No 419 Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Motherless Brooklyn was my first encounter with Letham – who I know is considered a bit of a wunderkind of American literature – and I doubt it will be my last as I very much enjoyed this riff on a classic hard-boiled detective novel.

The book opens as these genre pieces are wont to do, with a stakeout that goes wrong, leading to the death of a detective’s boss. The detective in question is Lionel Essrog, Brooklynite and orphan, who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. His dead boss is Frank Minna, a small-time criminal who runs a taxi/detective agency in downtown Brooklyn, and employs Lionel alongside his ‘Minna Men’, the four orphans he more or less adopted years before from St. Vincent’s Home for Boys and who now serve as his crew.

Lionel’s Tourette’s mangles his speech into strange oblique eruptions and a tendancy to compulsive behaviour which includes tapping, counting, inappropriate kissing and other habits that mask Lionel’s otherwise sharp mind.

Then it comes, the urge to shout in the church, the nursery, the crowded movie house. It’s an itch at first. Inconsequential. But that itch is soon a torrent behind a straining dam. Noah’s flood. That itch is my whole life. Here it comes now. Cover your ears. Build and ark.

“Eat me!” I scream.

After Minna is stabbed and left for dead in a Dumpster at the beginning of the book, Lionel and the rest of the Minna Men try to find out who killed their beloved boss and why. His quest will lead him to doubt everyone, from two elderly Italian men (The Clients) for whom Frank worked, Frank’s less than devastated wife Julia (a classic femme fatale) and even Frank’s mysterious brother Gerard.

Lethem’s actual plot is relatively predictable and slowly paced – featuring unsubtle Mafiosi and an evil Japanese corporation, – but it is a rack on which to hang Lionel’s enjoyable Joycean outbursts and often Dickensian characterisations and set-pieces. Buddhist monks double as Mafia muscle, a ubiquitous kumquat-eating Polish ‘giant’ seems to be the key to the whole case and Lionel even finds himself a love interest.

Brooklyn itself becomes another character, and it is only towards the end that Lionel ventures outside of his regular surroundings for the first time in his life. Letham portrays a vibrant, secretive city within a city with it’s own customs, rules and ways, not unlike Lionel’s distinctive tics.

Minna’s Court Street was old Brooklyn, a placid ageless surface, alive underneath with talk, with deals and casual insults, a neighborhood political machine with pizzeria and butcher-shop bosses and unwritten rules everywhere. All was talk except for what mattered most, which were unspoken understandings.

In Motherless Brooklyn, Lionel’s Tourette’s is occasionally played for laughs, but it slowly becomes a microcosm of the human condition, reminding us how we all continually try to come to terms with that inner voice that seems at times to have a will of its own. This is a novel about the mysteries of consciousness, the dualism Essrog alludes to when he talks about his ‘Tourette’s brain’ as if it were an entity apart from him.

Conspiracies are a version of Tourette’s Syndrome, the making and tracing of unexpected connections a kind of touchiness, an expression of the yearning to touch the world, kiss it all over with theories, pull it close. Like Tourette’s, all conspiracies are ultimately solipsistic, sufferer or conspirator or theorist overrating his centrality, and forever rehearsing a traumatic delight in narration, attachment and causality, in roads out from the Rome of self.

Under the guise of a detective novel, Lethem has written a more interesting tale of investigation, one that immerses the reader in the complicated alleyways not of Brooklyn, but of the mind – a place where words, thoughts and conversation spill over, entangle and mix together – the same as it is in the minds of us all, to a greater or lesser degree.

Letham displays a keen eye for absurd humour, the undermining of genre conventions and a rhetorical inventiveness that is at times, quite stunning. This is a very enjoyable book.

READ ON: IbOOK
NUMBER READ: 327
NUMBER REMAINING: 419

The 746

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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

13 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Jonathan Letham is a writer that I’ve never quite gotten around to, although I do enjoy the very occassional tale of a hardboiled detective (when I was a kid, I read lots of pulp fiction, including my dad’s Micky Spillane novels). This certainly sounds like one I might turn to, when the urge next hits. Have you seen the film, starring Edward Norton? It’s almost good, i.e., lots of well-done & interesting elements but a bit on the draggy side at times. Norton, however, makes it work.

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  2. I’ve only read Fortress of Solitude, also set in Brooklyn but very different from this – more a coming-of-age novel. Brave writer to portray Tourette’s and a skilful one, both to do it well and use it to convey a message.

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  3. I read a couple of Lethem’s books back when they came out and very much enjoyed Motherless Brooklyn. I think that may be one of only 3 of his I really appreciated. The others were Fortress of Solitude (excellent!) and Chronic City. The Feral Detective wasn’t as good as his earlier books but it was okay.

    Your review of Motherless Brooklyn was superb! Thank you!

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  4. That’s an interesting quotation you’ve given about the espousal of conspiracy theories being akin to Tourette’s. It sort of works as a metaphor but it does unsettle me because not only is it a bit pat but some of those with the condition might not agree with the comparison or parallel. Still, a very arresting passage and one that makes one hope the rest of the novel is as stimulating!

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