Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 winner of the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction, remains a hell of a read over a decade after its original publication. Unlike award winners that lose steam with every passing year, Lethem’s graft of literary fiction on genre fiction in infused with the kind of creative vitality that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts even when those parts stand that cliché testing of time quite well on their own. This is not a case of a genre writer with literary pretensions, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Think instead of those writers who have take genre fiction and pushed it into something else entirely. Think what a Philip K. Dick did with science fiction, think Cormac McCarthy and the western.
Lionel Essrog, Lethem’s narrator, suffers from Tourette’s syndrome and obsessive compulsive behaviors and consistently demonstrates the effects of these disorders throughout the novel. Using this highly original narrative voice, reminiscent in some sense of Faulkner, Lethem takes the reader for a post-modern ride through the world of the detective story. The tics of Tourette’s become a metaphor for the conventions of the detective genre. Just as the Tourette’s sufferer has no choice but to give in to the tic, the genre writer has no choice but to obey the conventions. “Tourette’s is just one big lifetime of tag,” and the sufferer is it. When you’re it, you have no choice but to tag back. “Can it do otherwise? If you’ve ever been it you know the answer.
Lionel tells the story of how he and three other boys from a Brooklyn orphanage are commandeered by Frank Minna, a local hood in the making, to work for him loading and unloading trucks, until one day he mysteriously disappears from the scene, only to return two years later with a wife and a new scheme. Now he and the boys are to be a detective agency disguised as a car service. All this comes by way of back story, after the novel opens with Lionel and one of the others on a stake out backing up Frank as he enters a Manhattan building on business. When Frank leaves in the company of a large man, a man Lionel insists is a Polish giant, only to end up in a dumpster, Lionel compulsively takes it upon himself to find out what’s going on.
Not only do you have a delectable who done it with all the trappings, the tough talking broad, the car chase, the wise-cracking detective, the inept cop, a stake out or two, the red herring, although more often than not these are trappings with a bit of a twist here and there, but you also have a linguistic tour de force as the narrative is peppered with the fruits of Lionel’s Tourette’s. “Place of peace” for example becomes “Prays of peach? Plays of peas? Press-e-piece?” This is the kind of thing that would warm the heart of Joyce or Nabokov. You have a bunch of eye-raising puns and riddles that sometimes turn out to be significant than they might seem at first. You have a telling portrait of Brooklyn that captures the place with an admirable accuracy of detail, whether it’s the picture of the Parthenon on the coffee container or the roast beef and horse radish sandwich.
But perhaps most tellingly you have a meditation on the solipsistic nature of first person narrative. “Have you noticed yet that I relate everything to my Tourette’s? . . . . I’ve got meta-Tourette’s.” Lionel sees conspiracy all around him. “Like Tourette’s, all conspiracies are ultimately solipsistic, sufferer or conspirator or theorist overrating his centrality and forever rehearsing a traumatic delight in reaction, attachment and causality, in roads out from the Rome of self.” While this is clearly neither the kind of thought, nor the kind of prose, you’re likely to find in the conventional detective story, in some sense it is an accurate analysis of its narrative point of view.
Motherless Brooklyn is the kind of book that will keep you turning pages the first time you read it like any thriller worthy of the name. The difference is that Motherless Brooklyn is a book that will give you plenty to ponder and enjoy should you read it again, and you should read it again, and maybe a third time. This is one rift Jonathan Lethem has loaded with ore aplenty.