Monday, 7 July 2014

Motherless Brooklyn Is A Good Book

Or why you should read Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Motherless Brooklyn is a pulpy detective set in modern-day-ish New York City. The novel focuses on Lionel Essrog, one of a group of orphans taken in by the charismatic Frank Minna. Lionel, along with fellow former denizens of St. Vincent's Home for Boys: Tony, Danny, and Gilbert, have grown to be Minna's men, hardboiled detective thugs working for a small time Brooklyn hustler. But for Lionel, a man who suffers from the vulgar and elaborate tics of a pretty extreme case of Tourette's syndrome, Minna and his men are the only home he has ever known. A home that in Motherless Brooklyn is thrown into disarray when Frank Minna is murdered. 

Part of what makes Motherless Brooklyn such am engrossing read is just how incongruous the whole thing is. The idea of a hardboiled pulp detective, normally a controlled and taciturn archetype, being afflicted with a compulsive mental disorder that makes him bark, randomly utter linguistic nonsense, and generally act without tact or restraint is bizarre genius. Then setting this weird pulp detective tale, filled with characters straight out of the 1940s, in the very polished world of modern New York City adds even more absurdity to the mix. And then steering this twitchy, weird literary orphan into a plot that involves a Zendo, a school of Zen Buddhism involved in Minna's murder, takes it to this place of truly platonic ideal levels of surreal. 

Paired with the zany sense of madness in Motherless Brooklyn is a beating heart of tragedy. Lionel Essrog is a pretty sad figure: for all of his detective acumen, smarts, and general likability, he is indelibly marked and isolated by his mental illness. Tourette's is a very misunderstood and brutal disease. A student in my undergraduate faculty had a Tourettic tic which caused him to incessantly hoot. And seeing how his tic, which in the grand scheme of things was pretty minor, marked him and alienated him from most of his classmates has always stuck with me. The guy was clearly quite smart, he went on to do graduate studies, I think, in a pretty good Botany department, but among our peers he will probably be remembered more as that guy who hooted than as a bosom student comrade or intellectually elite colleague. The way Motherless Brooklyn takes us inside the mind of someone with Tourette's and explores the everyday social cost of the condition really hammers home the challenges of the disease and the value of the afflicted. This is a novel that satisfies Fiction's mandate to operate as an empathy machine. 

I would recommend Motherless Brooklyn to just about anyone. It's pulpy genre heart and mystery keeps the story moving, while the sheer incongruous madness and tragic human soul of the book make it unique and compelling. Motherless Brooklyn is very much a novel that could operate as straightforward page turner as well as a piece of moving literary fiction. It is well worth checking out.

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