Motherless Brooklyn: A Novel

Paperback | October 24, 2000

byJonathan Lethem

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Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

A compelling and complusively readable riff on the classic detective novel from America's most inventive novelist. 

Brooklyn's very own self-appointed Human Freakshow, Lionel Essrog is an orphan whose Tourettic impulses drive him to bark, count, and rip apart our language in startling and original ways. Together with three veterans of the St. Vincent's Home for Boys, he works for small-time mobster Frank Minna's limo service cum detective agency. Life without Frank Minna, the charismatic King of Brooklyn, would be unimaginable, so who cares if the tasks he sets them are, well, not exactly legal. But when Frank is fatally stabbed, one of Lionel's colleagues lands in jail, the other two vie for his position, and the victim's widow skips town. Lionel's world is suddenly topsy-turvy, and this outcast who has trouble even conversing attempts to untangle the threads of the case while trying to keep the words straight in his head. Motherless Brooklyn is a brilliantly original, captivating homage to the classic detective novel by one of the most acclaimed writers of his generation.

A New York Times Notable Book.

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From Our Editors

This crime detective fantasy by Jonathan Lethem won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. Described as a virtuoso riff on the detective novel genre, Motherless Brooklyn is about a human freak show whose Tourettic impulses drive him to rip apart the language in interesting ways. This disabled orphan is the protégé of small-time m...

From the Publisher

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.A compelling and complusively readable riff on the classic detective novel from America's most inventive novelist. Brooklyn's very own self-appointed Human Freakshow, Lionel Essrog is an orphan whose Tourettic impulses drive him to bark, count, and rip apart our language in startling and...

From the Jacket

From America's most inventive novelist, Jonathan Lethem, comes this compelling and compulsive riff on the classic detective novel. Lionel Essrog is Brooklyn's very own self-appointed Human Freakshow, an orphan whose Tourettic impulses drive him to bark, count, and rip apart our language in startling and original ways. Together with thr...

Jonathan Lethem is the author of six novels, including the best sellers The Fortress of Solitude, which was a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice for one of the best books of 2003, and Mother Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named novel of the year by Esquire, McSweeney's, Tin House, The New Yor...

interview with the author

Q: Where did you get the idea to write Motherless Brooklyn? What inspired you to write a novel from the point of view of a narrator who has Tourette’s Syndrome?

A: I became fascinated with Tourette’s by reading about it in Oliver Sacks’ essays--and after seeing a wonderful documentary film called Twitch and Shout, which intimately portrays the daily lives of a handful of very articulate and expressive Tourette’s sufferers. I began--involuntarily--to relate the symptoms of Tourette’s to aspects of my own temperament and personality: obsessiveness, disruptiveness, the struggle to shape and control language (a very writerly issue!). Tourette’s became vital to my own experience of the world, both inner and outer, an irresistible metaphor for things I felt, and I knew I had to try to get that feeling across to other people. That was the beginning.

Q: What response has there been from the Tourette’s community to the character of Lionel Essrog?

A: I’ve been lucky. Obviously, there are times in the book when I’m having dangerous amount of fun with Lionel and his condition. My research was careful, but I didn’t restrict myself to what I learned, didn’t turn in my poetic license. But, perhaps because I also identified with him so strongly, and therefore take the reader with me into his skin, the Tourette’s community has been very kind. They’ve read the book generously, written me letters, showed up at readings, and generally flattered me by suggesting I got Tourette’s right, emotionally if not strictly scientifically.

Q: The city of Brooklyn plays a major role in this novel. Of all the places in the world you could set this story, why Brooklyn?

A: I’m from Brooklyn. That’s the short answer. This book became an opportunity to breaking through to writing about my home turf for the first time--somehow, through Lionel’s eyes, I was able to see it "fictionally", and the result was a book that was much more about place, and about home, as subjects, than any I’d written before. And Brooklyn has a Tourettic, impulsive, interruptive, agitated energy to it which rhymed beautifully with Lionel’s perceptions and style, and with the twitchy, antic energy of the book. It couldn’t have been set anywhere else.

Q: Motherless Brooklyn has been described as, among other things, an "homage to the classic detective novel." As a novelist who also writes a lot of literary criticism how would you define your novel? And how would you review it?

A: Yikes, that sounds like an opportunity to put my foot in my mouth. And of course, I spend an awful lot of time working to make sure that my novels are "impossible" to categorize or pigeonhole. I’m fond of leading with one genre notion and then following with another, contradictory one. But--I would agree, of course, that in a perverse and playful way the book is an homage to detective fiction, yes. Lionel himself is desperate to be regarded as a Philip Marlowe-type detective, and in that he betrays my own reverence for the form. But I think the book is as much a comic coming-of-age story, a novel of delayed adolescence (Lionel’s in his thirties for most of it!) somewhat in the tradition of Catcher In The Rye, or Confederacy of Dunces. And it’s a love story. And a psychological novel. And...

Q: Do you ever wonder what writers like Chandler and Hammett would think of your novels, especially Motherless Brooklyn?

A: That’s an interesting question. In my mind a book like Motherless Brooklyn has so much to do with Chandler and Hammett, and yet I doubt they would see very much of themselves or their work in it. Of course, they’d probably spend most of the time trying to puzzle over the references to I Dream Of Genie and The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. And the cellphones. But seriously, both of those writers were so powerfully engaged with issues of violence and civility and class in the new American cities--they were really excavating material that had been treated only contemptuously, in pulp terms, and making something literary out of it. In the process they--particularly Hammett--defined a new kind of American voice which is now so taken for granted that it can be parodied in Steve Martin movies, and so on. My own hard-boiled (or, really, soft-boiled) books take those innovations very much for granted. If I’ve discovered anything new at all in Motherless Brooklyn it isn’t in the realm of Hammett and Chandler. What I owe to them is very, very traditional by now, and I dare say I haven’t advanced it an inch.

General Questions:

Q: What authors have been most influential to your own writing?

A: There are so many, and the most relevant to mention change from book to book. For instance, Girl In Landscape is derived from Shirley Jackson, Carson McCullers, Davis Grubb, and Charles Portis. As She Climbed Across the Table from Don Delillo, Stanislaw Lem, John Barth and Malcolm Bradbury. In fact, The Vintage Book of Amnesia includes many names which are among my most absolutely formative and influential early reading experiences: Philip K. Dick, Borges, Nabokov, Walker Percy, Thomas Disch, Donald Barthelme, Julio Cortazar. Those are some who shaped my sense of all the amazing things fiction could do and say... but equally, I’d count Graham Greene, Henry Miller, Robert Heinlein, Chandler and Hammett, of course... Iris Murdoch, Franz Kafka, Dickens, Gissing, Bronte... when should I stop?

Q: If you weren’t writing, what would you want to be doing for a living?

A: Easy. I’d go back to what I did before I made a living from writing, the only other thing I know how to do: working as a clerk in a used bookstore. Pining over books, touching them, taking them home instead of half my paycheck.

Q: What is the most difficult question that your readers ask you?

A: "My name is Czrllyzzk Mxzztpyl, will you please inscribe this book?"

Q: More and more, authors are expected to tour to promote the publication of their books? What is the most challenging aspect of hitting the road?

A: You’d have to be a real misanthrope--and a self-loathing one, at that--to complain much about having people show up to listen to you read your work aloud in public and then ask you basically flattering questions about how you spend your mornings padding around in your house every day, writing down your fantasies for which they will soon eagerly pay 24.95 and then show up and listen to you read aloud in public... people talk about ’trying to stay humble’ and I wonder why you’d even need to try. I lived a blessed life. What gets me down sometimes is sheer exhaustion, and the logistics, and the air travel. The dumb stuff that fills in the spaces between the gratifying attention. I’ve seen my share of cancelled flights and hotel lobbies, just like Willie Nelson or the Kinks. And, just between you and me, talking into radio talk show microphones is sometimes draining--you feel like your words are falling into the void between the galaxies. Often in radio the guy who asked you the question is outside the booth smoking a cigarette while you answer it. But if there’s a real living, breathing person in a bookstore looking at you, waiting to hear what you think, then it’s a pleasure. Unless you’re painfully shy--and I’m not--meeting readers is as potentially nourishing (and therefore, I should say, as potentially disappointing) as any other form of human contact.

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:336 pages, 7.97 × 5.17 × 0.7 inPublished:October 24, 2000

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0375724834

ISBN - 13:9780375724831

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Read from the Book

Walks IntoContext is everything. Dress me up and see. I'm a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster. I've got Tourette's. My mouth won't quit, though mostly I whisper or subvocalize like I'm reading aloud, my Adam's apple bobbing, jaw muscle beating like a miniature heart under my cheek, the noise suppressed, the words escaping silently, mere ghosts of themselves, husks empty of breath and tone. (If I were a Dick Tracy villain, I'd have to be Mumbles.) In this diminished form the words rush out of the cornucopia of my brain to course over the surface of the world, tickling reality like fingers on piano keys. Caressing, nudging. They're an invisible army on a peacekeeping mission, a peaceable horde. They mean no harm. They placate, interpret, massage. Everywhere they're smoothing down imperfections, putting hairs in place, putting ducks in a row, replacing divots. Counting and polishing the silver. Patting old ladies gently on the behind, eliciting a giggle. Only--here's the rub--when they find too much perfection, when the surface is already buffed smooth, the ducks already orderly, the old ladies complacent, then my little army rebels, breaks into the stores. Reality needs a prick here and there, the carpet needs a flaw. My words begin plucking at threads nervously, seeking purchase, a weak point, a vulnerable ear. That's when it comes, the urge to shout in the church, the nursery, the crowded movie house. It's an itch at first. Inconsequential. But that itch is soon a torrent behind a straining dam. Noah's flood. That itch is my whole life. Here it comes now. Cover your ears. Build an ark."Eat me!" I scream.* * * "Maufishful," said Gilbert Coney in response to my outburst, not even turning his head. I could barely make out the words--"My mouth is full"--both truthful and a joke, lame. Accustomed to my verbal ticcing, he didn't usually bother to comment. Now he nudged the bag of White Castles in my direction on the car seat, crinkling the paper. "Stuffinyahole."Coney didn't rate any special consideration from me. "Eatmeeatmeeatme," I shrieked again, letting off more of the pressure in my head. Then I was able to concentrate. I helped myself to one of the tiny burgers. Unwrapping it, I lifted the top of the bun to examine the grid of holes in the patty, the slime of glistening cubed onions. This was another compulsion. I always had to look inside a White Castle, to appreciate the contrast of machine-tooled burger and nubbin of fried goo. kaos and control. Then I did more or less as Gilbert had suggested--pushed it into my mouth whole. The ancient slogan Buy 'em by the sack humming deep in my head, jaw working to grind the slider into swallowable chunks, I turned back to stare out the window at the house.Food really mellows me out.We were putting a stakeout on 109 East Eighty-fourth Street, a lone town house pinned between giant doorman apartment buildings, in and out of the foyers of which bicycle deliverymen with bags of hot Chinese flitted like tired moths in the fading November light. It was dinner hour in Yorktown. Gilbert Coney and I had done our part to join the feast, detouring up into Spanish Harlem for the burgers. There's only one White Castle left in Manhattan, on East 103rd. It's not as good as some of the suburban outlets. You can't watch them prepare your order anymore, and to tell the truth I've begun to wonder if they're microwaving the buns instead of steaming them. Alas. Taking our boodle of thusly compromised sliders and fries back downtown, we double-parked in front of the target address until a spot opened up. It only took a couple of minutes, though by that time the doormen on either side had made us--made us as out-of-place and nosy anyway. We were driving the Lincoln, which didn't have the "T"-series license plates or stickers or anything else to identify it as a Car Service vehicle. And we were large men, me and Gilbert. They probably thought we were cops. It didn't matter. We chowed and watched.Not that we knew what we were doing there. Minna had sent us without saying why, which was usual enough, even if the address wasn't. Minna Agency errands mostly stuck us in Brooklyn, rarely far from Court Street, in fact. Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill together made a crisscrossed game board of Frank Minna's alliances and enmities, and me and Gil Coney and the other Agency Men were the markers--like Monopoly pieces, I sometimes thought, tin automobiles or terriers (not top hats, surely)--to be moved around that game board. Here on the Upper East Side we were off our customary map, Automobile and Terrier in Candyland--or maybe in the study with Colonel Mustard."What's that sign?" said Coney. He pointed with his glistening chin at the town house doorway. I looked." 'Yorkville Zendo,' " I read off the bronze plaque on the door, and my fevered brain processed the words and settled with interest on the odd one. "Eat me Zendo!" I muttered through clenched teeth.Gilbert took it, rightly, as my way of puzzling over the unfamiliarity. "Yeah, what's that Zendo? What's that?""Maybe like Zen," I said."I don't know from that.""Zen like Buddhism," I said. "Zen master, you know.""Zen master?""You know, like kung-fu master.""Hrrph," said Coney.And so after this brief turn at investigation we settled back into our complacent chewing. Of course after any talk my brain was busy with at least some low-level version of echolalia salad: Don't know from Zendo, Ken-like Zung Fu, Feng Shui master, Fungo bastard, Zen masturbation, Eat me! But it didn't require voicing, not now, not with White Castles to unscrew, inspect and devour. I was on my third. I fit it into my mouth, then glanced up at the doorway of One-oh-nine, jerking my head as if the building had been sneaking up on me. Coney and the other Minna Agency operatives loved doing stakeouts with me, since my compulsiveness forced me to eyeball the site or mark in question every thirty seconds or so, thereby saving them the trouble of swiveling their necks. A similar logic explained my popularity at wiretap parties--give me a key list of trigger words to listen for in a conversation and I'd think about nothing else, nearly jumping out of my clothes at hearing the slightest hint of one, while the same task invariably drew anyone else toward blissful sleep.While I chewed on number three and monitored the uneventful Yorkville Zendo entrance my hands busily frisked the paper sack of Castles, counting to be sure I had three remaining. We'd purchased a bag of twelve, and not only did Coney know I had to have my six, he also knew he was pleasing me, tickling my Touretter's obsessive-compulsive instincts, by matching my number with his own. Gilbert Coney was a big lug with a heart of gold, I guess. Or maybe he was just trainable. My tics and obsessions kept the other Minna Men amused, but also wore them out, made them weirdly compliant and complicit.A woman turned from the sidewalk onto the stoop of the town house and went up to the door. Short dark hair, squarish glasses, that was all I saw before her back was to us. She wore a pea coat. Sworls of black hair at her neck, under the boyish haircut. Twenty-five maybe, or maybe eighteen."She's going in," said Coney."Look, she's got a key," I said."What's Frank want us to do?""Just watch. Take a note. What time is it?"Coney crumpled another Castle wrapper and pointed at the glove compartment. "You take a note. It's six forty-five."I popped the compartment--the click-release of the plastic latch was a delicious hollow sound, which I knew I'd want to repeat, at least approximately--and found the small notebook inside. GIRL, I wrote, then crossed it out. WOMAN, HAIR, GLASSES, KEY. 6:45. The notes were to myself, since I only had to be able to report verbally to Minna. If that. For all we knew, he might want us out here to scare someone, or to wait for some delivery. I left the notebook beside the Castles on the seat between us and slapped the compartment door shut again, then delivered six redundant slaps to the same spot to ventilate my brain's pressure by reproducing the hollow thump I'd liked. Six was a lucky number tonight, six burgers, six forty-five. So six slaps.* * *For me, counting and touching things and repeating words are all the same activity. Tourette's is just one big lifetime of tag, really. The world (or my brain--same thing) appoints me it, again and again. So I tag back.Can it do otherwise? If you've ever been it you know the answer.

Bookclub Guide

US1. For readers who come to Motherless Brooklyn with little knowledge of Brooklyn, what devices, beyond straightforward descriptions, does Lethem use to capture its distinctive atmosphere? 2. Lionel's wordplay includes variations on his own name—Liable Guesscog, Final Escrow, Ironic Pissclaim, for example. How does this particular quirk serve to establish Lionel's sense of himself and his place in the world? Is there an internal logic about the variations or are they simply haphazard? 3. The Minna Men are all orphans, first introduced as teenagers. Discuss how each of them carves out an identity for himself and why this is important to them. How do the initial descriptions Lionel provides of Tony [p. 39], Gil [p. 40], and Danny [p. 42-43] foreshadow the relationships among the four as adults? Do their characters change in the course of the novel?4. Does Minna see himself as more than a boss to the young men? Does he make a conscious effort to turn the group into a family or does the family feeling develop from the needs of the young men themselves? What evidence, if any, is there that Minna's interest in them is emotional as well as practical? In what ways does Minna's relationship with his own mother and older brother influence the way he treats the Minna Men? 5. Why does Lionel say "it was Minna who brought me the language, Minna and Court Street that let me speak" [p.37]? What parts do Tony, Gil, and Danny play in helping Lionel accept his Tourette's Syndrome? How do their individual ways of dealing with Lionel differ? Which man's support is the most significant to Lionel both as a teenager and as an adult?6. In describing Gil's explanation of Minna's kidnapping and murder, Lionel says "English might have been his fourth or fifth language from the sound of it" [p. 94]. Why does Lethem include this observation and other examples of mangled language throughout the book? How do they put Lionel's own "language difficulties" in perspective? 7. In addition to Lionel's wonderful, often poetic riffs, what other specific language patterns does Lethem employ to bring the various characters to life? For example, how do Lionel's conversation with the homicide detective [pp. 109-111], his initial encounter with Kimmery [p. 135] and his interview with Matricardi and Rockaforte [pp. 176-177] create impressions of these particular people that are independent of Lionel's own perceptions? 8. What role does Julia play in the novel? In what ways is she the stereotypical "dame" of other hard-boiled detective novels and films and how is she different? Do you think Julia is right when she says "No woman would ever want you, Lionel. . . . That's not really true. They might want you. . . . But they'll never be fair to you" [p. 297]?9. Is Kimmery also a stock figure in this tradition? How does Kimmery's reaction to Lionel's Tourettic behavior differ from the reactions of the other characters? Does the brief, romantic interlude between Lionel and Kimmery advance the plot and if so, in what ways? How does it affect your understanding of Lionel? Is Kimmery "fair" to Lionel?10. The Zen Buddhist communities in New York and Maine are not at all what they seem. Are the characters who participate in the Buddhist Zendo—Lionel's brother, Gerald, Julia, and Kimmery—influenced by Buddhist teachings? Do the principles of Zen Buddhism (either as expressed in the book by Kimmery or from your knowledge) illuminate some of the themes Lethem explores? 11. Does Lionel in fact become a "real detective"? Do his techniques fit your definition of detective work? Kimmery, for example, is skeptical about both his intentions and his working style [p. 255]. Do you think her evaluation is accurate? In other detective books you may have read, are the heroes completely removed from the personal aspects of the cases they investigate? Is the solution to Minna's murder fully satisfying in light of the evidence presented in the rest of the book? 12. At several points in the book, Lethem makes direct reference to the genres that inform Motherless Brooklyn—both the classic detective novel and "wiseguy" novels and movies. For example, Minna teases Gil for saying "piece," rather than "gun" [p. 8]; and Lionel asks "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 on to the page and burden you with his actual existence?" [p. 119]. In another passage, Lionel compares himself to the standard set in detective literature: "So many detectives have been knocked out and fallen into such strange, swirling darknesses . . . and yet I have nothing to contribute to this painful tradition" [p. 205]. Why does Lethem include these references? Are they simply there for "comic relief" or do they serve another purpose? 13. By using Lionel as narrator, Lethem is following a long tradition in detective fiction. In what ways would the impact on the reader be different if a third-person voice told the story? Why do you think he chose to use a narrator with Tourette's Syndrome? Is this purely a literary device, giving him the opportunity to play with language as an author? Do the classic detective heroes—for example, Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe—have quirks comparable to Lionel's?14. Does the title of the book refer only to the four orphans who make up the Minna Men? In what ways is Brooklyn itself "motherless"? 15. The Voice Literary Supplement wrote "Lethem loves to cross-wire popular genres and watch the sparks fly." In addition to the conventions of the hard-boiled detective novel, what other genre does Lethem draw on in Motherless Brooklyn?

From Our Editors

This crime detective fantasy by Jonathan Lethem won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. Described as a virtuoso riff on the detective novel genre, Motherless Brooklyn is about a human freak show whose Tourettic impulses drive him to rip apart the language in interesting ways. This disabled orphan is the protégé of small-time mobsters. The freak's world is turned upside down after his boss is killed in a sudden Mafia hit. This offbeat book received excellent reviews from The New York Times Book Review and USA Today. Letham is also the author of Girl in Landscape.

Editorial Reviews

"The best novel of the year. . . . Utterly original and deeply moving." --Esquire"Philip Marlowe would blush. And tip his fedora." --Newsweek"Finding out whodunit is interesting enough, but it's more fun watching Lethem unravel the mysteries of his Tourettic creation. In this case, it takes one trenchant wordsmith to know another." --Time"Immerses us in the mind's dense thicket, a place where words split and twine in an ever-deepening tangle." --The New York Times Book Review"Who but Jonathan Lethem would attempt a half-satirical cross between a literary novel and a hard-boiled crime story narrated by an amateur detective with Tourette's syndrome?...The dialogue crackles with caustic hilarity...Jonathan Lethem is a verbal performance artisit...Unexpectedly moving." --The Boston Globe"With one unique and well-imagined character, Jonathan Lethem has turned a genre on its ear. He doesn't just push the envelope, he gives it a swift kick... A tour de force." --The Denver Post"Wonderfully inventive, slightly absurdist... [Motherless Brooklyn] is funny and sly, clever, compelling, and endearing." --USA Today

Employee Review

Lethem's latest novel is a unique and tasty literary stew of homages to Charles Dickens, Vladimir Nabokov and Raymond Chandler. The plot is a conventional crime story whodunit, but the narrator is a completely original literary creation. Lionel Essrog, nicknamed the Human Freakshow, is an amateur detective afflicted with Tourette's syndrome. He sets out to solve the murder of Frank Minna, a local tough guy and Lionel's boss. The mystery is secondary to the author's dazzling and inventive wordplay, the vividly realized noirish atmosphere and the unforgettable Tourettic narrator with the cross-wired mind.