Sources for Further Study (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Booklist 95 (July, 1999): 1895.
Esquire 132 (September, 1999): 54.
Library Journal 124 (July, 1999): 133.
The New York Times Book Review 104 (October 17, 1999): 7.
Publishers Weekly 246 (August 16, 1999): 57.
Time 154 (October 11, 1999): 90.
Village Voice 44 (September 21, 1999): 136.
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Lionel's Tourette's functions as more than a personality attribute—it calls attention to Lethem's interest in language itself. Lethem plays with the reader's expectations, from words to sentences. Lethem begins a sentence with "There are days when I get up in the morning and stagger into the bathroom and I begin running water and then I look up and I don't even recognize my own—" only to end the sentence with "toothbrush in the mirror" rather than the expected "face."
In all of his fiction, Jonathan Lethem takes apart generic codes and conventions. Motherless Brooklyn is no exception—here Lethem experiments with the elements of traditional noir—conspiracies, loners, men with guns, red herrings, complex conspiracies, interrogations, etc. The final confrontation between Lionel and Julia, for example, is right out of a hard-boiled novel, with Lionel as the unshaven detective extracting tears and a confession from the femme fatale. The novel includes countless references to traditional hard-boiled fiction, from Lionel's tics on The Maltese Falcon ("the quieter the monk, the gaudier the patter") to direct quotes ('"About the only part of a California house you can't put your foot through is the front door,' Marlowe, The Big Sleep").
Although on one hand Motherless Brooklyn is a typical noir novel, on the other hand it is a metaphysical and metafictional detective story, both genres of twentieth-century...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Motherless Brooklyn is a novel that is obsessed with word play. Lionel Essrog's Tourette's syndrome not only allows Jonathan Lethem to experiment with language, but it allows him to raise questions about the complex relationships among narrative, interpretation, and genre. Furthermore, as a metafictional work, Motherless Brooklyn calls attention to the status of fiction as a written artifact and to the status of reading as a cultural as well as psychological phenomenon.
1. Much of Motherless Brooklyn is concerned with Lionel's relationship to language. Describe other characters' relationship to language, including that of Gil, the homicide detective, Kimmery, the "clients," and Frank Minna.
2. Jokes play a prominent role in Motherless Brooklyn, from the clue to Gerard's identity Frank leaves buried in a joke to Kimmery's description of Buddhist koans as jokes "without punchlines" to Lionel's comment during Julia's confession that he "felt as if [he] were trying to get though a joke without ticcing, but there wasn't a punch line in sight." Why does the novel pay so much attention to jokes? What are the functions of jokes in the novel?
3. How has "the distance between me and me was enormous" that Lionel describes at the beginning of the novel lessened by the end? Does that distance exist for other characters in the book? Do other characters grow or change throughout the novel?
4. When Lionel...
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Motherless Brooklyn is a contemporary hard-boiled detective novel. The story opens with the hero, Lionel Essrog, and a colleague staking out an Upper East Side Manhattan Zen center. The two detectives are listening via a wire to their boss Frank Minna, a minor Brooklyn mobster. They lose him, only to track him down some hours later, dying in a dumpster. The rest of the novel alternates between Lionel's hunt for Minna's killer and flashbacks to Lionel's youth and apprenticeship to Frank Minna. What distinguishes Motherless Brooklyn from other contemporary hard-boiled fiction is that its hero, Lionel Essrog, has Tourette's syndrome. Lionel's Tourette's creates a compulsive desire to count and touch, stoke and kiss, as well as an uncontrollable urge to verbalize endless variations on words and phrases. His name, Lionel Essrog, for example, comes out as "Larval Pushbug" or "unreliable Chessgrub." Lionel's stream of words constantly exposes the hidden meaning and connections between words, rhymes, slang, false cognates, and phrases from popular culture—in the midst of a car chase, for example, Lionel yells out "Follow that car! Hollywood star! When you wish upon a cigar."
Lionel's Tourette's also makes him an outsider, a "Freakshow" as Minna calls him. Motherless Brooklyn is a novel populated by outsiders and misfits: Frank's entourage, the Minna men—Lionel, Tony, Danny, and Gilbert—are orphans, excluded even within the orphanage...
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Hard-boiled detective novels and noir fiction from which Motherless Brooklyn draws its themes, images, and rhetoric include Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (1929); Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (1939) and The Long Goodbye (1953); and Cornell Woolrich's work as well as contemporary noir fiction such as Carl Hiaasen's Lucky You (1997) and Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty (1990), and metafictional detective fiction such as Paul Auster's work. For literary accounts of neurological disorders see Oliver Sacks's An Anthropologist on Mars (1995) and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985).
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Gun, with Occasional Music (1994), Lethem's debut novel, is a hard-boiled detective novel set in a science-fictional future. His Girl in Landscape (1998) also draws from multiple genres, including the western and science fiction dystopia. Like Lionel Essrog in Motherless Brooklyn, the alien characters in Girl in Landscape are obsessed with language and adopt "human" names for themselves such as "Lonely Dumptruck," "Specious Axiomatic" and "Somber Fluid."
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