Motherless Brooklyn

by Jonathan Lethem

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Student Question

What roles do non-Brooklyn locations play in Motherless Brooklyn and how do they compare with Brooklyn itself?

Quick answer:

In Motherless Brooklyn, the non-Brooklyn locations like Maine and Manhattan serve to provide important contrast to the Minna Men's home turf, which is rough and indifferent but familiar and comfortable. Despite the two other settings' appearing spiritually and morally elevated, they are actually as corrupt, violent, and chaotic as Brooklyn, though they lack its folksiness, straightforwardness, and vitality. Author Lethem presents the non-Brooklyn world as the limits of Essrog's understanding and where he must journey for his salvation.

Expert Answers

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The Brooklyn of the novel is itself a kind of surrogate parent to Lionel and the other orphaned boys of St. Vincent’s as much as is Frank Minna, their mentor and paternal figure. It represents all the familiarity of home while providing an ideal backdrop-gritty, shadowy and lawless-for the novel’s noirish elements and providing a true north for the book’s moral compass. The two other settings in the book, Manhattan and Maine, seem to have more in common with each other than with Lethem’s idealized Brooklyn, as they represent the limits of Lionel’s known world and the very edges of reason and sanity.

The absurd, unfathomable Japanese conspiracy at the heart of the story which draws Lionel first to the Yorkville zendo then to Maine to find Julia and uncover the truth of Frank’s murder; it could only take place outside of Brooklyn’s no-nonsense urban crucible that produced the comically freakish anti-hero Lionel and the soft-hearted mobster Frank. Both secondary settings are unlikely places for the criminal activity they harbor, the same murder and extortion seeming more appropriately associated with Lethem’s beloved Brooklyn. This suggests that although the Upper East Side of Manhattan and the Maine coast present the image of tranquility, order and civilized remove from Brooklyn’s corruption and sordidness, there is nowhere beyond the reach of the tentacles of the evil plot carried out by forces beyond one’s comprehension.

Lionel’s epiphany, which, like any noble questing hero's, of whom he is very much in the mold, must come at the end of a perilous journey whose reward is a kind of enlightened awareness of the true nature of the world and the limits of knowledge and language. Such a spiritual awakening as Lionel experiences, which redeems his tragic personal story and buffoonish character, can only occur outside of his home, where he is known by many and belongs though not taken seriously enough to fulfill his potential.

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