The thing that originally drew me to Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn was Amazon's editorial review.
Pop quiz. Please complete the following sentence: "There are days when I get up in the morning and stagger into the bathroom and begin running water and then I look up and I don't even recognize my own _." If you answered face, then your name is obviously not Jonathan Lethem. Instead of taking the easy out, the genre-busting novelist concludes this by-the-numbers string of words with toothbrush in the mirror.
Throughout the novel, Lethem has a way of taking a cliché and twisting it into something unexpected. Not conincidentally, Lionel Essrog, the main character, spews out twisted language in releasing his Tourette's Syndrome tics.
From the beginning, the novel reveals itself to be a a series of contrasts. It opens with a stakeout, a situation requiring stealth and cunning. Neither are present. Lionel, Touretting lines like "Eat me Mister Dicky-weed!" (p. 15), is most definitely not an exemplar of stealth. Yet Lionel isn't the only contributor to the situation gone bad. Coney, as the stakeout turns into a tail, loses the E-Z Pass—"Eatmepass!" (p. 19)—toting target car by waiting in line at the cash booth. Despite the Keystone Cops set-up, I took the entire book seriously and never thought of it as a comedy even though comedic elements dotted the narrative. And that surprised me. Shouldn't a mystery starring a detective with Tourette's be funny? Did you come across anything you didn't expect?
We've all been in uncomfortable situations. I'm reminded of a subway ride with a homeless man who was having some sort of itch attack. He sat in his seat moaning and grunting and scratching. When the itchiness spread to his thighs, he actually pulled his pants down in order to scratch more effectively. The other riders and I put on our blinders, inconspicuously moved to the end of the car, and were thankful when the train arrived at our respective stops. Lionel tells the reader, "A Touretter can also be the invisible man" (p. 44). On the subway, we made the scratcher invisible in plain sight. Were we embarrassed for ourselves by being uncomfortable in the car with him or were we embarrassed for him and his uncomfortable situation? Have you ever found yourself sharing space with an invisible man?
Lionel's Tourette's Syndrome mainly manifests itself as a series of verbal tics. It runs the gamut from playing with words ["I'mafrayedknot." (p. 33)] to revealing private thoughts ["Talk to me about fool-me-softly—Fujisaki." (p. 232)] to searching for his own identity ["Lyrical Eggdog! Logical Assnog!" (p. 104)]. Since Lionel is the narrator, we also have an added peek at his internal monologue, well, dialogue, really. At times it almost seems as if there are two narrators: Lionel and Lionel's Tourette's brain. What did you think about Lionel's use of language? As you read, were you impressed mostly by Lionel and Lionel's Tourette's or did you hear Lethem's voice come through?
The Detective Novel
Clearly, Motherless Brooklyn tips its hat to the classic detective novel with a nod to wiseguy escapades. As I read, though, I found the actual whodunit to be the least interesting aspect of the story. Frank Minna, Lionel's savior and coiner of the book's title, was an important enough character, to Lionel at least, to drive the plot. However, I didn't care who killed him or why. I was much more interested in the process of solving the crime than the crime's solution. In particular, I loved how Lethem worked in metacognitive observations about being in a detective novel. Early on, Frank tells Coney, "'What's with piece? Say gun, Gilbert'" (p. 8). Later during Lionel's investigation, he hopes a group of heavies would "recall the protocol from crime movies" and describes one of them as being "schooled enough in the clichés to be manipulable" (p. 149). What did you think of the detective story? Was it what you focused on as you read the novel?