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Motherless Brooklyn


Motherless Brooklyn Cover



Author Q & A

Q: Where did you get the idea to write Motherless Brooklyn? What inspired you to write a novel from the point of view of a narrator who has Tourette's Syndrome?

A: I became fascinated with Tourette's by reading about it in Oliver Sacks' essays--and after seeing a wonderful documentary film called Twitch and Shout, which intimately portrays the daily lives of a handful of very articulate and expressive Tourette's sufferers. I began — involuntarily — to relate the symptoms of Tourette's to aspects of my own temperament and personality: obsessiveness, disruptiveness, the struggle to shape and control language (a very writerly issue!). Tourette's became vital to my own experience of the world, both inner and outer, an irresistible metaphor for things I felt, and I knew I had to try to get that feeling across to other people. That was the beginning.

Q: What response has there been from the Tourette's community to the character of Lionel Essrog?

A: I've been lucky. Obviously, there are times in the book when I'm having dangerous amount of fun with Lionel and his condition. My research was careful, but I didn't restrict myself to what I learned, didn't turn in my poetic license. But, perhaps because I also identified with him so strongly, and therefore take the reader with me into his skin, the Tourette's community has been very kind. They've read the book generously, written me letters, showed up at readings, and generally flattered me by suggesting I got Tourette's right, emotionally if not strictly scientifically.

Q: The city of Brooklyn plays a major role in this novel. Of all the places in the world you could set this story, why Brooklyn?

A: I'm from Brooklyn. That's the short answer. This book became an opportunity to breaking through to writing about my home turf for the first time — somehow, through Lionel's eyes, I was able to see it "fictionally", and the result was a book that was much more about place, and about home, as subjects, than any I'd written before. And Brooklyn has a Tourettic, impulsive, interruptive, agitated energy to it which rhymed beautifully with Lionel's perceptions and style, and with the twitchy, antic energy of the book. It couldn't have been set anywhere else.

Q: Motherless Brooklyn has been described as, among other things, an "homage to the classic detective novel." As a novelist who also writes a lot of literary criticism how would you define your novel? And how would you review it?

A: Yikes, that sounds like an opportunity to put my foot in my mouth. And of course, I spend an awful lot of time working to make sure that my novels are "impossible" to categorize or pigeonhole. I'm fond of leading with one genre notion and then following with another, contradictory one. But — I would agree, of course, that in a perverse and playful way the book is an homage to detective fiction, yes. Lionel himself is desperate to be regarded as a Philip Marlowe-type detective, and in that he betrays my own reverence for the form. But I think the book is as much a comic coming-of-age story, a novel of delayed adolescence (Lionel's in his thirties for most of it!) somewhat in the tradition of Catcher In The Rye, or Confederacy of Dunces. And it's a love story. And a psychological novel. And...

Q: Do you ever wonder what writers like Chandler and Hammett would think of your novels, especially Motherless Brooklyn?

A: That's an interesting question. In my mind a book like Motherless Brooklyn has so much to do with Chandler and Hammett, and yet I doubt they would see very much of themselves or their work in it. Of course, they'd probably spend most of the time trying to puzzle over the references to I Dream Of Genie and The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. And the cellphones. But seriously, both of those writers were so powerfully engaged with issues of violence and civility and class in the new American cities — they were really excavating material that had been treated only contemptuously, in pulp terms, and making something literary out of it. In the process they — particularly Hammett — defined a new kind of American voice which is now so taken for granted that it can be parodied in Steve Martin movies, and so on. My own hard-boiled (or, really, soft-boiled) books take those innovations very much for granted. If I've discovered anything new at all in Motherless Brooklyn it isn't in the realm of Hammett and Chandler. What I owe to them is very, very traditional by now, and I dare say I haven't advanced it an inch.

General Questions:

Q: What authors have been most influential to your own writing?

A: There are so many, and the most relevant to mention change from book to book. For instance, Girl In Landscape is derived from Shirley Jackson, Carson McCullers, Davis Grubb, and Charles Portis. As She Climbed Across the Table from Don Delillo, Stanislaw Lem, John Barth and Malcolm Bradbury. In fact, The Vintage Book of Amnesia includes many names which are among my most absolutely formative and influential early reading experiences: Philip K. Dick, Borges, Nabokov, Walker Percy, Thomas Disch, Donald Barthelme, Julio Cortazar. Those are some who shaped my sense of all the amazing things fiction could do and say... but equally, I'd count Graham Greene, Henry Miller, Robert Heinlein, Chandler and Hammett, of course... Iris Murdoch, Franz Kafka, Dickens, Gissing, Bronte... when should I stop?

Q: If you weren't writing, what would you want to be doing for a living?

A: Easy. I'd go back to what I did before I made a living from writing, the only other thing I know how to do: working as a clerk in a used bookstore. Pining over books, touching them, taking them home instead of half my paycheck.

Q: What is the most difficult question that your readers ask you?

A: "My name is Czrllyzzk Mxzztpyl, will you please inscribe this book?"

Q: More and more, authors are expected to tour to promote the publication of their books? What is the most challenging aspect of hitting the road?

A: You'd have to be a real misanthrope — and a self-loathing one, at that — to complain much about having people show up to listen to you read your work aloud in public and then ask you basically flattering questions about how you spend your mornings padding around in your house every day, writing down your fantasies for which they will soon eagerly pay 24.95 and then show up and listen to you read aloud in public...people talk about 'trying to stay humble' and I wonder why you'd even need to try. I lived a blessed life. What gets me down sometimes is sheer exhaustion, and the logistics, and the air travel. The dumb stuff that fills in the spaces between the gratifying attention. I've seen my share of cancelled flights and hotel lobbies, just like Willie Nelson or the Kinks. And, just between you and me, talking into radio talk show microphones is sometimes draining — you feel like your words are falling into the void between the galaxies. Often in radio the guy who asked you the question is outside the booth smoking a cigarette while you answer it. But if there's a real living, breathing person in a bookstore looking at you, waiting to hear what you think, then it's a pleasure. Unless you're painfully shy — and I'm not — meeting readers is as potentially nourishing (and therefore, I should say, as potentially disappointing) as any other form of human contact.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 6 comments:

magik, January 7, 2015 (view all comments by magik)
Lethem's ability to capture Tourette's syndrome in writing is really impressive. Plus, this is a wonderful homage to New York, perhaps the most Tourettic of cities. "Motherless Brooklyn" is a lot of fun to read thanks to the wonderfully self-aware narrator who helps the novel step just outside of the crime genre to into the realm of literature.
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schaeferj.r, January 26, 2013 (view all comments by schaeferj.r)
I didn't expect to like this as much as I did. Certainly in my top five for the year. Treat yourself.
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(1 of 2 readers found this comment helpful)
librariphile, October 21, 2012 (view all comments by librariphile)
Well-placed, evenly-spaced box & highlight SAT words. About every 20 pages, I'd guess. Maybe less often. Excellent Tourette's writing. Good handle on the detective genre, enough to be slightly outside it. EatmeBailey.
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(1 of 2 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

Lethem, Jonathan
Vintage Books USA
Lethem, Jonathan
New York, N.Y.
Private investigators
Tourette syndrome
Mystery fiction
Private investigators - New York (State) -
General Fiction
Literature-A to Z
fiction;mystery;brooklyn;novel;crime;detective;new york;orphans;noir;american;tourette s syndrome;new york city;contemporary fiction;mafia;literature;contemporary;usa;20th century;national book critics circle award;humor;literary fiction;american literatu
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Vintage Contemporaries
Series Volume:
Publication Date:
November 2000
Grade Level:
8 x 5.1 x .7 in .55 lb

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History and Social Science » American Studies » Popular Culture

Motherless Brooklyn Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$9.95 In Stock
Product details 336 pages Vintage Books USA - English 9780375724831 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

The narrator, Lionel Essrog, known as The Human Freakshow, suffers with Tourette's syndrome and though you might not want to know him in real life, he's got to be one of the most brilliant characters ever created. His quirky rants put me off at first, but I found myself being drawn closer to him with each page, and by the end of the book, I had gained a whole new appreciation for Lionel Essrog. He's trying to find the murderer of the only man who gave him anything resembling fatherly care. Lionel's search takes on rather desperate proportions, but therein lies much of this book's beauty. There's nothing to compare it to a true original.

"Review" by , "Finding out whodunit is interesting enough, but it's more fun watching Lethem unravel the mysteries of his Tourettic creation. In this case, it takes one trenchant wordsmith to know another."
"Review" by , "With one unique and well-imagined character, Jonathan Lethem has turned a genre on its ear. He doesn't just push the envelope, he gives it a swift kick....A tour de force."
"Review" by , "Jonathan Lethem's sixth book, Motherless Brooklyn, superbly balances beautiful writing and an engrossing plot....Motherless Brooklyn succeeds in the end because the author cares about his creations, especially his protagonist, in whom he instills real humanity."
"Review" by , "Who but Jonathan Lethem would attempt a half-satirical cross between a literary novel and a hard-boiled crime story narrated by an amateur detective with Tourette's syndrome?...The dialogue crackles with caustic hilarity....Jonathan Lethem is a verbal performance artisit....Unexpectedly moving."
"Review" by , "One of the greatest feats of first-person narration in recent Americn fiction."
"Review" by , "Philip Marlowe would blush. And tip his fedora."
"Review" by , "The best novel of the year....Utterly original and deeply moving."
"Review" by , "Wonderfully inventive, slightly absurdist...[Motherless Brooklyn] is funny and sly, clever, compelling, and endearing."
"Synopsis" by , From America's most inventive novelist comes this virtuoso riff on the classic detective novel. Lionel Essrog, who has Tourette's Syndrome, and three other veterans from St. Vincent's Home for Boys work for a small-time mobster. When the mobster is fatally stabbed, Lionel's world is turned topsy-turvy. A National Book Critics Circle Award Winner.
"Synopsis" by , From America's most inventive novelist, Jonathan Lethem, comes this compelling and compulsive riff on the classic detective novel.

Lionel Essrog is Brooklyn's very own self-appointed Human Freakshow, an orphan whose Tourettic impulses drive him to bark, count, and rip apart our language in startling and original ways.  Together with three veterans of the St. Vincent's Home for Boys, he works for small-time mobster Frank Minna's limo service cum detective agency. Life without Frank Minna, the charismatic King of Brooklyn, would be unimaginable, so who cares if the tasks he sets them are, well, not exactly legal. But when Frank is fatally stabbed, one of Lionel's colleagues lands in jail, the other two vie for his position, and the victim's widow skips town. Lionel's world is suddenly topsy-turvy, and this outcast who has trouble even conversing attempts to untangle the threads of the case while trying to keep the words straight in his head.  Motherless Brooklyn is a brilliantly original homage to the classic detective novel by one of the most acclaimed writers of his generation.

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