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4 Beaverton Mystery- A to Z

Motherless Brooklyn


Motherless Brooklyn Cover



Reading Group Guide

1. For readers who come to Motherless Brooklyn with little knowledge of Brooklyn, what devices, beyond straightforward descriptions, does Lethem use to capture its distinctive atmosphere?

2. Lionel's wordplay includes variations on his own name?Liable Guesscog, Final Escrow, Ironic Pissclaim, for example. How does this particular quirk serve to establish Lionel's sense of himself and his place in the world? Is there an internal logic about the variations or are they simply haphazard?

3. The Minna Men are all orphans, first introduced as teenagers. Discuss how each of them carves out an identity for himself and why this is important to them. How do the initial descriptions Lionel provides of Tony [p. 39], Gil [p. 40], and Danny [p. 42-43] foreshadow the relationships among the four as adults? Do their characters change in the course of the novel?

4. Does Minna see himself as more than a boss to the young men? Does he make a conscious effort to turn the group into a family or does the family feeling develop from the needs of the young men themselves? What evidence, if any, is there that Minna's interest in them is emotional as well as practical? In what ways does Minna's relationship with his own mother and older brother influence the way he treats the Minna Men?

5. Why does Lionel say "it was Minna who brought me the language, Minna and Court Street that let me speak" [p.37]? What parts do Tony, Gil, and Danny play in helping Lionel accept his Tourette's Syndrome? How do their individual ways of dealing with Lionel differ? Which man's support is the most significant to Lionel both as a teenager and as an adult?

6. In describing Gil's explanation of Minna's kidnapping and murder, Lionel says "English might have been his fourth or fifth language from the sound of it" [p. 94]. Why does Lethem include this observation and other examples of mangled language throughout the book? How do they put Lionel's own "language difficulties" in perspective?

7. In addition to Lionel's wonderful, often poetic riffs, what other specific language patterns does Lethem employ to bring the various characters to life? For example, how do Lionel's conversation with the homicide detective [pp. 109-111], his initial encounter with Kimmery [p. 135] and his interview with Matricardi and Rockaforte [pp. 176-177] create impressions of these particular people that are independent of Lionel's own perceptions?

8. What role does Julia play in the novel? In what ways is she the stereotypical "dame" of other hard-boiled detective novels and films and how is she different? Do you think Julia is right when she says "No woman would ever want you, Lionel....That's not really true. They might want you....But they'll never be fair to you" [p. 297]?

9. Is Kimmery also a stock figure in this tradition? How does Kimmery's reaction to Lionel's Tourettic behavior differ from the reactions of the other characters? Does the brief, romantic interlude between Lionel and Kimmery advance the plot and if so, in what ways? How does it affect your understanding of Lionel? Is Kimmery "fair" to Lionel?

10. The Zen Buddhist communities in New York and Maine are not at all what they seem. Are the characters who participate in the Buddhist Zendo?Lionel's brother, Gerald, Julia, and Kimmery?influenced by Buddhist teachings? Do the principles of Zen Buddhism (either as expressed in the book by Kimmery or from your knowledge) illuminate some of the themes Lethem explores?

11. Does Lionel in fact become a "real detective"? Do his techniques fit your definition of detective work? Kimmery, for example, is skeptical about both his intentions and his working style [p. 255]. Do you think her evaluation is accurate? In other detective books you may have read, are the heroes completely removed from the personal aspects of the cases they investigate? Is the solution to Minna's murder fully satisfying in light of the evidence presented in the rest of the book?

12. At several points in the book, Lethem makes direct reference to the genres that inform Motherless Brooklyn — both the classic detective novel and "wiseguy" novels and movies. For example, Minna teases Gil for saying "piece," rather than "gun" [p. 8]; and Lionel asks "Have you ever felt, in the course of reading a detective novel, a guilty thrill of relief at having a character murdered before he can step on to the page and burden you with his actual existence?" [p. 119]. In another passage, Lionel compares himself to the standard set in detective literature: "So many detectives have been knocked out and fallen into such strange, swirling darknesses...and yet I have nothing to contribute to this painful tradition" [p. 205]. Why does Lethem include these references? Are they simply there for "comic relief" or do they serve another purpose?

13. By using Lionel as narrator, Lethem is following a long tradition in detective fiction. In what ways would the impact on the reader be different if a third-person voice told the story? Why do you think he chose to use a narrator with Tourette's Syndrome? Is this purely a literary device, giving him the opportunity to play with language as an author? Do the classic detective heroes — for example, Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe — have quirks comparable to Lionel's?

14. Does the title of the book refer only to the four orphans who make up the Minna Men? In what ways is Brooklyn itself "motherless"?

15. The Voice Literary Supplement wrote "Lethem loves to cross-wire popular genres and watch the sparks fly." In addition to the conventions of the hard-boiled detective novel, what other genre does Lethem draw on in Motherless Brooklyn?

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Average customer rating based on 5 comments:

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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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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Manek, November 27, 2010 (view all comments by Manek)
Holy living f*ck this is a great book! (Can I use the F word, Powell's, if I don't spell it out? A fleeting expletive is not legally obscene-- can't be, b/c of the First Amendment. Of course, you, Powell's, are entitled to your own policies. In this case, though, consider an exception. B/c- once again- F*CK!). Finished it around 4 am last night. Jonathan L. is a genius. Which makes the MacArthur grant make sense. It's top notch literary noir with Tourrette's Syndrome. Eat Me! While I'm at it, let me also recommend the audioversion of Lethem's Chronic City. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of his work. (Have to say, though, I didn't love Gun, With Occasional Music, which might be a kind of precursor to Motherless Brooklyn). Plot and characters are both fully developed and satisfying. Go buy it, now! Maybe get it for your friend who likes trashy crime fiction-- the one you wish would read something a little more literary. Telling you- this might be the book. Seriously. Your lowbrow friend will thank you.
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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
$4.95 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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