Motherless Brooklyn

On the day I started this book, I did something I hadn’t done in years: I missed my BART stop. I was so immediately, instantly wrapped up in the world Jonathan Lethem created–or maybe “deified” is more accurate–in Motherless Brooklyn that I had to get out (thankfully just one) stop past my own, wait for the opposite train, and make the sheepish backtrack to work. It wasn’t that sheepish, though. I enjoyed every minute of the delay. (Thanks, vundersmooth, for the spot-on recommendation!)

Maybe I’m just jaded, or easily distracted or something, but I rarely enjoy books this much. It takes a whole lot of something inexplicable to envelop me so wholly in a work of fiction. I know I read Lethem at just the right time, having been in Brooklyn very recently and able to picture with decent vividness the landmarks he mentions, but this murder-mystery-detective-whodunit would be nothing without its Tourette’s-afflicted narrator, Lionel Essrog.

Lethem makes it easy to fall for Lionel, who’s avenging his mafioso-esque father-figure’s death, while simultaneously showing off every single annoying thing about him. The obvious thing would be the Tourette’s, which starts off hilarious, then becomes tragic, then becomes irritating, and then blends into the story seamlessly. The character of Lionel himself treats his affliction like a living being, an entity with a mind of its own, He resigns himself to his urges and tics, knows they’re inevitable, and is only self-conscious when he needs to be. The way he lives with his disease makes it easy to be aware and accepting of something so foreign.

It might be wrong to say this, but the way Lethem writes Tourette’s is beautiful, witty, and rhythmic. It’s a special, sad kind of wordplay, very self-referential and intelligent, just like Lionel himself, except more vocal than any of us would hope to be. Some of my favorite tics: “Pierogi kumquat sushiphone! Domestic marshmallow ghost! Insatiable Mallomar! Smothered pierogiphone!” (p. 202)

In his head, Lioned is the glibbest person alive. He is a master of language, slick with everything, witty without pause. Tourette’s often masks his intelligence when he most needs to show it off, so it’s for that reason that I want to immortalize these quotes (in addition to the fact that I always list the quotes I like), because in the world of motherless Brooklyn, Lionel never got enough credit.

p. 81 // “We were in our second year of high school. That measure loomed suddenly, a door of years swinging open into what had been a future counted in afternoons.”

p. 113 // “The sidewalk just outside the Casino was strewn with discarded tickets, the chaff of wasted hope.”

p. 173 // “Matricardi and Rockaforte had looked sepulchral to me as a teenager and they looked now worse now, their skin mummified, their thin hair in a kind of spider-web sheen over their reflective pates…”

p. 210 // “She slid down to seat herself against the wall, so we were arranged like clock hands on the face of the floor, our shoes at the center. According to the clock of us it was four o’clock. I tried not to root for midnight.”

p. 284 // “Guilt wants to cover all the bases, be everywhere at once, reach into the past to tweak, neaten, and repair… and the guilty soul, like the Tourettic, wears a kind of clown face–the Smokey Robinson kind, with tear tracks underneath.”

p. 307 // “And in detective stories things are always always, the detective casting his exhausted, caustic gaze over the corrupted permanence of everything and thrilling you with his sweetly savage generalizations.”

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