Motherless Brooklyn: A Novel

by Jonathan Lethem

October 24, 2000 | Trade Paperback

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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 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 homage to the classic detective novel by one of the most acclaimed writers of his generation.

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 336 pages, 7.99 × 5.17 × 0.72 in

Published: October 24, 2000

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0375724834

ISBN - 13: 9780375724831

Found in: Suspense, Suspense

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– More About This Product –

Motherless Brooklyn: A Novel

Motherless Brooklyn: A Novel

by Jonathan Lethem

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 336 pages, 7.99 × 5.17 × 0.72 in

Published: October 24, 2000

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0375724834

ISBN - 13: 9780375724831

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 h
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From the Publisher

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 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 homage to the classic detective novel by one of the most acclaimed writers of his generation.

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 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 homage to the classic detective novel by one of the most acclaimed writers of his generation.

About the Author

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 York TImes, the Paris Review, and a variety of other periodicals and anthologies. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and in Maine.

Author Interviews

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, emotional
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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 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.

Bookclub Guide

US

1. 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?