I was pleased to discover others who are not
put off by a narrator suffering from Tourette's syndrome, as in
Jonathan Lethem's most recent book, Motherless
Brooklyn. I was afraid I was alone in my obsessive relationship
with language that moved me, but whoever gives out the National
Book Critics Circle Award apparently shares my obsession. Good for
by Jonathan Lethem
The idea of a detective afflicted with uncontrollable
outbursts is an inspired transgression. Lionel Essrog as Tourettic
narrator of Motherless
Brooklyn brings chaotic energy and manic poetry (which
Lethem calls "echolalia") to the story of four Brooklyn
orphans working as operatives for a car-service/detective agency/monkey-business
run by Frank Minna. When Frank is killed, Lionel goes on a wild,
compulsive tic-laden journey to find the murderer. As Lionel puts
it, "Reality needs a prick here and there..." Lethem
is certainly up to the job as words rush through Lionel's brain
"tickling reality like fingers on piano keys."
One of the things I dislike about detective stories
is their emphasis on plot and the relentless pressure to "figure
it out." Although Lethem's stories do have plots, complete
with clues and endings, it's the narrative journey that is prominent,
the play of language, character and setting. In his short story,
"Five Fucks," Lethem contends that "Human lives
exist to be experienced, or possibly endured, but not solved."
Lethem delivers his tales to be experienced, and they are wild
Lethem is not the first writer to offer disturbing
commentary on the nature of humanness, but his is notably without
superficial prejudice about what is possible. In the short story
"Forever, Said the Duck," only the hosts are "real".
The guests, who are simulated personalities, ultimately change
into cartoon characters. In "Five Fucks" an all-consuming
erotic love devours the characters' time and, ultimately, their
These stories, and, indeed, all of Lethem's novels,
up to and including Motherless
Brooklyn contain ideas unique, original, and joyously
unconfined ideas. There's postmodern basketball in the story "Vanilla
Dunk"; a prison wall composed of live people in "Hardened
Criminals"; and in "Sleepy People", individuals
whose very presence in your home causes house plants to grow and
sharpens razor blades.
Brooklyn's chaotic rhythms match
the world of Tourette's that Lionel lives in and makes a much
more agreeable character/setting than the bleak worlds in many
of Lethem's earlier science fiction stories and his first novel,
with Occasional Music.
Gun's bleak world includes government-controlled
karma points, drugs like "Forgettol" and "Avoidal,"
and babies and animals that talk and carry guns thanks to "evolution
therapy." The job of the private investigator ("private
inquisitor," as they're called in this world) is complicated
because it has become socially unacceptable to ask personal questions.
All of this is described in the vernacular of the 30s/40s noir
crime novel driven so frenetically beyond its own boundary that
you come to buy the idea of a gun-toting kangaroo in canvas jacket
and plastic pants saying,"You're in too deep, flathead."
You begin to wonder just how far we really are from talking into
a black box in order to consult our own (rigorously edited) memory.
Brooklyn, Gun has its own rhythm, a musical rhythm.
Musak comes from inanimate objects when they're employed. There
is musical interpretation of the news in which you can hear the
sound of trouble, even specifically private and tragic trouble,
in the arrangements. And, like Lionel Essrog, Conrad Metcalf (Gun's
private inquisitor) is oddly flawed. Metcalf has undergone an
operation to switch nerve endings with a girlfriend; now his erotic
sensations are feminine in nature and his relationships with women
Jonathan Lethem takes the genres of noir crime
and post-cyberpunk and distends them to the point that they are
no longer kitsch, but eloquently fluent and pithy. His writing
is intelligently rabid, deliciously unruly, and poetic in a totally
unique way. Perhaps it should be called Thought, with Occasional
In the next issue of Frigate, Gay Partington
Terry will write on Jonathan Lethem's Amnesia
In Landscape, and As
She Climbed Across the Table.