Three Thoughts on Motherless Brooklyn*

Motherless Brooklyn is a novel from 1999 by a writer named Jonathan Lethem. In the first pages of the novel a small-time Brooklyn gangster called Frank Minna comes to an unhappy end. The remainder of the novel occupies itself with the narrator’s predominantly Brooklyn-oriented attempt to understand who killed Frank Minna and why. The narrator is a now-adult orphan in Minna’s employ, which explains the title. The narrator also has Tourette’s syndrome, which explains almost everything else about the book.

1. Brooklyn (fragment)

My parents came to visit Brooklyn, and these things happened. First, in the afternoon, walking to Roberta’s, they noticed the razor wire strung in sloppy loops along a fenced-in vacancy on Wyckoff. A plastic bag, discarded long ago by windward litterers, had been blown onto the teeth of the wire and hung in wretched tatters from the cleating coils: a scarecrow perhaps, a promise for intruding flesh. Earlier in the afternoon, removing Spanish moss from a package they had sent me earlier this summer, we hung it–also sloppily–over the sycamore branches outside my apartment. At Roberta’s we drank beers in the garden, beside men with long red beards and rotund john lennon sunglasses; their dates either precisely second-hand or else precociously, mockingly assembled. We were taken to our table by a gorgeous girl kouros, with broad flat shoulders and everything symmetric, and ate pizza with just the edges burnt. On the walk home we stopped at a coffeeshop started two months ago by a 17-year veteran teacher with his record collection still in back, but also stopped to watch a flock of pigeons dwindling down to roost, circling red or brown or grey before a dusking sky.

A Hispanic boy left his game of handball, joined us eagerly. “What are you looking at?” he asked. “Pigeons,” we said. “Oh,” he said, already turning away from us, “I thought something was happening.” He returned to his game. Around us trick bicyclists, skateboarders, a scooter artiste with black headphones clutching from beneath his t-shirt. Not all were white, or black, or either. This evening, walking to the supermarket for a jar of sauce, I passed a row of storage units which have always in my memory been padlocked so opaquely that it never occurred to me they might have contents, so opaquely that I might have told you they were tombs of ancient kings of ridgewood, sealed and cursed by immigrant magi, contained stacks of golden deli sandwiches and tacos al pastor, gilt skateboards to be ridden in the afterlife. This evening, instead, one was open. It had been converted to the clubhouse someone always wanted as a kid, with a table sagging with food and loud Puerto Rican music playing to ruffle the flags, and a knot of happy men milling on the evening sidewalk.

All this without even investigating Williamsburg.

And so: if I wrote a novel about Brooklyn, if I put the name ‘Brooklyn’ in the title of my novel, what could I write about? Would I write of pigeons or of vintage stores, of ridgewood tombs or sex plays put on in apartments? Or rather about the feeling of Brooklyn, which is—all of this, for me, all of this and a sense of extraordinary rootlessness, perhaps exacerbated by the apparent and obvious roots of my surroundings. My landlord lives beneath me, his parents on the ground floor to our left, his daughter goes to school here. I moved in in August and will almost certainly move out again this coming August, having made a point of buying no furniture beyond a mattress. And yet—to most eyes they are immigrants, I a native, a White Man in America. About the feeling of Brooklyn, which is a sometimes choking loneliness and an other-times-appalling sense of gatheredness, sense of being-taken-in? Lethem, I think, would like me to conclude that Brooklyn itself—this modern, gentrifying Brooklyn I create perhaps especially—suffers or enacts tourette’s, associates relentlessly, involuntarily, and loudly between all disparate stimulus, is pressured to absolute imitative empathy with everything it sees from everywhere, must tap and touch and agitate, scream eatme.

In another life, a survey of our located literature, and of the pathetic parataxis even our best are driven to in their attempts to write a street, narrate a neighborhood, metonymize a borough. Proust comes closest for me, when he turns to it, on the Allee des Acaces or watching the steeple through the trees, but most of all when reminding us of how fleeting, how ephemeral it all was. Lethem’s Brooklyn, by irresponsible contrast, seems to be assembled from disdain for Brooklyn Heights, from the names of waitresses and gangsters, from stories of dropping out of school and mysterious errands occurring mysteriously, on loading docks or under bridges. Somewhere here, likely unintended by Lethem, a notion of Brooklyn as venue to a limitless decay. Manhattan is bounded by rivers or by Harlem; Brooklyn extends forever southeastwards, promises always to retain somewhere Serpico’s danger (shot on Driggs, would you believe?) or what Lethem narrates here as Essrog’s infected sprawl, becoming everywhere seedier and everywhere less knowable, descending here to warehouses and here to taxicabs, here penetrated by gentrification and here unassailable, still dangerous, still dark, still other. Brooklyn as Zeno’s shithole: for it to be known, for it to be gentrified or safened, would require first cleaning half of it, then cleaning another quarter, then an eighth—and the truth is that we love that ineradicable fragment, that quantum of danger which lurks here as it cannot in Manhattan.

But how to write about it? Lethem gives us an ecstatic history of loading docks and boys’ homes, numerous references to neighborhoods (greenpoint is polish, we learn), and a detailed examination of a single block in Essrog’s Brooklyn—boerum hill, a bar, a sandwich shop, stoops to sit on—I imagine overhead trains because I can but he may not have put them there. But one feels that, more than the fragments of place that inhabit the book, it’s Essrog himself that enacts Brooklyn: his Tourette’s, his life an arc from nowhere to nowhere, dignified only by the death of his employer, his precocious narration, his never-left-the-city. I don’t have much more to say on the topic right now. This will have to survive as a fragment until I read another Lethem novel. In conclusion, I guess: the Brooklyn of ‘Motherless’ seems cobbled together, seems to be a bricolage, seems to give the impression of Brooklyn without much meaning to it.

I don’t know what the better book sounds like; I don’t know what you could do in two hundred pages that would communicate this borough. To me Lethem’s attempt seems more fetishistic than effective. But then it’s bound to be a hard place to write about. In the last twenty years this may have become the most relentlessly chronicled borough in the history of mankind. So how are you supposed to write about it all? And how are you supposed to write about it now? Lethem writes in 1999, still looks back.

Suppose my real problem is with the tendency to write as though the only people with authority on a place are those who have been there forever. Walking down the street this afternoon I’d never have seen the plastic bag—took fresh, dilettantish eyes, eyes that would pause to take three pictures of the Palmetto street sign, to notice that. Want more of strangers’ Brooklyns. Want more pigeons wheeling in the sky, multicolored children taking turns to grind at the park. Want more mysteries, more ridgewood kings interred in storage units and trains elevated against barbarians, want noblemen of different houses lurching down the G to make their ancient war. Want Brooklyn as something other than a theatre of squalor.

2. Lethem’s Prose

There’s not a lot else here, really. The detective story is in no way original, and the non-Essrog characters are predominantly either mannequins imported from other noirs or New York stereotypes adapted somewhat clumsily to fit this stage. And yet: it works. This is pretty undeniably a good book. There would probably be a lot to say about Lethem’s specific staging of his clichés, but the basic reason you’re reading this is because he’s simply made himself into a pretty convincing prose writer. That’s not to say flawless: he doesn’t hold up extremely well in long reflective passages, which means that the first monologue of the book (Lionel Explains His Tourette’s) is almost unreadable. But the book does extremely well to hide his limitations and use his strengths. I guess the lesson is: make your material play to your strengths. Don’t write what you’re bad at writing and do write what you’re good at writing.

Lethem’s prose here has a certain rhythm. It begins a sentence with a long and often plain description, passes back over the same subject with another (more writerly) clause, shortens the clauses, terminates. Lionel encounters a thing and tells us how we’d see it, thinks of how he’d see it, makes connections, tics. The plastic bag catches on the razor wire in the spring wind, makes a perfectly disposable flag, fills and empties, tears itself, forewarns. Descending multicolon is the thing and it works well for most of the novel—lends itself to Lionel’s sudden verbal creativity and feels mimetic too, as though the mind is returning over and over again to a topic, touching in sets of obligated five, finally achieving synthesis, declaring.

Not too bad? Not too bad. Especially for visual descriptions it gives us a nice nested feeling, allows him to be both straight and elaborate, to fit individual words beside whole clauses. I wonder if it was a specific and intentional decision to write sentences like that or if it was just the way Jonathan Lethem wrote then. Sometimes there are brief interpolations in which Essrog reflects on features of everyday life (subways, conspiracy theories) and their relationship to Tourette’s, and you can tell that Tourette’s has been considered deeply. These are my favorite parts of the novel, and there’s precious few of them. What we get more of are Essrog’s partially-ecstatic visualizations of whatever, and (especially) the narration of Tourette’s, right down to the exhilarating portmanteaus. With the exception of the backstory bit (which is mostly done without the Tourette’s) he stays away from long interior stuff and keeps Lionel in constant contact with other characters and stimulus. This means that both the multicolon description machine and the Tourette-portmanteau machine are kept nicely oiled.

But the vision of prose fiction presented here is not particularly encouraging. In Lethem’s orphan Brooklyn, fiction is a story told a million times, something designed to thrill and not to challenge. And the prose? A series of jokes, told between the dialogue by a man who calls himself the freakshow. If we have an art, it makes the art into pathetic stand-up; if we have a calling it makes that calling nothing more than entertainment. I don’t think this is how Lethem himself feels, and I don’t think it’s what he’d advocate. But these are the principles of ‘Motherless Brooklyn’: a story is a chase and a narrator is desperate for affection.

All of that makes this a very strange book: simultaneously intimidating, depressing, and encouraging. Encouraging because it’s possible: a good enough prose writer can keep people interested in most anything, it seems. Intimidating because Lethem is a seriously good prose writer here and it’ll be a while before I’m on that level. Depressing, finally, because of how little the story has to do with anything, how little value it seems to be to our subconscious, how poor a job it will do inspiring us to bring up, in Joyce’s words, a race less ignoble than our own. I can’t see much reason to be in the game if you aren’t, and so I read Motherless, respect it, enjoy it even—but do not wish to make it.

3. Come on

I think I never want to read another work of fiction in which violence is habitually perpetrated or threatened by immense men from eastern Europe. It simply isn’t very imaginative.

*switching to novel titles because I don’t think you can think as consciously about a writer on the basis of one novel as you can on the basis of one book of shorts, and because I’m not currently planning to go out and read the rest of Lethem, though it’d probably be wise—this is the beginning of a kind of survey of contemporary fiction which I hope will teach me something valuable.

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