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on May 2, 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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on September 11, 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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on April 29, 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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on December 21, 2001
the book is a wonderful surprise and delightful read. it (or i) kind of had a slow start, i must admit, but somewhere along the 2nd chapter it began to take off--and never came back down again. lethem's use of language is precise while beguilingly casual, much of the imagery simply brilliant, and the chapters' titles perfectly echoing their content and making even greater impact when you've read them through. and he captures the world of lionel's (that's the main character and the narrator) tourette's in such fine and imaginative details that it in turn captures our imagination. among other things, i'll never listen to prince's "kiss" (or look at a don martin cartoon) again without thinking of lionel's interpretation of it... although the whole book relates mainly what happened in only 3 days, the plot develops quickly, full of scenes and twists with more than a touch of dark comicality. with exception perhaps for the last chapter (which i think is a little bit weak, especially compared to the preceeding & so powerfully written ones), i've enjoyed most of the book immensely, and would gladly recommend this richly original novel.
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on November 13, 2001
Jonathan Lethem uses the English language with such adroitness, you will not only read his books, you will live them. "Motherless Brooklyn" is a clever, comical romp with some of the quirkiest characters I've come across in a long time. (If you liked John Kennedy Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces", you'll enjoy this one too)
The Tourette's stricken protagonist, the endearing Lionel, is portrayed with such realism that you wonder if Mr. Lethem himself may be obsessive/compulsive to some extent. Lionel's overwhelming need to repeat sounds and touch everything within reach was not only entertaining but educational. I felt true compassion for his his affliction, and a better understanding of those who suffer from it...although I guiltily admit it was hysterical at times! But this was Lethem's objective, and he succeeded well enough to have me laughing alound at least once per chapter. I gave it only 4 stars, because it was slow reading at times..but perhaps that was because I reread some of the more eloquent descriptions of the mundane.
Thoroughly entertaining. Well written. A must read! Now, on to the next "Lethem"...
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on July 9, 2001
i was drawn to this book primarily because i like a good mystery. but i'll remember it for a long time because of the fascinating, hysterical and touching portrayal of Lionel Essrog, the private eye and Tourette's Syndrome sufferer at the center of this story. he's not one of those people who simply barks out obscenities all the time (he only does that occasionally). what's going on inside lionel's head is altogether more complex. when people speak to him their words bounce around inside his skull, metamorphising and reforming into new phrases which emit from his lips ten to the dozen. it would seem like the ultimate form of creativity, were it not for the fact that there's not a thing lionel can do to stop it. his affliction extends beyond words too - he is endlessly needled by the urge to touch things (like people's shoulders) a certain number of times. it all sounds a bit weird and made up, but in the hands of this author and in the words of lionel essrog, it's just everyday brooklyn life. jonathan lethem has done an amazing job here. he puts us inside the kind of mind few people even know exists. and then through the color and supreme naturalness of his writing allows us to not only feel what lionel feels, but actually understand how a mind like his works (or at least think we do). as a mystery, motherless brooklyn is okay, but the ending is disappointing. as an insight into the tourettic mind it's absolutely brilliant.
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on May 9, 2001
Jonathan Lethem's previous novels have always incorporated very strange elements. Whether it's a genetically-enhanced kangaroo as a villain, or a singularity as one corner of a love triangle, Lethem doesn't shirk at incorporating the weird into his stories.
In Motherless Brooklyn, however, the only unusual aspect to the story is that the protagonist has Tourette's Syndrome. Lethem infuses the narrative with Lionel's tics and verbal outbursts, but the story's premise - a murder mystery - is somewhat more mundane than his previous novels.
I'm not a big fan of murder mysteries, but I was captivated by this novel. What held my interest was Lethem's writing. His use of language, his sense of pacing, and the voice of his protagonist made this book a pleasure to read. And Lethem's portrayal of Lionel was masterful. As the story unfolds, we come to understand how Tourette's works, a little - at least, how it seems to work for Lionel.
But while Lionel's Tourette's was a large part of the story, Lethem didn't let it become the story. There are questions, and Lionel looks for answers. There is danger, and Lionel tries to face it or avoid it. There is humour, too - and rarely at Lionel's expense.
If you've enjoyed Lethem's previous novels, I'd recommend this one without reservation. I think it's his best so far. If you haven't read a Lethem novel, try this one - even if you're not a mystery fan. I'm not, and I loved it.
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on January 1, 2001
This is an usual book, well worth reading, very innovative, and lots of fun. The story concerns Lionel Essrog, an orphan taken in by a low-level Mafia type. Essrog suffers from Tourett's disease, which causes him to have verbal tics and engage in compulsive behavior. The Mafia guy, a father figure, employs Essrog and his orphan buddies as private eyes, but when the Mafia guy is killed, Essrog takes on his first serious case: finding who murdered his best friend.
So far, so good. We have a classic genre opening, and a fine literary twist. A P.I. with Tourett's may seem absurd, and I found it a bit over-the-top when I started reading, but it actually makes more and more sense as the plot unfolds. And ultimately, the Tourett's element is the creative heart of this very entertaining novel and precisely what makes it so much fun. The bits that have nothing to do with the mystery plot (most notably Essrog's recollections of his childhood and early involvement with his Mafia patron) prove to be the most absorbing and moving sequences. The narrator's verbal tics are relentlessly clever, and quite frequently hilarious. As a literary novel, then, the book is entirely successful and a wonderful read.
It loses a star (really a half star, but Amazon doesn't allow for that nuance) for the mystery element, which I found undercooked. I never really cared who did it, and I never really cared about the mystery itself. What makes this book remarkable is the fact that I didn't especially care that I didn't care. The writing and characters, especially Essrog, were enough to keep me turning the pages.
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on December 7, 2000
This is the quintessential American detective novel and, therefore, reveals itself like an Odyssey epic. A pageant of life passes before the sleuth and the audience in dubious sounds, sights, and motives. Anyone who loved the oddball humor and pathos of the NBC drama "Homicide" will definitely feel at home in this tale of Lionel Essrog, a detective with Tourette's syndrome on the trail of a murderer.There's a gimmicky Raymond Chandler language at play in the novel. Detectives are referred to as the Minna Men, "tugging the boat" is pushing your luck, and "telling your story walking" is the preferred method of succinctly putting words to work.Dostoevsky's Idiot also resonates throughout the novel. The ridiculed simpleton is drawn into a world that deems him a lightweight . Nevertheless, he gains access and becomes the figure who knows the score better than its original players.Lethem's writing is crazy-grin-and-laugh-out-loud funny, unsentimentally poignant, and hugely rewarding. He gets maximum effect out of his central character, and there's nothing lost in the translation of Tourette's syndrome to the reader.
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on December 2, 2000
I was in awe reading this wonderful book. Lethem has captured the life of the Tourettic and somehow enmeshed it into a fine mystery and adventure.
When I first read about this book I thought I would be frustrated reading about a star with a handicap, that the hero woould be phony but brave, pitiful but admired...all that contradictory stuff that is used to glamorize a weakness. But Lethem made this character real. He is no martyr, just an everyday Tourettes guy going about his private detective business.
I actually learned a bunch about Tourettes and the inner feelings of its victims. I learned that they are frustrated as hell but they surge through life anyway. The story is much deeper though. It deals with heros, frustration, love and most of all how dependent some people can get on others.
Hero Lionel Essrog is an orphan who has been 'adopted' by a local small time crook. Lionel and some fellow orphans do some odd jobs for this guy and become way too attached to him. He becomes their father figure, their, hero, their role model. Lionel ends up showing he has more character than his role model ever had. Other characters just add to the enjoyment.
I had fun reading Motherless Brooklyn. How much you want to bet this book shows up on Oprah's list pretty soon. Just remember I said it first.
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