Sunday, November 29, 2009

EATMEBAILEY: Reading Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn

As you may notice is kind of the theme around here, I like to read and talk books. I have no mission statement. But if there were one (and perhaps one day, who knows?) it would undoubtedly include some proviso on the reading/talking books subject, mandating their inclusion in affairs here or whatever it is exactly that provisos can establish. In other words, books are an important part of what we do, and I encourage you to feel the same.

With that said, I read another book: Jonathan Lethem's 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award winner, "Motherless Brooklyn." Amazingly, a decade later it's still good! But before I get to effusive praising criticism let me say I've enjoyed a few different non-traditional detective novels this year including "Inherent Vice" by Thomas Pynchon, "The New York Trilogy" by Paul Auster (which and whom I write more than a little of in the preceding blog post) and "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" by Michael Chabon -- and "Motherless Brooklyn" features a protagonist more sympathetic and idiosyncratic than any of those listed. His name is Lionel Essrog, and his surname is as garbled as his Tourettic speech, an affliction he suffers that I initially considered a potential insensitivity risk, just by its very nature, but ultimately I decided Lethem employs Essrog's tics with an even balance of tact and humor.

In fact, while there were moments when Essrog's tics got a little distracting -- no doubt Lethem's intent, but distracting nonetheless -- overall I found their placement extremely funny and also perfectly suiting the frenzied circumstances in which he found himself -- specifically all that happened after the murder of his boss and mentor, Frank Minna, owner of L&L Car Service, which Essrog explains is not actually a car service but a front for a detective agency. Believing himself to be a true and capable detective, Essrog thus begins his quest to find the killer, repeating compulsive expletives like "eatmebailey!" ("Bailey" the non-existent object of his tic's ire, he explains), while being largely suffered by those aware of his condition and inspiring a wide variety of reactions from those who are not.

The story could be strictly a comedy if it were harder to like and sympathize with Essrog, i.e., if Lethem were more callous with him and made him a bumbling jester to be laughed at and, perhaps, ridiculed. (I know it's unlikely he'd do this with a character diagnosed with Tourette's, but you could circumvent the issue fairly easily by establishing instead that Essrog was merely eccentric and not actually disabled.) But because he is instead so well-developed and so evidently desirous of respect and someone who recognizes his flaws but can look past them, you begin to understand what motivates the character. One particularly telling sequence occurs during a conversation between Essrog and Kimmery, a woman he becomes infatuated with. The conversation is regarding Essrog's ceaseless pursuit of the killer in the immediate aftermath of Frank's murder, to wit:
She sighed. "I don't know, Lionel. It's just, I'm not really sure about this investigation. It seems like you're running around a lot trying to keep from feeling sad or guilty or whatever about this guy Frank."

"I want to catch the killer."

"Can't you hear yourself? That's like something O. J. Simpson would say. Regular people, when someone they know gets killed or something they don't go around trying to catch the killer. They go to a funeral."

"I'm a detective, Kimmery." I almost said, I'm a telephone.
And while Lionel Essrog as a character study is really fun and fascinating, the detective narrative he's inserted into leaves something to be desired, I think. It does not come off as standard boilerplate, and without revealing more than I should to anyone who might want to read it (although I suppose a Spoiler Alert! might be apt from here onward), I can say I was less than blown away by how the various plot threads tied together. Happily, they did tie together, there were no massive plot holes (always a plus). Still, and perhaps because the story is meant to center on Essrog and his growing awareness of the various ways he's been kept in the dark and used by Frank Minna, there are no big climactical revelations -- things just seem to become slowly and seamlessly apparent, in a manner suggesting Essrog always somehow knew this was the case. But when the veil of illusion slowly glides away and it's clear everything Essrog assumed to be true isn't, he accepts his new reality and continues living just like any other person would.

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