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Motherless Brooklyn ()

National Book Critics' Circle Award

parody 1. a. A literary or artistic work that imitates the characteristic style of an author or a work for comic effect or ridicule.

If, as the old adage has it, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and parody is based on imitation for comic effect, then there's an obvious tension and a pretty high standard inherent in the form. The imitation aspect makes parody fairly easy, bad parody at any rate, but for it to be really good it has to measure up to the instances of the genre that make it worthy of flattery. If the parody fails to measure up, rather than deflating the pretensions of its target it instead ends up demonstrating why that target is so esteemed.

With the possible exceptions of the Western and blues and jazz, no American contribution to the arts has been more worthy than the private eye novel. Predictably then, no literary form has been more often parodied. But the track record of those parodies is pretty abysmal. The worst--like The Black Bird--are excruciating. The best--like The Late Show--eventually stop playing for laughs and take the mystery seriously. And, in perhaps the most unfortunate example, Steve Martin and Carl Reiner's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, the reasonably funny gimmick of intercutting footage from great noir films ended up reminding us of how much better those classics were than the film we were watching.

All of this is by way of overlong introduction to Jonathan Lethem's private eye parody, Motherless Brooklyn. The main twist that he gives to his tale is to give his detective, Lionel "Freakshow" Essrog, Tourette's Syndrome. This makes the characters verbal pyrotechnics, compulsions about counting and touching things and other tics practically the focus of the book. The mystery, such as it is, concerns Lionel's investigation into the murder of Frank Minna, a Brooklyn tough guy who hired several boys, including Lionel, from St. Vincent's Home for Boys, for a variety of odd jobs at first, then employed them full time in a livery service/detective agency/errand service, and became the closest thing to a father they had. As he looks into the crime Lionel runs into femme fatales, threatening cops, a gigantic goon, and intimidating mobsters as the genre requires. But the mystery is rather desultory and eventually tails off into a kind of non-resolution that's pretty annoying (if he didn't care enough about the plot to pace it and end it, why should we care?).

As I was reading, I was reminded of Thomas Berger, the fine novelist who wrote a series of genre send-ups, including two that are excellent -- Arthur Rex, a tale of Camelot, and the Western Little Big Man -- but then stumbled badly when he turned his hand to the private eye novel, with Who Is Teddy Villanova?. Mr. Berger too made the mistake of thinking that just piling up the conventions of the genre would add up to a mystery. When it didn't the book dragged inexcusably. After all, even the worst of the dime store detective yarns at least moved quickly and read fast. It's no surprise then to find that Mr. Lethem is a fan of Mr. Berger, and much is explained when he refers to Teddy Villanova as a "loving genre demolition". Demolition? It proved itself unequal to the genre, and so too does Motherless Brooklyn.

Part of the problem is that he doesn't appear to appreciate the form he's imitating:
Critics have described Mr. Lethem as something of a genre bender, a writer taking the conventions of hard-boiled detective novels, westerns and science fiction and stitching them together with a stylized, acrobatic prose. Mr. Lethem sees it a bit differently.

"I've never much related to the idea of science fiction, or crime writing or any of the other fixed genres people occasionally wish to fit me into - they don't seem to me to describe what I'm up to," Mr. Lethem wrote in an e-mail message, preferring to describe his work as "something more like mixing 2-D pop culture elements into 3-D mimetic fiction; surrealism is another word, I suppose."
    -PROFILE: Untangling the Knots of a Brooklyn Boyhood (DIANE CARDWELL, September 16, 2003, NY Times)
Whatever that means. The awkwardness of considering himself somehow above the genre but still trying to write within it is revealed in passages like this one, after Lionel has been beaten senseless:
So many detectives have been knocked out and fallen into such strange swirling darknesses, such manifold surrealist voids ("something red wriggled like a germ under a microscope--Philip Marlowe, The Big Sleep), and yet I have nothing to contribute to this painful tradition. Instead...
There had to be an "Instead" didn't there? And it's quickly followed by an "Except for..." If Mr. Lethem really has nothing to contribute, why not just not mention it or, better yet, why not write a story where the detective, for once, doesn't get knocked unconscious? That's really be a step--even if a small one--towards demolishing the genre. But, of course, that brings us back to the odd fact that the parodist is bound by the rules of the object of his parody.

Meanwhile, in another interview he seems to suggest that the mystery was merely a vehicle for his Tourette's shtick:
"I came across Tourette's the way anyone might," says the 35-year-old Lethem, "by reading about it in Oliver Sacks. The germ of inspiration, that really freeing sense that this was an image of human life that I could inhabit, turn inside out and make my own, was right there in Sacks's essay." Lethem's interest in the condition was based not only on a psychological fascination - "it hovered in my mind as a metaphor for that aspect of human existence that is helpless, compulsive, twitchy" - but on a keen sense of its literary potential. "I've always had an element of Joycean wordplay in my books, some characters who were in charge of the babbling or frothing at the mouth. I began to wonder what I was getting at, and what I was avoiding by keeping that on such a tight rein. Tourette's gave me the opportunity to put the wordplay and the free association front and centre."
    -REVIEW: of Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem (Brian Logan, The Guardian)
Never might the insult to the people who have the illness of imagining that Tourette's is "freeing" and that anyone can make it their own who doesn't suffer from it, the real question is: who needs Joycean wordplay? And if there's anyone--besides literature grad students--who still reads Joyce, do they really want their Joyceanism to be so contrived as to require the speaker to have Tourette's? Doesn't the biological necessity that drives such a speaker sort of remove the "play"?

Anyhow.... The book, despite all those reservations, is not terrible. At times it's even amusing--after all, you get to laugh at the "freak", right? Such misanthropy lies at the heart of most great humor. But if Mr. Lethem has some broader "3-D mimetic" point he's trying to make, it went way the heck over my 1-D head.


Grade: (C)


Jonathan Lethem Links:

    -SHORT STORY: The Crooked House (Jonathan Lethem, March 1, 2021, The New Yorker)
    -BOOK SITE: Fortress of Solitude (Random House)
    -Lethem in Landscape
    -INTERVIEW: Jonathan Lethem on Robert Heinlein and Other Influences Cressida Leyshon, 3/01/21, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Why Shirley Jackson is a Reader’s Writer: On the Brilliance of We Have Always Lived in the Castle and the Intimacy of Everyday Evil (Jonathan Lethem, February 24, 2021, Lit Hub)
    -ESSAY: Uncertainty Principle: Berger's Ambivalent Usurpations (Jonathan Lethem, May 2003, Voice Literary Supplement)
    -ESSAY: Russell Greenan's Genius: The return of It Happened in Boston? (Jonathan Lethem, 5/30/03, LA Weekly)
    -TRIBUTE : Wanting to be Joey Ramone (Jonathan Lethem, 4/20/03, NY Times)
    -TRIBUTE: to Amanda Davis (Jonathan Lethem, McSweeney's)
    -STORY : Glasses (Jonathan Lethem, Voice Literary Supplement)
    -REVIEW: of Glue by Irvine Welsh (Jonathan Lethem, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of DESPAIR And Other Stories By Andre Alexis (Jonathan Lethem, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of TOUGH, TOUGH TOYS FOR TOUGH, TOUGH BOYS By Will Self (Jonathan Lethem, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of New York Characters, by Gillian Zoe Segal (Jonathan Lethem, NY Observer)
    -REVIEW : of Spider-Man directed by Sam Raimi (Jonathan Lethem, London Review of Books)
    -DVD REVIEW: The Killers (Jonathan Lethem, Criterion Collection)
    -PROFILE: Untangling the Knots of a Brooklyn Boyhood (DIANE CARDWELL, September 16, 2003, NY Times)
    -PROFILE: Under the influence of Philip K Dick (August 3, 2002, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY:Remains of the Day The Times takes a closer look at the gentrification of Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, with the help of Jonathan Lethem, who explores the past of the neighborhood in his new novel, "The Fortress of Solitude." (NY Times, 10/13/03)
    -BOOK CLUB: Fortress of Solitude (Slate)
    -INTERVIEW : RE: Jonathan Lethem : Andrew Weiner talks to the award-winning novelist about his new anthology on amnesia, fiction as false memory, and the necessary art of forgetting. (FEED)
    -REVIEW: of Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem (Alberto Mobilio, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem (Brian Logan, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Motherless Brooklyn (Luc Sante, Voice Literary Supplement)
    -REVIEW : of Gun, with Occasional Music (Phil Daoust, Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem (Will Hobson, The Observer)
    -REVIEW : of As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem (Geoff Nicholson, Independent uk)
    -REVIEW : of As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem (C.K. Hubbuch, Hungry Minds)
    -REVIEW : of As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lathem (Scotland Online)
    -REVIEW : of Girl in Landscape by Jonathan Lethem (Gerald Jonas, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Girl in Landscape by Jonathan Lethem (Andy Solomon, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of This Shape We're In by Jonathan Lethem (Judith Shulevitz, NY Times)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem (Reviews of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem (A. O. Scott, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem (Adrienne Miller, Esquire)
    -REVIEW: of The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem (James Wood, New Republic) -REVIEW: of The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem (Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of Fortress of Solitude (Brendan Bernhard, LA Weekly)

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