“ Author: Jonathan Lethem / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 01 July 2004 / Genre: Crime & Thriller / Subcategory: Thriller / Suspense General / Publisher: Faber & Faber / Title: Motherless Brooklyn / ISBN 13: 9780571226320 / ISBN 10: 0571226320 „
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What does 'Tourette Syndrome' mean? It’s an inherited, neurological disorder characterised by repeated and involuntary body movements (tics) like eye blinking, repeated throat clearing, sniffing, arm thrusting, kicking movements, shoulder shrugging or jumping and uncontrollable vocal sounds. In a minority of cases - probably fewer than 25% - the vocalisations can include socially inappropriate words and phrases, called ‘coprolalia‘, ‘echolalia’ is the repeating of words or phrases. These outbursts are neither intentional nor purposeful. - Most people with TS lead productive lives and participate in all professions. What a bizarre idea to make a Touretter the first-person narrator of a post-noir thriller! Bizarreness (bizarredom? bizarrity?) appeals to me, so I ordered the book from amazon.co.uk. The copy I got is the pocketbook edition from faber (6.99); beware, every tenth page fell out while I was reading! This could be an introduction to a critique of online ordering, but I’ll leave this subject alone for now, the escapades of Lionel Essrog, a.k.a. Liable Guesscog, Final Escrow, Ironic Pissclam, the ‘human freakshow’, the ‘crazyman’ as his friends (!) call him are more interesting. Lionel lives in an orphanage in Brooklyn; when he’s 13 years old, Frank Minna, a wiseguy, a mobbed-up operator who runs the Minna Detective Agency, comes and ‘hires’ four boys to run mysterious errands for him once in a while. When they’re of age they work for him regularly understanding as little of what he really does as when they were only kids. Minna plays father, mother, hero and role model for the boys, most so for Lionel who he accepts without ridiculing him. Nice as that sounds, it’s not without ulterior motives, he notices that people don’t take Lionel seriously and are thus diverted, a fact Minna uses to his advantage. When a stake-out
goes wrong and Frank gets knifed, Lionel goes looking for the killer. The plot takes wild twists and turns, marked by odd characters - for example, Lionel is abducted by four Zen devotees turned thugs wearing sunglasses with the price tags still attached and implausible events commented by Lionel’s vocal pyrotechnics. When his abductors threaten to escape, his mind screams, “Follow that car! Hollywood star! When you wish upon a cigar!” Reflecting on both the case and his position on a mental map of New England, he exclaims, “invest-in-a-gun, connect-a-cop, inventachusetts!” When asked by a cop, “So you’d describe yourself as a friend of the deceased?” Lionel replies, “Trend the decreased! Mend the retreats!” The question for an alibi triggers off, “Alibi hullabaloo gullible bellyflop smellafish.” What kind of book is this? Is it a not very serious, popular-science study of the Tourette Syndrome, perhaps even offensive to sufferers of the disease? There are artists who never utter a word concerning their creations and there is Jonathan Lethem, very loquacious when it comes to his novel, so let’s listen to him: “Lionel’s vast proliferation of utterances and the number of different kinds of Tourettic symptoms he displays all at once are probably pretty unlikely. But there’s nothing impossible about him; he’s just a hypertrophied, literary decorated version.” The fictitious character has in fact met with nothing but approval from the many real-life Touretters who’ve contacted the writer. “Lionel’s constant struggle to negotiate his tics, that internal battle to censor them and mete them out only when he’s absolutely forced to, struck them as so accurate that they were surprised I didn’t have Tourette myself.” I’ve learnt a lot about a disease I knew only little about; I had already rea
d an article in a newsmagazine some time ago, I see this as a skeleton now, the novel puts flesh on the dry bones, so-to-speak, and the subject becomes alive. Isn’t that why we appreciate literature anyway? What about the ‘post-noir’ thriller? Is it good? Before we come to ‘post’, we have to clarify what ‘noir’ means. Think the hard-boiled crime novels of the 1930s and ‘40s, think Dashiell Hammett, think ‘The Maltese Falcon’, think Humphrey Bogart, the tough loner, and you’ve got it. If you’ve always asked yourself what ‘post’ this or that means, I can help you understand the term by looking closely at this book. There are artists who don’t realise that ‘the times they are a-changing’ and cling to a style long after its expiry date which can lead to sad, sometimes even kitschy artefacts. But what can an artist do when every possible style has already been invented and exhausted? Either not become an artist at all or use the already existing styles and play with them with a twinkle in their eyes. If an artist does that, we call them a ‘post modern’ artist and their art ‘post modern’ art. Applied to Motherless Brooklyn: When a suspect in the novel’s central crime is murdered offstage, eliminating him from the controversy, Lionel Essrog muses, “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?” Furthermore he quotes Philip Marlowe, the fictitious private eye created by Raymond Chandler and from The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammet. I can’t give a verdict on whether the thriller is good or not. I had my noir phase between 16 and 18 and that was long, long ago; I’ve outgrown it now and feel bored by it, be it genuine or
‘post’, but that’s my problem and can’t be turned against the author’s efforts, surely other readers react differently. When we read what Lethem tells us about the choice of his protagonist and the construction of his novel, we find that his real intention was neither to inform us about TS nor to write a thriller, but “I wanted a means to free up language in my work, and Tourette’s was a perfect medium. Motherless Brooklyn is the most verbally wild and improvisational writing I have done....I’ve always had an element of Joycean wordplay in my books, some characters who were in charge of the babbling or frothing at the mouth. I began to wonder what I was getting at, and what I was avoiding by keeping that on such tight rein. Tourette’s gave me the opportunity to put the wordplay and the free association front and centre.” One critic calls the narrator ‘James Joyce on speed’; if you love language as such, you might be the ideal reader. I think it’s not surprising that this many-dimensional novel has been very successful, at least in its homeland USA and hopefully now also in the UK after you’ve read my review! ____________ P.S. The title is brilliant, isn’t it? Could be from me, but isn’t, sorry, I stole it from a critic.
Lionel Essrog, a.k.a. the Human Freakshow, is a victim of Tourette's syndrome (an uncontrollable urge to shout out nonsense, touch every surface in reach and stroke people. Local tough guy hires Lionel and other boys and grooms them to become the Minna Men, a detective-agency-cum-limo service.