Motherless Brooklyn

by Jonathan Lethem

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Student Question

What is the role of jokes in Motherless Brooklyn and how does Lionel's Tourette Syndrome contribute to the comedy?

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This fantastic book follows the journey of our protagonist, Lionel, from orphan to Minna man to independent sleuth and ultimately to being a legitimate car-service employee.

Lionel’s Tourette Syndrome adds to the humor in this book in a way that could be perceived as slightly unkind. As someone who struggles with Tourettes, Lionel is prone to involuntary vocalisations and movements called “tics.” This is caused by the nervous system and is not something over which Lionel has any control. The countless tics on Lionel’s name, such as Liable Guesscog, Laughing Gassrog and Alibi Diffident, among many others, are another element of this story that could be perceived to be humorous.

Lionel’s need to play with language, transforming and joining words together in often mysterious ways, is linked to his emotional state. For example, in Minna’s death scene, the action is interrupted by a volley of jokes which become more and more indicative of his Tourettes as he gets increasingly upset. The ways in which Lionel puts his words together makes less and less sense in this scene, and he gets sufficiently tongue-twisted to use words such as “ambulamp” and “octoloaf,” which add a distinctively humorous flavor to the otherwise serious scene.

These humorous tics tend to become particularly pronounced when Lionel is excited about something or when he is lying—and this inability to lie adds yet another layer of comedy to the story.

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