Jonathan Lethem‘s, Motherless Brooklyn, is a novel full of obsessions and constrictions. The narrator, Lionel Essrog, suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome, which goes undiagnosed until his teenage years in an orphanage. Language and movement are rituals for Lionel. He has tics that recur, names that haunt him of people he’s never met. There’s an urge, an almost impossible desire to touch shoulders, to straighten objects, to find order that exists momentarily for Lionel. Not only is Lionel hemmed in by Tourette’s, but also by his upbringing and the city.
The novel mainly takes place in Brooklyn with forays into other parts of New York City. For Lionel, his world exists within these confines. Caught between his place in the city, or his fear to venture outside of the city, and his paternal love for his employer, Frank Minna, place and relationships overlap with his Tourette’s. What can Lionel control? That question runs throughout the novel as he seeks a killer and tries to unravel the mystery of how Frank Minna died.
Frank Minna is the sun around which a cast of characters, including Lionel, revolve. A small-time crook in Brooklyn, he co-opts Lionel and three other orphans at the age of fourteen to provide manual labor for low-risk, illegal jobs. That word, co-opt, fits far better than adopt. Frank is not a parent. He fills a need for the boys, but also manipulates and uses them. Frank is a role model for them, but what are they learning? How to be a crook? How to feign love? How to move through the world as if different rules apply to you? The boys become young men and work for Frank under the guise of detectives and chauffeurs. With the novel settled into Lionel’s point-of-view, we see the world as Lionel would like it to be.
But what happens to that world when Frank Minna is no longer part of it? Early on, Frank is killed. With the absence of Frank in Lionel’s life, Lionel is also pursuing the question of who he is without Frank, as well as Frank’s killer.
Playful and moody, Motherless Brooklyn is a fast-paced read that will have you murmuring eatmeBailey, while words rhyme in your head.