A decade ago, science fiction novelist Dan Simmons likened the literary world
to Cold War Berlin: "mainstream fiction [had] become too much like East Berlin
gray, joyless, lifeless, hierarchical, with its store shelves empty or
stocked with a few Party-approved items that no one wanted to buy." He suggested
that the lucky writers on the west side of the wall, his fellow genre writers,
had a responsibility: "[The] color, energy, vitality and ongoing party of
West Berlin the energetic genres [need] to kick down the wall and
bring some life back to the East Berlin of contemporary serious fiction."
Hyperbolic, for sure. But he had a point. And at least one "genre" writer
has proved him prophetic. In his first five works of fiction, Jonathan
established a reputation as a writer of rich imagination, kinetic prose,
and literary depth. Yet, despite the respect he had earned, in terms of readership
and stature, Lethem remained confined by the genre label. This all changed with
the publication of his fifth novel. A wildly innovative play on the classic hard-boiled
crime novel, Motherless Brooklyn
is narrated by Lionel Essrog, the "Human
Freakshow." A victim of Tourette's syndrome, Lionel is prone to uncontrollable
verbal outbursts. Sometimes his exclamations are merely bizarre. But not always:
"Reality needs a prick here and there, the carpet needs a flaw. My words
begin plucking at threads nervously, seeking purchase, a weak point, a vulnerable
ear....That's when it comes...'Eat me!' I scream." In Lethem's hands, Essrog's
Tourette's is far more than a clever device. Essrog is at once hugely entertaining
and genuinely sympathetic, one of the most compelling and unlikely
characters in recent fiction. Essrog was also Lethem's passport out of the science
fiction ghetto. Motherless Brooklyn
was enthusiastically embraced by the
politburos of several genres, receiving both a major literary award (the 1999
National Book Critics
Circle Award for Fiction
) and a prominent genre prize (The
Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger Award
). East Berlin will never be the
same. Farley, Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"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." Time
"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." The Denver Post
"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." Nicholas Kulish, Wall Street Journal
"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." The Boston Globe
"One of the greatest feats of first-person narration in recent Americn fiction." Washington Post
"Philip Marlowe would blush. And tip his fedora." Newsweek
"The best novel of the year....Utterly original and deeply moving." Esquire
"Wonderfully inventive, slightly absurdist...[Motherless Brooklyn] is funny and sly, clever, compelling, and endearing." USA Today
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.
One of America's hottest young writers the only novelist named as one of Newsweek's
'100 People for the New Century' presents a genre-bending, mind-blowing tale.
Lionel Essrog, a.k.a. the Human Freakshow, is a victim of Tourette's syndrome (an uncontrollable urge to shout out nonsense, touch every surface in reach, rearrange objects). A local tough guy and fixer, Frank Minna, takes up the adolescent Lionel and three other orphans from St. Vincent's Home for Boys and grooms them to become the Minna Men, a fly-by-night detective-agency-cum-limo-service their days and nights revolving around Frank Minna, the secret prince of Brooklyn. Then one terrible day Frank is murdered, and Lionel must become a real detective, delving into the complex, shadowy web of threats and favours that make up Frank Minna's Brooklyn.
About the Author
Jonathan Lethem is the author of six novels, including the best sellers The Fortress of Solitude, which was a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice for one of the best books of 2003, and Mother Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named novel of the year by Esquire, McSweeney's, Tin House, The New York TImes, the Paris Review, and a variety of other periodicals and anthologies. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and in Maine.
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 nameLiable 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 ZendoLionel's brother, Gerald, Julia, and Kimmeryinfluenced 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?
The questions, author biography, and suggested reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading and discussion of Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.
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.
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.