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Motherless Brooklyn is a late 20th century detective novel by Jonathan Lethem that attempts to recreate the traditional murder story. However, the story comes with post-modern alterations such as the implementation of a narrator with Tourette’s Syndrome. The plot consists of the narrator, Lionel Essrog, hunting for the killer of his life-long mentor, Frank Minna. The reader is led on a journey through the streets of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and eventually into rural Maine, following sinister characters with ulterior motives and a storyline that intertwines all of these seemingly unrelated personas.
One of the motifs of the story is an almost magnetic attraction to both ideas and physical places, leading the reader to conclude that we as humans have a subconscious need to hover around certain objects and thoughts.Lethem explores the debate between nature and nurture, ultimately stating that our entire personality consists of certain constructs that are a reaction either in accordance with or in direct opposition to certain intrinsic, biological traits, which becomes one of the more evident themes of the novel.
Through plot, typography, the use of a tourettic narrator, Lethem explores external pressures on the personalities of various characters, ultimately reaching this conclusion.
As an author, Jonathan Lethem has been known to cross genre lines, mixing themes and stretching the limits of traditional writing as seen through the implementation of a tourettic narrator. He says, “Everything I write is informed by genre traditions, which I love deeply. At the same time, I don’t think I’ve written without straining against genre boundaries, and I’ve often violated them outright (Gale).
” Lethem is no stranger to radical ideas. In fact, in an article he wrote for Believer, he writes, “postmodernism: nobody agrees on its definition, but in literary conversations the word is often used as finger-pointing to a really vast number of things that might be seen as threatening to canonical culture (Lethem).”
So, as a postmodern writer it is unsurprising that Lethem contradicts much of what the common approach to present day literature follows. One such approach is the theme of free will; the strong emphasis on individual freedom and choice has been advertised strongly starting with the counterculture in the 1960’s and has pushed even stronger in the late 20th and early 21″ centuries. So by following his own self-created definition of “postmodernism”, Lethem contradicts this “canonical” assertion, by saying that while free will exists, it is all built on top of an intrinsic foundation.
Jonathan Lethem has personal connections to Brooklyn. He was born in the New York City borough in 1964, the son of Richard Brown, a painter, and Judith Frank, an activist (Gale). His deep connection to Brooklyn continues to this day, as he still resides in the city, and it is in this relationship that the idea of an indestructible piece of personality is first presented. In an interview with James A. Schiff in Contemporary Literary Criticism, Lethem says that while he was working on Motherless Brooklyn, “I was rediscovering my connection with Brooklyn, and I realized I wanted to move back. I experienced a sentimental urgency to proclaim that Brooklyn was where I was from… That’s why I had been uncomfortable in California (Johnson).”
By saying that Lethem felt an irresistible urge to reconnect with his home, he suggests that there is at least one root to a personality:: home. He says that there was a “sentimental urgency”, meaning that he was not able to escape his overwhelming urge to display this specific part of him. He even goes as far as to say that he was uncomfortable in his current situation, and that the inherent part of his personality triumphed over the new one. The same experience is reflected in Lionel’s venture out of Brooklyn.
It seems silly to compare the culture change and distance between New York City and California to Brooklyn and Manhattan, but this further emphasizes the connection to one’s hometown. Although Lethem makes no reference to Lionel’s life prior to the orphanage, it is clear that he spent most of his youth in Brooklyn. But eventually, certain clues bring the amateur detective to Manhattan to investigate the Fujisaki Company. Various times during his journey in an out of the borough, he narrates his discomfort in Manhattan. The streets, the buildings, and the people of Brooklyn are a comfort to him and Manhattan does not satisfy his urges. He feels uncomfortable out of Brooklyn and even out of the city itself.
In his first encounter with Julia, he confesses that he had never left the city. Lionel’s obvious connection to his home represents an underlying connection to this specific place. No matter where Lionel goes, he is always reminded of his home and feels some sort of attraction to Brooklyn. The premise of Motherless Brooklyn is the murder of a man named Frank Minna, who led a detective agency of four former orphans (now in adulthood), including the narrator Lionel Essrog. The four boys first met Frank Minna at a young age(13 – 15 years old), when he approached them asking for help with his moving business. They started working for a few dollars and beer moving various things for a plethora of clients.
The boys were very different in personality: Lionel being the quiet tourretic victim of Tony’s bullying while his buddy Gilbert egged along and Danny nonchalantly attracting girls with his basketball skills on the court. Later on in the book, it is revealed that Frank and his mythical brother Gerald were skimming off of two clients, whom the boys dubbed “The Clients” due to their elevated status and intimidation. When the clients found out, Frank and Gerald fled to an unknown location (later revealed as Maine), returning two years later. Gerald is not seen again until his identity as the leader of a Buddhist Zendo, but Frank recruits the four boys for a detective agency. Frank is then killed many years later (present day) and the novel begins.
Jonathan Lethem attempts to put much of his own identity and beliefs into the personality of Lionel Essrog, and therefore, the character is somewhat of a rhetorical weapon. In his article “A Geek Grows in Brooklyn”, William Deresiewicz states that Lethem buries bits of his own beliefs in some of his other characters as well. For example, he believes that many of Lethem’s characters reflect his own childhood and the culture of the 1970’s. He says, “The ’70s also marked the moment when media culture reached a kind of saturation point” and that “Lionel Essrog, the tourettic narrator of Motherless Brooklyn, spits a steady stream of cultural detritus (Deresiewicz).” His argument coincides perfectly with Lethem’s goal in Motherless Brooklyn.
In his interview, Lethem says that he purposely made Lionel Essrog be a character who “liked to name things”, specifically talking about White Castle burgers. The function of this aspect of his personality was because the imagery “provokes about American cultural history… the role of franchising… You’re evoking all of this meaning that’s sociological.” The impact of the environment is clearly important to Lethem as he asserts that simple things like the name of a restaurant create a sociological impact, therefore constructing a person’s personality. And he even states that he purposely does this through Lionel Essrog. It is unsurprising, then, that Lionel’s connection to Brooklyn parallels Lethem’s own. And similarly, it is no surprise that Lionel Essrog epitomizes Lethem’s argument that intrinsic factors will always triumph over any superficial curtains. Frank Minna’s murder occurs within the first few pages of the novel after which the reader is carried into the childhood of Lionel Essrog.
Lionel grew up in the St. Mary’s orphanage and quickly became the victim of Tony’s constant barrage of insults. He defined himself as a frequent visitor of the library, attempting read the entire collection of literature in his childhood. He says his Tourette Syndrome began when he was trapped in a penguin exhibit. The syndrome progressed to irresistible urges to grab and touch things and then his kissing of various objects and even the other orphans (Lethem 44-45). Lionel develops various methods to conceal his Tourretic nature. He explains that his compulsive nature forces him to be a perfectionist; everything must be in accordance with his urges. He explains that his favorite sandwich is in fact a medicine for his Tourette’s. His favorite music, he says, is Prince, because the synthesis of the melody and beats forms a perfect parallel to his Tourettic necessities.
After listening to “Kiss” he sais, “I might have once or twice heard music that toyed with feelings of claustrophobic discomfort and expulsive release, and which in so doing passingly charmed my Tourette’s… It so pulsed with Tourettic energies that I could surrender to its tormented, squeaky beat and let my syndrome live outside my brain for once, live in the air instead (Lethem 127-128). These pieces of Lionel’s personality are entirely present due to their favorable reaction to his biological compontent. The sandwiches and Prince both soothe his Tourette’s, and therefore are a part of who he is. It is clear that his constructed personality then, is a reaction to an intrinsic component of his identity. But his personality is not just a construct to resist his tourettic impulses. Much of his actions, words, and idiosyncrasies are a result of his inability to control his disease.
In the opening scene, he explains his connection to the number 6. He felt that, “6 was a lucky number tonight”, and therefore he must do everything in groups of 6: “six burgers, six forty five, so six slaps (Lethem 5).” After Frank Minna dies, this number switches to five. This is also when Lethem employs typography to present Lionel’s thought process. However, italics do not represent an ordinary though process, but his tourretically forced impulses. When Lionel cannot control his urges, Tourette’s controls his actions. Various times in the book, he blurts out nonsensical (to the reader) phrases that he cannot avoid, such as “Eat me”, or irrelevant connections to words or ideas like, “Alibi hullabaloo gullible bellyflop smellafish (109).”
In her psychoanalytic essay “Syptomatology and the Novel”, Jennifer L. Fleissner claims that Lionel’s tics are simply an imp of the perverse, which is a complicated theory that fundamentally whittles down to the necessity to do something simply because it is wrong. She claims that Lionel himself claims that he cannot control these tics and feels the need to express them simply due to their inappropriate nature. She argues that this is in fact a neurological fallacy in his brain, and thus he cannot avoid it at all (Fleissner 4).
Lethem uses italics to express how this aspect of Lionel’s identity is controlled by his biological composition. The italics serve to differentiate his constructed personality, which Lionel employs in public, from the one he cannot control. When his coping mechanisms are not available to him, he is forced to express the biologically controlled compulsions, thus revealing his inherent personalities. His constructed personality is the regular character that is represented with normal text and explained in the previous paragraphs. But the personality that he cannot control is a direct result of his Tourette’s syndrome, an intrinsic factor, and no matter what he does to suppress it, his genetic features always triumph.
Like Lionel, Frank and Gerald also have a behavior that they cannot avoid, although theirs is subtler and does not have a specific genetic cause. Both are related, so clearly there is a genetic similarity amongst them, however, when isolating the characters, the false transformation becomes even more astounding. Gerald is the mysterious brother, “though [his] name was printed on the L&L business card, we only met him twice (Lethem, 70).” His first description at Christmas dinner is a suspicious one with little clarity and a great deal of mystery. He had a white envelope and snapped at Lionel when he glanced at the package, saying, “What are you staring at? Eat your food! (Lethem, 72)””
It is clear from this short encounter that Gerard was involved in some risky business before the murder of Frank took place. Adding on the fact that he retreated to Maine along with Frank, means that they were in tandem. But when Gerard returns to Brooklyn, he is now a Buddhist monk, who thoroughly believes in his teachings; he is known to mediate for hours and give sermons to his students. But despite this passive and traditionally peaceful costume, Gerald is found to be the mastermind to his brother’s murder. He successfully skims off of the Fujisaki Company and orders the Polish giant to murder Frank. His personality transformation was nothing more than a mere burial of his underlying personalities.
In fact, it is quite clear to the reader that the Buddhist façade he adopts is an attempt to divert attention from his criminal behaviors. In Gerald’s case, his entire personality is constructed around his inherent need to steal and cheat. The behavior similarity between siblings is also evident by Frank Minna’s transformation. After being caught repeatedly stealing from The Clients, Frank escapes to Maine to avoid being punished for his behaviors. After his hiatus, he returns as the head of a limousine service, which is merely a front for a “detective agency”, which itself is a front for a criminal service. The motif of concealing true identity is seen through the various layers of L&L Car Service and prior to that the L&L Movers.
False names and a fake sign cover the true nature of the Minna Men, but in both cases, the truth of their activities are discovered. No matter how many layers of covering Frank attempts to put on his illicit activities, the truth always surfaces, showing that any construct around an intrinsic object cannot conceal it forever, and that the underlying object will always remain in place. But it is not just Frank’s establishments that are concealed; it is Frank’s own behavior that he attempts to cover through his establishments, adding another layer to the complicated scheme of camouflage. In fact, Frank is so mischievous that he delegates his criminal activities to the four boys he almost adopts as sons.
To them, he is their savior, yet he is filled with this inherent necessity to steal and do bad, a fact that is blocked from visibility by the pedestal that Lionel puts on him. Lethem intentionally places the antagonist label on Gerard, but it is important to remember that Frank is still an important member of the wrongdoings of the L&L companies. So like Gerard, Frank has some inherent quality that forces him to do these tasks. Feissners assertions about Lionel and his imp of the perverse are in fact more applicable to Gerard and Frank. While Lionel’s tics never serve to hurt anybody, it seems as though Gerard and Frank have an reoccurring necessity to perform criminal activities.
And since Feissner argues that this neurological behavior cannot be undone, it can similarly be applied that Gerard and Frank have no control over their biological foundations. Thus, their creation of false concealments are simply constructs to hide their neurological conditions. Jonathan Lethem’s detective novel Motherless Brooklyn, is an ode to the mystery novels of the past. It relies on a fairly traditional plot line, without the use of extraneous gadgets and bizarre coincidences, but instead builds on the protagonists ability to connect the dots. But besides the plot line, it is embedded with deeper messages and themes that are illuminated by his use of a tourettic narrator and the transformations of characters, ultimately creating another narrative.
An avid believer that postmodernism is based on the rejection of common literary canons, he breaks the idea of free will and states that all personality and identity is a construct; a mere set of walls built around an intrinsic factor. This factor varies from character to character: Tourette’s syndrome to an imp of the perverse, but no matter what concealment techniques they adopt, their biological foundations always break through. Similarly, he argues that there is always a connection to home; something magnetic attraction that causes a person to feel just slightly uncomfortable (or more) in a “foreign” place. The novel packs a deep themeinto its text and takes the reader on a journey of two narratives: the plot and the message.
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