Friday, March 12, 2010

Brooklyn Has Character

If you've studied literature, you know that narratives haven't always been populated with fully rounded people. For quite a long time, writers filled their works with flat characters either due to their relative unimportance in the plot or to emphasize universal qualities or out of some allegorical or archetypal impulse. But in the past century or two, the proverbial pendulum has swung the other way, and complex, realistic characters have become badges of authorial excellence. And if you can make them grotesque or bizarre and still remain that verisimilitude, well, let the kudos rain down. That's just what Jonathan Lethem has done in Motherless Brooklyn, a murder mystery with one of the oddest and best-realized detectives you've ever encountered.

See, ever since he was a child at St. Vincent's Home for Boys in Brooklyn, Lionel Essrog has had this problem, like he'll get something into his head, an odd phrase—loud maze! found days! pound haze!—and he'll have to riff on it for a while, or maybe a number, like six, let's pick six, and he'll have to do everything six times, like straighten your lapels or tap you on the shoulder or maybe kiss you, and Lionel can't help it, because he has Tourette's, it's a disorder, a compulsion to do all those things and maybe throw in the occasional—eatmebailey!—obscenity from time to time, but Lionel has a new compulsion, because he's a Minna Man, an associate of Frank Minna, small-time fence and only father figure Lionel has ever had, except Minna just got himself stabbed repeatedly in the gut and tossed in a dumpster, and Lionel doesn't know why, but he knows he can't stop until he finds the person responsible for his death.

Though Motherless Brooklyn is ostensibly crime fiction, it goes a little light on the "crime" part. Yes, there's murder, an investigation, arrests, high-speed chases, a ruthless Japanese syndicate, a brutal pistol whipping, a pair of aging Mafiosi and tense stand offs over leveled weapons. But these compose only about one-half of the running time. The rest gets dedicated to developing Lionel, which would normally disappoint a genre lover such as myself. But Lethem carries it off with such skill that I have a difficult time offering anything but admiration. Lionel could've remained a joke, a one-note gag, an invention better suited for sitcoms than a full-length novel. In Lethem's hands, though, he moves from humorous to poignant and surprisingly intelligent. The piling on of personal detail does get a bit much at times. (Did I really need to know about the odd shape of Lionel's genitalia? I think not.) Still, the overall effect is impressive. This Brooklyn has got character.

(Picture: CC 2009 by
kaneda99; Hat Tip: B. Nagel)


Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, I'd like to see characters who are grotesque, maybe complex and exaggerations of the realistic. Sounds like this could fit the bill.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

B. Nagel said...

What a breathless second paragraph, er, sentence.

I'm glad it turned out well. I'm going to see if I can't locate a copy up here.

Loren Eaton said...

I thought about emailing you this one, Peter, but the characters never make it out of the U.S. I wasn't sure it would fit well on DBB.

Loren Eaton said...

B., I was trying (very amateurishly) to imitate some of Lethem's style. He's, like, loads better. I think you'd enjoy it. Here's part of the first paragraph:

[The words in my head are] an invisible army on a peacekeeping mission, a peaceable horde. They mean no harm. They placate, interpret, massage. Everywhere they're smoothing down imperfections, putting hairs in place, putting ducks in a row, replacing divots. Counting and polishing the silver. Patting old ladies gently on the behind, eliciting a giggle. Only -- here's the rub -- when they find too much perfection, when the surface is already buffed smooth, the ducks already orderly, the old ladies complacent, then my little army rebels, breaks into the stores. Reality needs a prick here and there, the carpet needs a flaw. My words begin plucking at threads nervously, seeking purchase, a weak point, a vulnerable ear. That's when it comes, the urge to shout in the church, the nursery, the crowded movie house. It's an itch at first. Inconsequential. But that itch is soon a torrent behind a straining dam. Noah's flood. That itch is my whole life. Here it comes now. Cover your ears. Build yourself an ark.

dolorah said...

Sound like an awesome book. I'll have to put it on my TBR list.


Loren Eaton said...

It's great at what it does well, namely Lionel's character. They mystery is a little meh, but still entertaining.