty of vinyl, and the band Miller Miller Miller & Sloane: “Do you remember Miller Miller Miller & Sloane?  I doubt it.  Miller Miller Miller & Sloane was a band from my high school.”  Lethem, Johnathan, “Jonathan Lethem: Writer,” The Reading Room, n.d.,   Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn (Vintage, 2000); Jonathan Lethem and Paul Bresnick, Da Capo best music writing 2002: the year’s finest writing on rock, pop, jazz, country, & more (Cambridge, Mass.; London: Da Capo?; Eurospan, 2002); Jonathan Lethem, You Don’t Love Me Yet (Vintage, 2008); Jonathan Lethem, Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, 1st ed. (Continuum, 2012).b
5. Rick Moody, “‘Serge and the Paranoids: On Literature and Popular Song.’,” Post45 (n.d.),
6.  Howard Hampton, “‘On Celestial Music,’ by Rick Moody,” The New York Times, June 1, 2012, sec. Books / Sunday Book Review,; Jay Ruttenberg, “Fallen Rock Stars in Contemporary Fiction,” The New York Times, September 7, 2012, sec. Books / Sunday Book Review,
7.   The list of rock novels written since about 2000 is long and growing longer.  In the following list of contemporary novels that make use of rock in varying degrees, I do not include rock memoirs or novels written by rock and roll singers, though both genres might be considered as homologous with the rock novel in the twenty-first century.  In addition to the titles I discuss elsewhere in this essay, see also Douglas Cowie, Owen Noone and the Marauder: A Novel (Bloomsbury USA, 2005); Douglas Coupland, Eleanor Rigby: A Novel (Bloomsbury USA, 2006); Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000); Bret Easton Ellis, Imperial Bedrooms, 1st ed. (Knopf, 2010); Jonathan Franzen, Freedom, 1st ed. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010); Eleanor Henderson, Ten Thousand Saints, 1st ed. (New York: Ecco, 2011); Laura Kalpakian, Steps and Exes: a Novel of Family (New York: Bard, 1999); P Kluge, Eddie and the Cruisers (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2008); Michael Muhammad Knight, The Taqwacores, Revised Edition (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Zachary Lazar, Sway: a Novel, 1st ed. (New York: Little, Brown,, 2008); Mark Lindquist, Never Mind Nirvana: a Novel, 1st ed. (New York: Villard Books, 2000); Pamela Lu, Ambient Parking Lot, First Edition (Kenning Editions, 2011); Colin MacInnes, Absolute Beginners (Allison & Busby, 2011); Lorrie Moore, A Gate at the Stairs: a Novel, 1st ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009); Michael Parker, If You Want Me to Stay: A Novel (Algonquin Books, 2005); Tom Perrotta, The Wishbones (Berkley Trade, 1998); Arthur Phillips, The Song Is You: A Novel, First Edition (1 in number line) (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2010); Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice: A Novel, Reprint (Penguin Books, 2010); Mathew Specktor, That Summertime Sound, First Edition (MTV Press, 2009).
8.  It seems noteworthy that so prolific and distinctive a rock writer as Greil Marcus co-edited A New Literary History of America with Werner Sollers in 2009, suggesting that the crossover into the NYTBR is taking place within literary studies as well.  See Alfred L Brophy, Greil Marcus, and Werner Sollors, A New Literary History of America (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009).
9.  For Michael Szalay, writing a book review of Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia in The Los Angeles Times Review of Books, rock is the figural allegory for the authors’ ambivalence about participation in corporate culture.  “Los Angeles Review of Books – Michael Szalay on Stone Arabia,” Los Angeles Review of Books, accessed January 9, 2013,  School of Rock’s Dewey (about which more later) seems to affirm Szalay’s point.  Dewey explains to the wealthy private school kids who have come to be in his charge that the point of rock music is to “stick it to the man.”  As their substitute teacher, he gives them a lecture inspiring them to write the song “Step Off” by confessing: “I am the man.”  Richard Linklater and Paramount Pictures Corporation, The School of Rock [videorecording] (Paramount, 2003).
10.  See Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination (New York Review of Books, 2008), 255.  I refer here to Wood’s “Human, All Too Inhuman,” in which he argues this: “Stories, after all, are generated by human beings, and it might be said that these recent novels are full of inhuman stories, whereby that phrase is precisely an oxymoron, an impossibility, a wanting it both ways.” James Wood, “Human, All Too Inhuman,” New Republic 223, no. 4 (July 24, 2000): 41–45.
11.  Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel; Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. (University of California Press, 1957), 192; N Katherine Hayles, My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
12.  McGurl describes the posthuman comedy as “a critical fiction meant to draw together a number of modern literary works in which scientific knowledge of the spatiotemporal vastness and numerousness of the nonhuman world becomes visible as a formal, representational, and finally existential problem.” Mark McGurl, “The Posthuman Comedy,” Critical Inquiry 38, no. 3 (2012): 537.
13.  Linklater and Corporation, The School of Rock [videorecording].
14.  Wai-chee Dimock, Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006).
15. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the first use of the word “anthropocentric” in 1863.  “anthropocentric, adj.”  OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press.
16.  Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, “The Anthropocene,” IGBP [International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme] Newsletter 41 (2000); Paul J. Crutzen, “Geology of Mankind,” Nature 415, no. 6867 (January 3, 2002): 23; Claire Colebrook, “The Context of Humanism,” New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation 42, no. 4 (2011),; Bruno Latour, “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’,” New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation 41, no. 3 (2010): 471–490,691; Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (January 1, 2009): 197–222, doi:10.1086/596640; Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (London; New York: Continuum, 2008).  Chakrabarty reports that in 2008, some members of the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London signed a statement accepting Crutzen’s definition and dating of the Anthropocene.
17.  Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin III (Atlantic / Classic, 1970); Linklater and Corporation, The School of Rock [videorecording].
18.  Wood charged that rock music makes the characters in Fortress “hollow and singular,” and that rock music leads Lethem to create a protagonist without “outline,” without “mental personality.” Jonathan Lethem, “My Disappointment Critic: On Being Reviewed by James Wood,” Los Angeles Review of Books, November 7, 2011,; The Who, Quadrophenia remaster (Mca, 1996); James Wood, “Spaldeen Dreams,” The New Republic, October 13, 2003,; “‘The Kids Are Alright’,” The Guardian, May 30, 2009,
19.  James Wood, “The Fun Stuff,” The New Yorker, November 29, 2010,  Wood took the title for his 2012 collection of essays from this New Yorker piece.  Ibid.; James Wood, The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).  On the oddity of finding The Who drummer Keith Moon among James Wood’s formative influences, see Mark O’Connell, “The Different Drummer,” Slate, November 2, 2012, new_yorker_book_critic_james_wood_s_the_fun_stuff_reviewed.html.
20.  Sianne Ngai, “Our Aesthetic Categories,” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 125, no. 4 (October 2010): 951; Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Harvard University Press, 2012).
21.  Florence Dore, “The New Criticism and The Nashville Sound: Rock and Roll, Nashville, and William Faulkner’s ‘The Town’,” Contemporary Literature (forthcoming).
22.  Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49, 117.
23.  Michael Chabon, Telegraph Avenue: a Novel, 1st ed. (New York: Harper, 2012), 370; Carole King, Tapestry (Ode SP 77009, 1971).  Thanks to Sean McCann and Deak Nabers for helping me clarify this racial dimension of independent college bands of the 1980s and 1990s.
24. For Lethem, there is no question of crediting vernacular art attributed to African Americans with twenty-first-century novel, and he makes this explicit in his response to Wood’s largely unflattering review of Fortress when he identifies his own “growth of a sensibility through literacy in visual culture, in vernacular and commercial culture, in the culture of music writing and children’s lit, in graffiti and street lore.”  Lethem, “My Disappointment Critic: On Being Reviewed by James Wood.”
25.  Chakrabarty suggests that class is, if not eradicated in the Anthropocene, not enough to protect us against its threats: “the whole crisis cannot be reduced to a story of capitalism. Unlike in the crises of capitalism, there are no lifeboats here for the rich and the privileged (witness the drought in Australia or recent fires in the wealthy neighborhoods of California).”  Chakrabarty is at pains to clarify that this broader threat does not do away with the need for class analysis: “Analytic frameworks engaging questions of freedom by way of critiques of capitalist globalization have not, in any way, become obsolete in the age of climate change. If anything, as Davis shows, climate change may well end up accentuating all the inequities of the capitalist world order if the interests of the poor and vulnerable are neglected.”
26.  Jonathan Lethem, “My Disappointment Critic: On Being Reviewed by James Wood,” Los Angeles Review of Books, November 7, 2011,  On white obsession with black subcultures, Michael Szalay has clarified the extent to which the concept of “hip” is crucially a result of the white idealization of blackness, identifying “a range of predominantly white fantasies about hip” that “have animated the secret imagination of postwar liberalism” Michael Szalay, Hip Figures: a Literary History of the Democratic Party (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2012), 2.
Also see Eric Lott, Love and theft : blackface minstrelsy and the American working class (New York : Oxford University Press, 1993).
27.  Jonathan Lethem, “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism,” Harper’s Magazine, February 1, 2007.
28.  Michiko Kakutani, “‘Hallucinations,’ by Oliver Sacks,” The New York Times, November 26, 2012, sec. Books,; Oliver Sacks, Hallucinations, 1st ed. (Knopf, 2012); “IoS Book Review: Hallucinations, By Oliver Sacks,” The Independent, accessed January 11, 2013,
29.  Spiotta’s Caroline, too, is a “speck of a being in the middle of a vast, multi-highwayed and many-sided country” (6), and the “rock girl” in Phillips’ The Song is You indicates vast time, engaging, as the narrator explains, in “evolutionary teasing”  (27).
30.  William Deresiewicz, “A Geek Grows in Brooklyn,” October 15, 2009.
31.  Jennifer L. Fleissner, “The Song That Gets Stuck in Your Head” (Keynote presented at the Post45@The Rock Hall, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Cleveland, Ohio, April 30, 2011),
32.  Ibid.
33.  Marco Roth would surely read the view of the mother as mere comfort in the age of science as an example of the impoverishment of the contemporary Anglo-American novel.  Describing the spate of novels that, in his account, take neuroscience over psychoanalysis as a basis for understanding human beings, he ask “what to do after psychoanalysis, and before Dennett’s mystery-banishing total explanation of consciousness has arrived?”  He worries that the novel in the era of neuroscience will have nothing to say, and charges Lethem with “neurological reductionism” in Motherless Brooklyn, suggesting that like the other neuronovels Roth examines, Lethem tends to “ground special perceptions and heightened language in neurological anomaly,” thus “severely circumscribing the modernist project.”  Fleissner’s analysis of the symptom in Motherless Brooklyn challenges this view.  Far from disqualifying Motherless Brooklyn from commenting on the human, the protagonist’s tics, even understood in neurological terms, humanize him. Jennifer L. Fleissner, “Symptomatology and the Novel,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 42, no. 3, MLA-IB (2009),; “Rise of the Neuronovel: A Specter Is Haunting the Contemporary Novel,” N+1, accessed March 7, 2012,
34.  See footnote 22 above.
35.  Lethem, “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism.”
36.  Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108, no. 1 (November 2009): 1–21, doi:10.1525/rep.2009.108.1.1.
37.  Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981), 156.
38.  It seems at least worth mentioning that legal privacy works the same way.  In their 1890 article “The Right to Privacy,” Samuel Warren and Louis B. Brandeis define privacy as the right to secrecy, solitude, and anonymity.  Samuel Warren and Louis Dembitz Brandeis, “The Right To Privacy,” Harvard Law Review 4, no. 193 (1890).
39.  Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History.”
40.  Samuel S. Cohen aptly argues, contra the wave of early critics who find the third section of the novel shallow, that the contrast to the childhood section is “exactly the point.” Samuel S Cohen, After the End of History: American Fiction in the 1990s (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2009), 178.
41.  Watt’s private self, we should recall, emerges in what he calls the novel’s “formal realism,” and the rock novel continues to be engaged in this endeavor. Watt, The Rise of the Novel; Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding., 34.
42.  Lethem’s interest in middles truly challenges aesthetic norms.  For him, unlike, say, for Peter Brooks or Frank Kermode, it is the retreat from endings that enables meaning.  For Brooks, in particular, meaning at ends comes because it must, because of the subject’s orientation toward death.  But Lethem characterizes this psychoanalytic idea of human meaning—an account that would entail a centered, deep subject of the sort Wood feels is lacking in Fortress of Solitude—as too morose, and he emphasizes the middle that rock music offers as a more jubilant, less verbally articulate way that humans experience life in the vast.
43.  Ivan Kreilkamp, “Churches of Vinyl: Archive and Authenticity in the Pop Music Novel,” (December 12, 2012).
44.  Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act.
45.  Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994).
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