Motherless Brooklyn

by Jonathan Lethem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1788

Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem’s fifth novel, begins with two detectives, Lionel Essrog and Gilbert Coney, on a stakeout, keeping watch over a Zen meditation center in Manhattan. (Essrog is not the typical fictional detective; he suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, a psychological condition causing a variety of compulsive behaviors.) Although Essrog and Coney are staking out the Zen center for their boss, Frank Minna, he, typically, has not told them what they are supposed to be watching for or why. Minna’s unexpected appearance at the Zen center leads to his abduction and a car chase, albeit an atypical car chase through stop-and-start, bumper-to-bumper traffic, the most thrilling moment occurring when the car Essrog and Coney are pursuing eludes them at a toll gate because the murderous driver carries a frequent-commuter pass. Essrog and Coney finally catch up with Minna, but he is already dying of multiple stab wounds and will not tell them why he was killed or by whom.

Minna’s death leads Essrog to trace the history of Minna and his “Minna Men”— four orphaned, outcast boys taken under Minna’s wing while still residents of St. Vincent’s Home for Boys in Brooklyn. Initially Minna hired Essrog, Coney, Tony Vermonte, and Danny Fantl to perform various tasks for what he insisted was a moving company, but eventually became a father figure to them; the four motherless boys longed to be like Minna, who ruled certain streets of Brooklyn through a series of unspoken agreements and shady connections. He taught the boys everything he wanted them to know; they learned to act as his operatives, never asking questions and never speaking the names of Minna’s most frightening clients, menacing godfather types called Matricardi and Rockeforte. Eventually they are all employed by Minna’s car company, a front for a detective agency that offers surveillance, wiretapping, collection, and the occasional act of vandalism in the service of Minna’s nameless clients.

As Essrog says, “Minna Men follow instructions. Minna Men try to be like Minna, but Minna is dead.” With Minna gone, his men are unmoored and become suspicious of each other, even as they try to organize an effort to solve the murder. Essrog determines to find Minna’s killer and decides to run his own investigation. The novel follows Essrog over the next two days as he revisits the Zen center and disrupts a Zen meditation session, stakes out the car company/detective agency to spy on the other Minna Men, attempts to negotiate with Matricardi and Rockeforte, and treks to Maine in search of Minna’s missing wife.

Essrog is eventually able to piece together the puzzle of Minna’s death. The convoluted resolution of Minna’s murder is typical of the genre; it needs its own separate narrative and depends on events that occurred years in the past. Also typical of the hard-boiled detective novel are a number of Motherless Brooklyn’s stock characters: a Japanese business corporation whose members own the Zen center, the politely menacing mobsters Matricardi and Rockeforte, Essrog’s crony Tony Vermonte as Minna’s young protégé who wants to move up in the ranks, and Minna’s bitter Mafia wife Julia. Critics have cited stereotypical characters as a weakness of the novel, but just as the twists and turns of the plot are simply vehicles for Lethem to use in playing with the conventions of a hard-boiled detective story, the characters serve as effective foils for the central revelation of Essrog’s character, his “Tourette’s brain,” and the essential Essrog that lies underneath.

Tourette’s syndrome can be manifested in a wide variety of compulsive behaviors or “tics”; most commonly cited are tendencies to shout obscenities and to make seemingly uncontrolled gestures. Essrog’s obscenities are often directed at his personal phantom, Bailey, although Essrog knows no one named Bailey. Essrog frequently breaks forth with a string of variations on words or phrases he has just heard. These verbal tics can serve as an oblique (and often profane) shorthand revealing his unspoken thoughts. Attempting to ask his cronies a simple question, Essrog helplessly riffs on the noun: “Any calls? See that homosapien, homogenize, genocide, can’tdecide, candyeyes, homicide cop?” About to be knocked unconscious by a thug, Essrog thinks, “He’s just a big mouse, Daddy, a vigorous louse, big as a house, a couch, a man, a plan, a canal, apocalypse.” When Minna’s brother, a would-be Buddhist, says faith is “spread by what means it finds,” Essrog silently chants “spread by means it finds, fed in springs by mimes, bled by mingy spies.” Essrog is so constantly engulfed in his Tourette’s that it comes as a surprise when he is occasionally able to hold a brief tic-free conversation.

Essrog’s Tourette’s syndrome takes to an extreme the hard-boiled detective’s need to bring order to a world gone wrong; he even admits that one of his compulsions is to count and categorize the tics themselves. Essrog constantly fights the urge to tic, struggling to focus his eyes or his mind elsewhere; often in the throes of some compulsion Essrog will have tears of frustration in his eyes as he simultaneously imposes an artificial order and creates his own chaos. As a boy Essrog felt compelled to kiss those around him and could not stop himself; now he straightens collars or taps shoulders a certain number of times (one day his Tourette’s brain might focus on the number 6, another it might be 5). When a thug shoves Essrog, he tries to shove back simply as a compulsive reflex, matching motion to motion. When he takes possession of the killer’s gun and tosses it into the ocean, he feels compelled to throw four more objects in for a total of five (the day’s magic number), and having no fourth object at hand removes one of his own shoes and hurls it into the surf.

Minna and the three other Minna Men are accustomed to Essrog’s compulsive behavior. Minna in his role as father figure was the first to identify Essrog’s tics as Tourette’s syndrome, although Minna calls Essrog “a free human freak show” and the Minna Men nickname him “Freakshow” thereafter. Minna found Essrog useful as an operative precisely because the latter’s Tourette’s could be trusted; if asked to listen on a wiretap for certain words or to keep watch on a particular person or location, Essrog would compulsively listen or watch, unable to detach his attention from the task. More important, he could observe Minna’s subjects and business associates without being observed; his behavior ensured that others would assume he was mentally defective, someone who could be safely ignored and quickly forgotten.

Essrog is like classic hard-boiled detectives in that he is a loner and an outsider, a man who ultimately works alone; again, however, the typical hard-boiled quality is taken to an extreme as Lethem makes Essrog an outsider several times over, and tweaks Essrog’s attempts to conform and create relationships for himself. Orphaned as a child, one of the few Caucasian students in his high school, involved with underworld characters from his teens, Essrog is an outsider even among his peers. Minna’s selective tutelage keeps all his Men isolated in a world of Minna’s making, but Essrog’s incessant verbal and physical tics set him apart even from his fellow Minna Men. Although sexual activity brings Essrog’s compulsions briefly under control, his relationships with women are few, far between, and usually fueled by alcohol. Even his attempt to provide himself with the companionship of a pet fails because of his Tourette’s; he sadly recounts his effort to keep a cat for company, and how his own compulsive behaviors so affected the cat that he had to find it a new home, although he kept track of the cat’s progress and knows it eventually recovered.

Lethem sets Motherless Brooklyn largely in the grimy Brooklyn that belongs to Minna, a world of shady deals and scary characters. In Minna’s Brooklyn old men are seemingly without occupation but are provided for, no questions asked; Matricardi and Rockeforte hold court in a brownstone now converted to a warehouse for stolen goods; the use of language to define relationships, transact business, and communicate the social norms is a crude art. Essrog has made his home in Brooklyn; he is so much an extension of Minna’s business that he lives in an apartment above the detective agency. Essrog perceives Manhattan as a world apart, but learns that the sophistication and spirituality of the Zen center are a thin veneer over the same rough material of which Minna was made. Essrog experiences a small epiphany outside the city when he pursues his clues to Maine; his first sight of the ocean leaves him momentarily speechless, shattering his obsessive dependence on language. Here Essrog realizes that he is part of a world larger than Brooklyn.

Motherless Brooklyn has postmodern elements; Essrog, who spent his childhood in the library of St. Vincent’s Home for Boys, is familiar with the hard-boiled detective genre and able to comment on his own story within that context. Preparing to make a philosophical assertion (“As a great man once said, the more things change, the harder they are to change back.”), Essrog notes how typical this is of the detective genre and offers an example, quoting Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939). When Essrog is knocked unconscious in an alley, he ruminates on how the same thing has happened to countless other detectives in countless detective stories. When a minor character is mentioned, then killed before he can appear, Essrog mulls this over as a convention of the genre: “Have you ever felt, in the course of reading a detective novel, a guilty thrill of relief at having a character murdered before he can step onto the page and burden you with his actual existence? Detective stories always have too many characters anyway.”

Lethem’s earlier novels successfully melded science fiction with various other genres, including hard-boiled detective fiction in Gun, with Occasional Music (1994), academic satire in As She Climbed Across the Table (1997), and the Western novel and coming-of-age story in Girl in Landscape (1998). While the verbal virtuosity and successful melding of genres in Lethem’s earlier novels had earned him critical acclaim, Motherless Brooklyn was generally considered a more mainstream effort by a serious novelist whose proclivity for science fiction had prevented his widespread acceptance.

Sources for Further Study

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.

Literary Techniques

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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 experimental fiction. Authors of metaphysical detective stories—Borges, Robbe-Gillet, Eco—draw from conventions of detective fiction in order to question narrative traditions, the notion of stable identities, and the status of interpretation in general (including the interpretation of both crimes and narratives). As in many metaphysical detective novels, identity in Motherless Brooklyn is unstable or multiple—detecting a singular identity is difficult in a postmodern world, as Lionel's riffs on his name aptly demonstrate.

Metaphysical detective fiction deals with the nature of reality and the limits of knowledge. The endless variations on narrative possibilities that Lionel's Tourette's produces mirrors the sheer meaninglessness of clues and evidence and the self-defeating nature of any kind of closure one finds in much metaphysical detective fiction. Lionel's Tourette's is also an apt representation of a postmodernist take on language, where language does not have a stable relationship to what it is signifying.

Motherless Brooklyn goes beyond the darkness of film noir and the existential mode of the metaphysical detective novel—it is a metafictional novel as well, which turns upon a postmodernist self-reflexivity. Motherless Brooklyn is both a detective novel and a parody of a detective novel—it is constantly calling attention to itself as detective fiction and to its status as fiction in general. At one point, Lionel turns to the reader and comments "Have you ever felt, in the course of reading a detective novel, a guilty thrill of relief at having a character murdered before he can step onto the page and burden you with his actual existence? Detective stories always have too many characters anyway." Motherless Brooklyn calls attention to its status as a fictional artifact existing within generic bounds in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. By commenting on itself, metafiction critiques its own production, exploring narration in general and suggesting that the world outside fiction is as fictional as the world represented in the text. After all, Motherless Brooklyn itself is a story about storytelling. And, as Lionel himself would point out, telling a story about storytelling is Tourettic. Motherless Brooklyn is like a Tourettic processing of the detective novel—bits and pieces of familiar codes and conventions surface throughout the novel; in this way, Tourette's comes to stand for postmodern narrative in general.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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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 calls Kimmery from Maine, she says to him "I'm not really sure about this investigation. It seems like you're just running around a lot trying to keep from feeling sad or guilty or whatever about this guy Frank." Here, and at other points in the novel, Kimmery claims that Lionel is not functioning as a detective should. In what ways do other novels you have read describe detectives? In what ways does Lionel become a "real detective"?

5. Motherless Brooklyn both draws from and disrupts the detective fiction tradition. As Lionel is being knocked unconscious by the giant he comments, "So many detectives have been knocked out and fallen into such strange swirling darknesses, such manifold surrealist voids . . . and yet I have nothing to contribute to this painful tradition." Despite Lionel's claim to the contrary, what does Motherless Brooklyn contribute to the tradition of detective fiction?

6. At one point, Lionel describes the homicide detective's habitual waving back as Tourettic; Lionel comments that "everyone's a little ticcish that way sometimes." How does Motherless Brooklyn imply that we are all Tourettic? In what ways are we all ticcish?

Social Concerns

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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 because they are different—Tourettic, overly mature, hip, and thuggish. Frank Minna, too, is outcast from Brooklyn's Mafia for a portion of the novel, and his brother, Gerard Minna, is an outsider to both the Japanese community he joins and to his native Brooklyn. Julia, Frank's wife, is outcast first by her Nantucket family and then by Gerard Minna. One of the novel's primary social concerns, then, is the experience of being an outsider. The novel explores this theme primarily through Lionel, whose Tourette's makes him a misfit among misfits. Tourette's becomes a symbol or metaphor for many things in this novel, but one important condition Tourette's comes to stand for is the status of outsiders in general. Lionel recognizes himself in the characters in the Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton movies he saw as a child, for example, movies that told tales of outsiders "blazing with aggression, disruptive energies barely contained." As he says, his Tourette's "teaches you to see the reality-knitting mechanism people employ to tuck away the intolerable, the incongruous, the disruptive," the way the boys themselves are tucked away in St. Vincent's Home for Boys in Brooklyn, or the way Julia is tucked away in a Brooklyn apartment by Frank. As Lionel asserts, a "Touretter can also be the Invisible Man," that is, being socially different leads to being ignored, displaced, even (ironically, given the public outbursts which accompany Tourette's) to being invisible.

All of the outsider characters in the novel are socially isolated and seek romantic love, familial connections, or a social community. One of the social concerns of the novels is describing the yearning of these outsiders to become insiders of a sort, to join a social group: Lionel, Tony, Danny, and Gilbert become the Minna men; Frank becomes part of the mob's hierarchy; Gerard, Julia, and Kimmery join the Buddhist Zendo; and even Gerard's henchmen are outsiders who have come together as pretend Buddhists. The novel shows how these social groups function in similar ways, providing not only a sense of belonging to their members, but a separate, secret code of language and rituals, like the rituals of Zazen and other Zen practices Kimmery introduces to Lionel. Ironically, it is as a group of outsiders that the Minna men become consummate insiders. What Frank Minna gives Lionel and the other Minna men is not so much a job as a sense of belonging, a sense of family, a set of emotional bonds that extends to include Frank's relationship to his mother. In fact, the entire novel may be read as the story of a formation of a group (the Minna men); the destruction or threat to that group when their leader dies; and the resulting search of the members of that group for individual identities as well as for a new group identity.

Motherless Brooklyn links both the sense of being a misfit and the sense of belonging strongly with a sense of place. For the Minna men, that place is Brooklyn. Brooklyn is defined both through its language—its profanity and composite expressions (e.g., "Fuggetaboutit")—and through its silences— the unspoken rules of the political and criminal machines that control it. A consummate Brooklyner, Lionel has rarely left the borough and, until late in the novel, has never left New York State. Just as the novel links Lionel's sense of being an insider with his sense of Brooklyn, so it also marks his journey towards individual identity with a journey away from home. The first step in Lionel's journey is the car ride to Manhattan that opens the novel. The second step in Lionel's journey is to Maine and the ocean, which Lionel has never seen. In order for Lionel to discover himself, in other words, he must leave what he knows best.

In ascribing such importance to a sense of place, Lethem is drawing on a tradition of noir crime writing of the forties and fifties. Noir fiction is characterized by the use of street slang and an omnipresent feeling of displacement, regret, and emptiness—the city in noir fiction is not the site of the American dream but the site of an inescapable nightmare of corrupt capitalism and greed. As Raymond Chandler famously said, "the streets were dark with something more than night." Lionel's description of New Yorkers' buying Lotto tickets is in this tradition: "The games were over almost before they started, the foil scraped off tickets with a key or a dime, the contrived near-misses underneath bared. (New York is a tourettic city, and this great communal scratching and counting and tearing is a definite symptom.) The sidewalk just outside the Casino was strewn with discarded tickets, the chaff of wasted hope." New York City in general here becomes a city populated by loners, outsiders desperately seeking salvation—a city that Lionel must leave in order to save himself.

Literary Precedents

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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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