Book Review

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

An undercover operation. A stakeout. A lonely urban landscape. Jonathan Lethem's "Motherless Brooklyn" begins on familiar noir territory, but immediately takes a sharp left turn. The unique genre-bending premise is that Lethem's detective, Lionel Essrog (a.k.a "The Human Freakshow") suffers from Tourette's syndrome, which induces a tendency towards compulsive behaviour and peculiar verbal tics, most notably a desire to shout out random and inappropriate things at very inopportune times. This, of course, is a socially embarrassing condition for anyone, but for a private investigator, it is often disastrous.

Essrog's condition is not the only unusual thing about him - he and three other orphans were recruited by local gangster Frank Minna when they were still living in a children's home in Brooklyn. As adults they become assistants to Minna's small-time operation which masquerades as a detective agency and taxi firm. However, when Minna is murdered, Lionel is forced to become a real detective and to discover the truth about the man he idolised. In Lionel's subsequent investigations he embarks on a love affair with a hippy called Kimmery, takes in a Zen Buddhist temple in Upper Manhattan and unravels the covert operations of a mysterious Japanese corporation. Above all, however, he makes the painful discovery that his dead mentor who he assumed was an important and respected figure in Brooklyn's underworld, was actually a rather pathetic man, a functionary at the bottom of the hoodlum hierarchy and in the pockets of much more sinister gangsters.

Most post-modern detective fiction is effective because the detective becomes a metaphor for us all, both as readers trying to decipher the mysteries of the text and human beings striving to make sense of the complicated wider world. This method is apparent here, but Lethem provides a very definitive twist by burdening his protagonist with a social disorder which colours the way he sees the world and the way the world perceives him. Like Christopher Boone in Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Lionel's behaviour appears bizarre and illogical to most people and yet, paradoxically it is this same ritualistic behaviour which provides comfort and helps him make sense of the world. As in Haddon's novel, the inference is that we all occupy a position on the social spectrum that is closer to Lionel than we think. Negotiating the arcane rules governing social etiquette is difficult for the best of us, and we have all experienced the burning sense of embarrassment or disorientation when we do or say something inappropriate.

Despite Lethem's sensitive rendering of the condition, the novelty of seeing a Tourette's sufferer trying to negotiate the role of detective could easily have worn off very quickly, but the frenetic pace is maintained throughout precisely because Lionel is so much more than a series of tics. He is a wonderfully rounded character whose condition is never lampooned purely for cheap laughs, although make no mistake - this is a very funny book. Lionel's various behavioural and verbal eccentricities are wonderfully evoked - his uncontrollable urge to touch every surface, his desire to smooth down imperfections in people's clothing and, best of all, his repertoire of zany spontaneous utterances which make the dialogue crackle with life.

The plot becomes increasingly erratic and improbable as Lethem's yarn reaches its climax, but the journey is so entertaining and the conclusion so unexpectedly moving, that liberties with the plot are soon forgotten, whereas Lionel's exuberant character lingers long in the memory.


-- Reviewed by Jane Morris on 12/08/2004

Further Information
ISBN-10: 0571203167
ISBN-13: 9780571203161
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Publication Date: 21/12/2000
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 300

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