Friday, 8 February 2013

Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem

My husband enjoys reading Jonathan Lethem, and over the years has tossed a few my way, some of which I read, and some of which (much to his disappointment) I never quite got around to. I read one of his early works a couple of years ago - Amnesia Moon, a post-apocalyptic road movie, where reality was a slippery construct. Lethem is one of those authors you can’t judge based on one book; he doesn’t stick to writing in one genre. Motherless Brooklyn is a detective novel, set in Lethem’s hometown.

Our hero is Lionel Essrog, and we meet him in a car, on a stakeout which goes horribly wrong. He is listening in on a meeting between his boss, Frank Minna, and some unknowns, which culminates in Minna‘s murder. With only the few clues picked up through his wire, Lionel is determined to uncover the truth behind Minna’s death. Except they aren’t really detectives. Frank Minna is a small time crook, using the detective agency (which itself masquerades as a car agency) as cover. Lionel and his three colleagues were recruited as teenage orphans from a home, and have worked for Frank Minna all their lives. Whether or not the Minna Men are all still loyal is only one of the many threads Lionel will have to unravel.

It sounds pretty straightforward so far, and for the most part it is; Motherless Brooklyn follows all the conventions of a detective novel. In his wanderings of Brooklyn, Lionel slowly begins to piece the clues together, which are then revealed to us in a final dramatic set-piece. Lethem throws in a couple of (admittedly sedate) car chases, a fair bit of gun waving, some Buddhist monks and, although there is no blonde bombshell, there is an attractive girl who garners some attention from our hero. The detective element of the story is, well, competent. I’m not sure the reveal was as satisfying as I wanted it to be. That isn't to say I didn't enjoy it, more that I didn't feel it lived up to my expectations based on the rest of the book.

What makes this novel interesting is the compelling narrative voice Lethem finds in Lionel Essrog. He is no hardboiled detective, or greasy gangster. Lionel is basically an ordinary guy who happens to have Tourette’s Syndrome. I don’t know a lot about Tourette’s, but to me it seemed a very convincing portrayal. Lionel’s ticcing has some physical expressions, like his penchant for tapping shoulders, and eating habits, such as needing to eat the same number of items as others around him. Many of his verbal tics take the form of echolalia, which is repetition of what others are saying. These allow Lethem to engage in a bit of wordplay, as Lionel mangles words and phrases
"I don’t know. Screw Tony. I like you better Lionel. I just never told you.” She was hurt, erratic her voice straying wildly, searching for a place to rest. “I like you, too, Julia. There’s nothing-Screwtony! Nertscrony! Screwtsony! Tootscrewny!-sorry. There’s nothing wrong with that."
Not that Lethem uses Tourette’s as a gag, as we so often see it. It is a central part of Lionel’s character. He is often written off as a bit crazy, meaning he is ignored while he observes everything around him; this is one of the reasons he was so valuable to Minna. Lethem also captures the humour people develop to deal with adversity. Lionel is very self aware, and able to joke about his impulses, even as he craves normality.

Brooklyn, and a sense of place, is another central part of the novel. Lionel knows Brooklyn intricately. There is a sense of geographic detail that, as I have never been to Brooklyn, I’m sure I wasn’t able to fully appreciate. It serves a purpose further than accuracy though, as Lionel has never travelled - his world is a very insular place. The intrusion of Minna’s murderers into this place is initially very shocking, but eventually drags him out into a wider world.

Lethem somewhat reminds me of one of my favourite authors China Mieville, in the way he genre-swaps. I think it must take considerable skill to immerse yourself in the different conventions for each book. In the end though, what all good books have in common is character, and setting. Lethem certainly creates these convincingly.

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