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RÉVISEUR DU TOP 50le 15 décembre 2014
Jonathan Lethem is up there in the heavyweight rankings, with Denis Johnson, Michael Ondaatje, Ron Hansen, Michael Chabon, Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, and of course, the undisputed champion of English prose, Cormac McCarthy. Lethem's always had speed and heavy hands -- I might as well beat the hell out of this metaphor -- but like a lot of talented kids, he got his start in the ghettoes of genre, writing beautifully crafted, high-concept/low-pretense science fiction.

Some truly great novelists have created classics of crime, horror, fantasy, and science fiction that transcend genre: Philip K. Dick's 'A Scanner Darkly', Dashiell Hammett's 'The Maltese Falcon', Richard Price's 'Lush Life', and Neal Stephenson's 'Anathem' are fine examples. With 'Motherless Brooklyn', Lethem showed off those heavy hands to score a 1st Round KO and take the title -- the National Book Award, one of the big ones. Only the Pulitzer Prize carries more prestige, and not by much. He was free of the ghetto, writing big-'L' Literature.

The beauty of this new-found freedom was that Lethem could write science fiction, and show up in the Literature section, as one of many respected subcategories called Speculative Fiction. When Cormac McCarthy wrote 'No Country For Old Men', he wasn't slumming in the crime-fiction ghetto, he was writing the kind of Crime Fiction that exists just across the border from Mickey Spillane's hometown, a twin city just inside Literature's jurisdiction, sometimes home to Paul Auster. 'The Road' -- which won the Pulitzer -- may have seemed like pure post-apocalyptic science fiction, but again, it's 'Speculative Fiction' in the case of a writer like McCarthy... and it's sure as hell Literature. The same applies for Denis Johnson, with the post-apocalyptic Speculative Fiction of 'Fiskadoro' and his "California Gothic" -- a brilliant fusion of Crime and Horror -- 'Already Dead'. 'Motherless Brooklyn' takes Lethem into Crime Fiction territory, playing with the modern archetypes created by Hammett, Chandler and Thompson. It's not like anything you've read before; incorporating elements from classic noir, coming-of-age stories, and dark comedy.

Subverting the tropes of Noir, and Private Investigators like Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe, the protagonist -- Lionel Essrog -- is a PI who suffers from Tourette's syndrome. He's the exact opposite of Sam Spade, who always knew exactly how to use each scrap of information he found. Keeping his cards close to the vest, revealing just enough to bluff the other person into giving up a name or making a confession. Lionel, on the other hand, is liable to blurt out any dark secret or dangerous name at precisely the wrong moment. His obsessive-compulsive tendencies lock him into meaningless rituals, and secrets that could get him killed are like nitroglycerine in the various echo-chambers of his mind, vibrations building up, threatening to detonate the explosive information he's desperate to contain, getting louder and louder, demanding to be released, and screamed out. Lethem inhabits the mind of a Tourette's sufferer so convincingly and humorously, but does not present Lionel as a mere accumulation of symptoms and strange behaviors; he is a fully-fleshed out character, one of the most fascinating in modern fiction.

Frank Minna, the cool and charismatic mob associate who is murdered in the opening pages, casts a long shadow over 'Motherless Brooklyn'. Using a series of flashbacks, we learn that Lionel and the rest of the 'Minna-Men' -- Frank's crew of errand boys and investigators, using the office of their phony driving service as a base of operations, hangout, and for Lionel, home -- were teenagers when they were recruited by Frank to do the grunt work on his various illegal assignments. Lionel, Gilbert, Danny, and Tony immediately looked up to Frank, finding in him a father, big brother, and role model. Frank and his crew did odd jobs for two old Mafioso's who ruled the neighborhood, but that came to an abrupt end when Frank's mysterious older brother Gerard showed up, only to collect his brother and disappear with him for a couple of long, mysterious years. When Frank returned to Brooklyn, the floundering Minna-men were happy to let themselves be molded into whatever role he saw fit. He also came back married, to a beautiful older girl named Julia, with whom all of the Minna-men secretly fell in love. Frank lost much of his good-natured affability in his time away, without losing any of his charismatic pull.

After Minna's death, Lionel is determined to figure out who is responsible; his friend and fellow Minna-man Gilbert is arrested for killing Frank, serving as extra incentive. Now Lionel has lost Gilbert, his investigative partner, just like Sam Spade lost Archer in 'The Maltese Falcon'; now Lionel has lost his boss and surrogate brother, and is accountable to no one but himself, just like Spade. A Gigantic Polish assassin, his fellow Minna-man Tony, and a Buddhist dojo all figure prominently in Frank's demise, but putting everything together, and exacting some form of justice, seem like distant, abstract things.

What follows is a thrilling, sad, hilarious, and completely unpredictable. Lethem's writing is perfect on every level, including stylistically. The restrained grace of his prose frequently explodes into epic obscenities and mangled freestyle poetry, anagrams and lyrical nonsense, an inspired fusion of Dr. Seuss and William S. Burroughs. I've been reading Lethem's books for a couple years now, spacing them out to savor them. I was almost reluctant to start 'Motherless Brooklyn', since it's regarded by many as his masterpiece. It is. But the good news is that he's still young, and I think he'll be tucking a Pulitzer under his arm, one of these days.
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le 11 mai 2004
Lionel Essrog is the center of attention in this riveting novel by Jonahtan Lethem--he (Lionel, not the author) has Tourette's Syndrome, that unfortunate and uncontrollable desire to shout, bark, and curse. As if that weren't enough premise, add to this the fact that poor Lionel ends up working for a small-time mobster who runs a limo service. I was expecting something along the lines of a Pahalinuk novel with extreme situations and characters (and I did get that), but I also got something more: great storytelling and a great plot. There are several novels out nowadays that deal with "handicaps" of some sort. This must the going thing. Haddon's THE CURIOUS INCIDIENT deals with autism, and McCrae's BARK OF THE DOGWOOD deals with a child who has Dissociative Identity Disorder, among a host of other ailments, as well as being an abused child. So why not a novel about Tourette's syndrome? One shudders to think what these materials would be like in less capable author's hands, but in all three novels, the ideas work, especially in MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN. I can't recommend this book enough. It's just one of the most unusual things I've read in years.
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le 2 mai 2004
This book is hard to categorize. Is it a detective novel? A satire of the detective novel? A literary journey through the complexities of language? Who knows, and the book is so thoroughly entertaining that it really doesn't matter what the authors real motives are.
The narrator, Lionel Essrog (a name just dying for a Tourettic tic) has Tourette's Syndrome, which makes him a wonderful and unique storyteller. And the reader can't help but laugh out loud at his unexpected yellings and shoulder taps. I kept expecting Lionel to become annoying or to find a cure for his tics, but Lethem gratefully keeps him true to character the entire book. The word associations and spoonerisms that Lionel erupts with will be interesting to anyone who likes wordplay.
The detective part of this novel comes in when Minna, a low status criminal, is knifed. It's up to his gang, the Minna Men, of which Lionel is one, to figure out whodunnit. What occurs is a tongue-in-cheek crime story that actually manages to be a pretty good mystery in the end.
This is overall a pretty strange book in that it was never what I expected it to be. Hilarious, mysterious, tragic, and touching. How did Lethem manage to do all this in just over 300 pages? I'll be reading another Lethem very soon....
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le 11 septembre 2003
We're all familiar with the conventions of the hard-boiled detective genre: men of few words, fisticuffs in back alleys, rougue cops, mysterious women with long legs and dark secrets, and so forth. In this brilliant novel, Lethem has turned all of these conventions on their ear. Instead of a man of few words, our protagonist (Lionel Essrog) is a man of too many words... he has Tourette's Syndrome.
The ordinary detective slowly uncovers clues through a mixture of intimidation and verbal trickery. Lionel, on the other hand, is ridiculed or roughed up by nearly everyone he meets. And still he brilliantly tracks down leads and uses his apparent weaknesses to his advantage. All other conventions are also reversed. Dark secrets turn out to be less dark than we imagined. Instead of being coy and mysterious, the women practice Zen and say what they mean.
Lethem has done an excellent job of replicating the tension, pace, and intrique of the very best detective novels, but he has done so in a way that no one else has before. And the brilliant writing and masterful descriptions of New York City make it easy to see why this novel has garnered so much praise from people and publications that ordinarily don't care much for genre writing.
Fans of the genre, read this book to get a taste of something wonderfully different. Fans of literature, read this book to experience the very best of the detective genre. Also, if you liked this book, try Martin Amis's NightTrain.
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le 29 mai 2003
I read an interview with Lethem in which he said that while writing the book, he learned to see Tourette's Syndrome as a kind of continuum, and that all human beings are on it somewhere and show Tourettic impulses. He said that if the book succeeds, readers will diagnose themselves to see where they fit on that continuum. As someone who found it necessary to research interviews on Lethem to better understand the book, I learned that I'm more like Lionel Essrog than I'd like.
That's only one reason the book is a success, though. Many other reviewers have pointed out the moments of hilarity and poignancy, the appeal of Lionel as a narrator, etc., so I'd like to add a few other things:
One aspect ties to what's mentioned above -- the universality of Tourette's. Lionel ties his affliction to conspiracies, guilt, insomnia, etc., showing how so many emotions and trains of thought have to do with trying to touch or change the world and how futile those efforts can seem. Lionel's interrogation of his Tourette's mind helps it rise above literary gimmickry.
I also liked how Lethem showed the difficulty of controlling language and communicating effectively with other people. Lionel tics around nearly everybody, with the exception (most of the time, anyway) of Kimmery, who is a soothing presence and accepts his Tourette's more than most people. Even around Frank Minna, whom Lionel adores, he tics. Maybe that's because Lionel likes the way Minna talks -- his pat phrases ("wheels within wheels," "tell your story walking," "tugging the boat," etc.) form Lionel's chief memories of Minna, and he repeats them frequently. I think he could be envious. Besides Kimmery, Lionel has few other situations in which he can be tic-free. A couple of those are when he listens to Prince and when he sits at the Papaya Czar, both because their art mirrors his chaotic brain. He feels validated and comforted because he is like them. Besides showing the human need for connection, Lionel also shows how language and communication break down when you're outside your comfort zone. Other characters show this, too -- Tony, who turns vicious because he is so disturbed by Lionel's outbursts; Detective Seminole, who misreads Lionel's tics completely and gets the wrong idea about the case; even Minna completely loses his cool-guy persona when he's around the so-formal-they're-scary Matricardi and Rockaforte and the silence of his mother.
Oh yeah, and the book's so fun to read you don't want it to end, either.
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le 29 avril 2003
I began reading this book on the day I started the worst job of my life. I found its Tourettic main character Lionel Essrog, so compelling, that my mood was instantly elevated, and I stayed at that job probably far longer than I should have. Now I have a much better job, so I went back for a second read, and was happy to find the book held up so well.
Lionel, the detective and narrator of "Motherless Brooklyn", is prone to sudden verbal tics -- he'll start rhyming his own name, for example -- or to adjusting people's collars. This makes him perhaps the most unsuited detective in the history of the genre. He would certainly not be out of place in a Coen Brothers movie (I'm thinking John Turturro here, or maybe Steve Buscemi, who read the audiobook).
Indeed the whole plot is Coen-esque. Lionel and three other characters are runners for a very small-time Brooklyn mob associate named Frank Minna, in the decidedly unglamorous Boerum Hill neighborhood. When Minna is found dead in a dumpster by the Pulaski Bridge (a horribly prosaic fate), his men are hunted one by one, and it's up to Lionel to find out who done it, and why. Jonathan Lethem populates the story with oddly-named characters such as Kimmery and Mr. Foible and Detective Seminole. With a world full of names such as these, it's easy to see why Lionel tics as much as he does.
Along the way are fascinating asides into how Lionel's mind works. He notes that Prince is perhaps the first Tourettic singer, and there's a glorious two page essay on the MAD Magazine art of Don Martin. Lethem also throws in some great New York-specific baseball references (Lee Mazzilli, Bucky Dent), and has Lionel think, while eating soup, "Tinker to Evers to chicken".
The mystery held less of my attention on the second read-through; for some reason, I was more confused than I was the first time. I think the two New Jersey gangsters, Matricardi and Rockaforte (or "Bricco and Stuckface") are a little off-key, but perhaps that's because they both have the overly-precise speech patterns of Joe Mantegna ("We wish to comfort you on this day of pain and misunderstanding...").
On the whole, "Motherless Brooklyn" is a very inventive spin on language, and uses its New York setting extremely well, hitting everything from the pattern of Upper East Side traffic lights, to the solitude of the G train. I dare you read it, and then not have Lionel-esque verbal tics for days afterward. Liable Guessfrog!
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le 9 janvier 2003
I loved reading every word of Jonathan Letham's Motherless Brooklyn. First, I must confess that I'm biased because a good portion of the story takes place in my neighborhood, however, with that said, Brooklyn is merely the backdrop for this mystery that unfolds, twists and turns with every page.
The story is seen through the eyes of Lionel Essrog, an orphan with tourettes, who works for a low level Brooklyn Mobster. Lionel, gets caught up in the murder of his boss and takes it upon himself to solve the crime...which is the work of some old time Brooklyn mobsters.
Throughout the novel, Letham is brilliant at creating a world where the reader understands Lionel's tourettes and is able to quickly understand his actions yet sympathize as a victim. Letham also does a teriffic job of developing all of the supportint characters as well. All of which, are uniquely pathetic.
This novel, is one of the liveliest reads I've had in some time and is strongly recommended if you're looking for a great whodunnit, that is also a great study in character.
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le 15 décembre 2002
This is an incredible work of hardboiled fiction featuring an ambitious, but wildly successful characteristic that allows it to stand out from the crowd of private investigator mysteries. As fascinating as it is sobering, Tourette's Syndrome is spotlighted as we view the world from Tourette's suffering Lionel Essrog's perspective as he carries out an investigation into the murder of his boss and mentor while held under the spell of his illness.
Although the book features an engrossing murder investigation complete with mob-ties and conspiracy theories, it's the battle going on inside Lionel's head that holds the most interest. At times his outbursts are presented humorously, but we are always reminded how hard he's working just to appear normal.
It's a book full of stark reminders of the frailty of the human condition and how things and, in particular people, aren't always as they seem on the surface. This is a book that will stay with you long after you close the cover on the last page.
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le 23 novembre 2002
of words, Lionel Essrog is a prisoner of the obsessiveness that binds those with Tourette's Syndrome. Jonathan Lethem introduces us to one of the most interesting characters I have come across in some time in his novel Motherless Brooklyn.
As an orphan in Brooklyn, Lionel has no idea what causes his own strange behavior until Frank Minna, a local mobster takes Lionel and some of his buddies from the orphanage under his wing. Minna frees Lionel, by not only giving him some purpose in life but by identifying the cause for his strange behavior. Lionel is no longer just a "freak show" as he is affectionately called, he is one of Frank Minna's, Minna Men or detectives for want of a better word.
All is going well for Lionel until the day Frank Minna disappears into the building called Zendo and is later retrieved by Lionel from a dumpster. At that point Lionel's life as a Minna Man is forever changed. He finds the world he has built coming under assault.
It is great fun for the reader to bounce around Brooklyn with Lionel hunting for clues. We are immersed in his strange sea of words, an uncontrollable stream of consciousness which refuses to be shut down.
"Alibi hullabaloo gullible bellyflop smellafish, sang my brain, obliterating speech."
This is a sampling of the steady river of words flowing through in Essrog's brain and spalshing off the pages of Motherless Brooklyn. He is an entertaining character that can go nowhere quietly or unobtrusively, but some how he manages to find his way to the depth of the mystery that destroyed his mentor.
Jonathan Lethem skilled writing, entertaining storytelling and engaging characterizations make Motherless Brooklyn an excellent mystery and one that is truly hard to put down. I just couldn't get enough of Lionel and when I finished the book I sadly and reluctantly said goodbye to him.
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le 28 mai 2002
From the prose, you know right away Lethem is no mere genre writer. In this book, he subverts the hard-boiled genre while tipping his hat to it - what results is a delightful modern book that is as intensely gripping as it is witty. In taking on the hard-boiled genre, Lethem takes on the burden of (*gasp*) actually working out a plot. It's refreshing to see a literary writer who is unscrupulous about shaping a plot.
And the story is a good one. Lionel Essrog, a 'disciple' of Frank Minna who leads him and three others in a hapless detective agency, has to solve the murder of his mentor which he only witnessed through a wire tap. The story structure follows the hard-boiled structure of Chandler. But the characters and situations themselves are ingenious and hilariously modern.
Lionel Essrog, in my mind, is one of the most memorable characters in contemporary fiction. The Tourette's Syndrome he has is not just a gimmick, but a vent for Lethem to deploy narrative pyrotechnics. The subconscious rants and tangents of thought are made transparent in this book. It's a brilliant move on the part of Lethem.
One of the more lasting strengths of "Motherless Brooklyn" is its sweetness and earnestness. Lionel is as honest and emotional character as any we have had in recent fiction. As he remembers and yearns for (and to be like) his mentor Frank Minna, his release of emotion is straightforward and even, sentimental. It parallels Lethem's nostalgia for the old hard-boiled characters in Chandler's books and the style of writing itself (he directly quotes him a couple of times.) It's a beautiful tribute to a bygone era, a different time.
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