catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 6 :: 2004.03.12 — 2004.03.25


Lionel's search

You will never, I expect, run across Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn in a Christian bookstore. It is a gritty detective novel strewn with rough language and violence. There are a couple of scenes involving extramarital sex. Furthermore, the main character is not a Christian and does not find redemption through God in the end. And yet, there is a part of this book that resonates within me as true, almost on an allegorical level.

The plot is pretty much detective novel standard. Lionel Essrog is a small-time private detective in Brooklyn. When he is unable to prevent his boss from being murdered, he sets out to find the killer and get revenge. That, however, is where the similarities to a typical detective novel end. First of all, Lionel has Tourette?s Syndrome, the neurological disorder which causes him to have physical tics and to shout out words, puns, and sometimes vulgarities. Secondly, his boss, Frank Minna, saved Lionel from wasting away in an orphanage, and though Frank isn?t his legal father, Lionel seems to look to Frank to fill that role. Finally, after Frank dies, Lionel begins to realize that the work he does for Frank?s detective agency isn?t quite as legitimate as he had thought.

I could tell you that what is wonderful about this book is the style, the way Lethem weaves Lionel’s tourettic impulses into everything in the novel. I could tell you that Lionel’s first person voice is a joy to read and that the novel is suitably paced. But those weren’t the reasons I loved it.

The problem here is that I am afraid that if I try to put to words what I did love about this book, that very thing I love about it will vanish like Lionel’s illusions about his job. I’ll try to convey it, but I am warning you, it might simplify or trivialize the nature of the book such that you not only won’t read it, but if you did, it might not be the same. If you suspect you might be better off stopping reading this review right now, and buying and reading the book, because you think you know exactly what I am talking about, I encourage you to do that. Because, you understand, what I am about to attempt might not work.

Lionel calls himself a freakshow. He realizes that his Tourette’s sets him apart from the rest of the world, makes normal communication nearly impossible, and, in some ways, perhaps makes him unworthy of any sort of life. Frank Minna enters his broken world and offers him a kind of salvation: employment, purpose, and a kind of respect (though it tends more toward mockery sometimes). When Minna dies, Lionel starts seeking the truth. As he works through his own brokenness to peel back the layers of truth, and as his situation becomes more dangerous and more desperate, there is a hope that grows in Lionel. In the end, he doesn’t join the church, or sacrifice himself for someone else, or discover God’s plan for his life, but Lionel does break free from a lot of the illusion that he has surrounded himself (and we have surrounded ourselves) with. That hope in the end, though it doesn’t solve everything, does seem to be worthwhile.

See, I knew that wouldn’t work. Look, Motherless Brooklyn. Read it. Maybe I am a freakshow for thinking there is more to it than there is. But maybe you are a freakshow too, and even though we know who the Creator is and know that he died for us, we still are shuffling though our tourettic lives searching for more truth and more hope.

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