Thursday, June 24, 2010

Motherless Brooklyn: Brilliantly Defying All Convention

In his treatise On Writing, Stephen King says the spark for many of the best novels is when a writer combines two or more disparate ideas/topics/themes and then figures out how they can complement each other in interesting or unexpected ways. Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn is one of the best examples you'll ever find of this theory in action.   

To explain why, let's try to follow (an absurdly abbreviated version of) what must've been Lethem's thought process before actually sitting down to write: "What I want to write is a literary detective novel that pays tribute to the masters like Raymond Chandler. I like that. But I need something more. What if one of the characters has Tourette's Syndrome? Yeah, that'll add intrigue. But he can't be a punchline, he has to be sympathetic. And his relationship with language is how I'll make him sympathetic. Boom, novel."

Then, he sat down to write, and the book he produced (in 1999) won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, turned out to be one of the most-read novels of the aughts, and is often cited as a favorite novel of all time.  

The plot is pretty simple: Gangster Frank Minna is murdered, and the four wise guys he's nurtured since orphan-hood (Tourrette's-afflicted Lionel Essrog being one of them) try to find out who killed him and why. Lionel tells us the the story in first person, as he wanders around New York City and then coastal Maine looking for clues and doing his best to manage his disease.

In my mind, Motherless Brooklyn succeeds spectacularly for two reasons: 1) The novel is incredibly inventive, and avoids cliche, when cliche would've been easy, and 2) It's very clear how much fun Lethem must've had writing this novel, which makes it fun to read.

First, how easy would it have been to make Lionel and his Tourette's a silly source of comic relief? Instead, Lethem uses Lionel's Tourette's in an  unexpected way: He uses the disease to show us how intricate and clever language can be. Lionel must use the "wall of langauge" as a way to protect himself from his disease-addled brain's attempts to destroy him. For Lionel, language isn't what sets him apart from what's normal, it's what helps him be normal himself. If he didn't have language, even nonsensical strings of language, as an outlet to oppose his other physical tics, his disease would get the better of him, rendering him useless. This is part of Lethem's trick to make Lionel a sympathetic and incredibly self-aware character, as opposed to a source of cheap laughs. He also has Lionel continuously explain Tourette's to us so that we not only understand it (see below for an amazingly written passage explaining Tourette's), but we also understand how his unconventional thinking is actually helping him solve the mystery.

Secondly, if we understand #1, then we can also understand that when Lethem has Lionel let loose with a string of language (Franksbook! forkspook! finksblood, i.e.), the effect is not meant to be comic relief. It's just Lionel being Lionel. But, those Tourette's word explosions (ghostradish! pepperpony! kaiserphone!), which appear frequently, sure had to be helluva lot of fun to write! If Lethem wants to be funny, he'll have his characters tell a joke, use a pun (i.e., soon after Frank's dead: "my mourning brain had decided renaming itself was the evening's assignment"), or toss in a word like "chucklehead" — which cracked me up every time. It wasn't until about two-thirds of the way through the novel when this notion of how much fun the novel had to be to write dawned on me. And that's the moment the novel really clicked for me. Lethem's not showing off or being superfluous, he's having a blast! And therefore, as a reader, you can't help but have a blast also. 

I read this book as the third in my personal New York trilogy (Let The Great World Spin and New York: The Novel being the other two). And while I'm sad to "leave" New York, I'm thrilled that I finished up with one of its resident poets. I'd always met to read Lethem but never had until now, and can't wait to take on his other stuff. I'd highly, highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys detective novels, the complexities of language, and just great writing. 

Have you read Motherless Brooklyn? What'd you think?

(Side note: Motherless Brooklyn is currently being made into a movie —- though set in the 1950s instead of the late '90s. Edward Norton wrote the screenplay, is directing and starring. I can't find a firm release date, but some sites say late 2010.)

(Passage explaining Tourette's that I absolutely loved: "Tourette's teaches you what people will ignore and forget, teaches you to see reality-knitting mechanism people employ to tuck away the intolerable, the incongruous, the disruptive — it teaches you this because you're the one lobbing the intolerable, incongruous and disruptive their way.")


  1. Great review. I just added this to my "hold" list at the library. Looking forward to reading.

  2. I was looking forward to reading your review, as I read this book about five years ago. I, too, enjoyed it and thought the protagonist was funny and there was nothing pretentious about the novel—as you said Lethem was just having fun. I remember I read it while also reading Infinite Jest. That has nothing to do with the price of butter.

    I have never read anything else by Lethem, save this essay on plagiarism:

    It's fantastic if you get chance to give it a read. I guess that's enough out of me.

  3. All I have to say is YESSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!

  4. I still haven't read this one -- although I want to. I hope the movie doesn't change this character too much! I'm curious, though, how well-known and understood Tourette's was back in the 1950s, which you say the movie will be set in. Should be interesting!

  5. I already have a copy of this in my TBR pile and your review made me all the more excited to read it!!

  6. Thanks so much for your review, Greg. I loved this book and now I feel like I'm going to have to read it again.

  7. Wonderful review. I read this so long ago but remember thinking that the narrator's voice was fresh beyond compare. I would have paired this with the other Brooklyn Jonathan's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close...or is it, Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close? Either way, it makes for good Brooklyn-focused reading. Do you think these guys run into each other at Starbuck's?

  8. Sounds very very interesting -- your review makes me want to read it!

  9. Read this book and loved the Lethem's play with Tourette's, too. I liked how Essrog was an intricate character that you could care about.