Friday, February 11, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: Jonathan Lethem's MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN

Context is everything. Dress me up and see. I’m a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster. I’ve got Tourette’s.

My mouth won’t quit, though mostly I whisper or subvocalize like I’m reading aloud, my Adam’s apple bobbing, jaw muscle beating like a miniature heart under my cheek, the noise suppressed, the words escaping silently, mere ghosts of themselves, husks empty of breath and tone.

(If I were a Dick Tracy villain, I’d have to be Mumbles.)

In this diminished form the words rush out of the cornucopia of my brain to course over the surface of the world, tickling reality like fingers on piano keys. Caressing, nudging. They’re 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 in 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 an ark.

No Jonathan Lethem book is yet forgotten.  His books have earned him an ardent cult of fans, and indeed many mainstream readers consider him a cult novelist.  But Motherless Brooklyn, his murder mystery from which the opening appears above, is one that deserves a much wider appreciation.

It was first published in October, 1999, and the blurbs on the back call him promising,  "one of the most original voices among younger American novelists."  The black-and-white dustjacket, credited to Amy C. King, shows the blurry figure of a man walking down the road, the words MOTHERLESS and BROOKLYN at right angles like the street sign at a crossroads.

On the title page, the font looks temporary, parts of it have vanished.  Under the title are nine winding dots, like stones on a path.  These dots are reproduced on the cloth spine of the first edition, though not on the dustjacket.

The protagonist, Lionel Essrog, has Tourette's syndrome.  His mind floods with words and he compulsively mumbles them under his breath, or sometimes barks them intermittently, or sometimes shouts them out.  His brain malfunctions in this way, and he can't control it.  Potential readers who find this off-putting and turn away are missing out on Lethem's playful language and marvelous humor inside a genre-loving murder mystery. 

For in his dreams and in his written voice, Lionel is free of his compulsions and very witty, very insightful.  People are always underestimating him, calling him a freak, but he is not so different than any of them.  In the first chapter, he muses about the character, George Bailey, in It's A Wonderful Life, as being an everyman.  Then Ullman is introduced--as a shadow character, yes, but on another level as the concept of all men, everyman.

Lionel's nervous tics are more pronounced, often extremely so, but he too is representative of everyman.  The restlessness of western man is to be seen and heard everywhere, in a flood of words.  The constant background chatter-thoughts of the undisciplined mind, the monkey mind, is an excitable trickster.  It prevents us from seeing clearly.

The oldest and most famous traditional Chinese novel addresses this.  Monkey: A Journey To The West is a parable involving a monkey, representing the the modern mind.  The monkey is always accompanied by a pig, representing the animal nature of man, always present.

It is a monkey mind culture, as we are reminded everyday in the choice of news in an average newscast, told to an everyman taking in soundbites and constantly flipping channels with his remote, while someone else gabs into his phone on one ear.

In this quest parable, which is often published in three volumes, the chattering monkey mind is always getting himself into trouble.  He was the orchard keeper of the gods--something that might have inspired Cormac McCarthy's title--and, as in Genesis, he eats the forbidden fruit.  He gathers knowledge, including the knowledge of his own temporary existence, and a subsequent fear of death.
In the parable, the monkey mind evolves into a buddhist, learning to control his wayward thoughts.  And that is one of Lionel's quests in Motherless Brooklyn:  he longs for self-control.  Another quest is to see Ullman, who never quite comes into view.

I've heard some people complain that they did not like the ending, but I think that these were young readers still in the grip of that possessive blood lust that passes for love in this country.  Obsession is not love--if it were, stalkers would have it.  No, true love is that which is always willing to let go for the sake of those we love.  

I'm not going to spoil the murder mystery for you.  You'll have to find that out for yourself.  But I will tell you that Lionel gets better in the course of the novel, by working on himself and becoming more aware and compassionate of those around him.  For me, it is a feel-good-ending.

We might all be better off if we all learned how to calm our monkey minds.
This is a tag-along to Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Book series.  Participating blogs offering forgotten books include:
Paul Bishop
Paul Brazill
Bill Crider
Scott Cupp
Martin Edwards
Cullen Gallagher
Jerry House
Randy Johnson
George Kelley
K.A. Laity
B.V. Lawson
Evan Lewis
Steve Lewis/Tina Karelson
Todd Mason
Kevin McCarthy
Eric Peterson
David Rachels
James Reasoner
Ron Scheer
Kerrie Smith
Kevin Tipple

1 comment:

  1. Sure to be a classic for a long time to come. Original, well-written, timeless.