Author Jonathan Lethem...has created, from what sounds like a ludicrous gimmick, one of fiction's most memorable narrators. Through Lionel - nickname Freakshow - he explores the relationship between what makes us tic and what makes us tick ... The results are playfully poetic. It's as if Benjy from Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury had escaped on to the pages of Raymond Chandler ... Lethem found it natural to place his obsessively twitchy protagonist within a crime-novel plot...The effect is gleefully absurd, even if the formulaic gumshoe plot pales next to the twinkle-toed narrative footwork ... At points, Lethem's conception of Lionel's syndrome is brilliantly vivid ... In Motherless Brooklyn, Tourette's is a microcosm of the human condition. Lionel describes it as something outside himself, like an invisible friend. It reminds us of the duality of human consciousness, how we all make war with our own gibbering interior monologues, because the brain has a mind, if you will, of its own.
Lethem's actual plot is hardly crackerjack detective material; the slow pacing and predictable turn of events...reveal the genre model to be a convenient rack on which to hang his off-kilter humor and dead-on observations ... It's in such parodies of detective novel set pieces that Lethem signals his fondness for the genre along with a prickly ambivalence. Clearly, he's a fan, but one who recognizes its weariness ... To meet the expectations predicated by the hard-boiled format, a writer must hit the right notes -- bloody crimes, tense interrogations, blind alleys -- and do so with snap, crackle and pop. Yet in the other novel Lethem wants to write -- an ambling Bildungsroman that meditates on language, neurology and the chemistry of perception -- those notes are really just background music ... In Motherless Brooklyn solving the crime is beside the point. If you're a mystery maven, this might bother you. Instead, this is a novel about the mysteries of consciousness ... Unlike the stock detective novel it shadows, the thriller in which clarity emerges on the final page, Motherless Brooklyn immerses us in the mind's dense thicket, a place where words split and twine in an ever-deepening tangle.
Jonathan Lethem should be commended...for coming up with a character as intriguing as Lionel Essrog, a detective suffering from a severe case of obsessive-compulsive Tourette Syndrome ... Since the sleuthing is the least interesting element of Motherless Brooklyn, it’s fortunate that Essrog is such a fascinating presence: His plight is both funny and sad as he stumbles toward a relatively clumsy conclusion that necessitates about 12 straight pages of explanation. Everyone else in the story seems to think Essrog is either stupid or insane—the reader is almost exclusively privy to his street smarts and intelligence—and Lethem’s virtuoso handling of his protagonist’s tics doesn’t hurt ... Essrog’s dialogue is constantly kaleidoscoping, a combination of word games, anagrams, and sheer gibberish with a rhythm all its own. Lethem conveniently sets up a sequel, and Motherless Brooklyn deserves it.
...as in his earlier novels...Lethem harnesses the engine of a familiar genre to transport us to a territory uniquely his own. It comes as no surprise that he uses Tourette's as an excuse for some heady verbal pyrotechnics ... More unexpected is the sympathetic warmth he brings to the characterization of Lionel. Motherless Brooklyn has a few problems -- including some cartoonlike stock characters and one scene near the end that flirts with maudlin sentimentality -- but it works far better than the average hip postmodern novel in terms of sheer emotional impact. Because Lethem never lets the metaphorical and linguistic possibilities of his narrator's illness overshadow his immensely appealing humanity, we really care about Lionel and his search for his mentor's killer ... Readers looking for one of Don DeLillo's or Thomas Pynchon's grand metaphysical conspiracies may be disappointed. But really, Lethem is too inventive a writer to produce just another literature-of-paranoia knockoff, with Tourette's as its central trope ... Instead, he's given us something that is at once less derivative and more traditional: a detective story that transcends its pulp roots not by adopting high-art pretensions but by bringing to the genre an originality and an idiosyncratic sympathy that few other writers could muster.
Though intrigue and suspense are powerful ingredients in this fascinating novel, the real pull is its locale. Lethem's ear for street-level vernacular and his eye for gritty urban detail lend color to this imaginative portrait of Brooklyn, its history and its people. As Lionel slowly works his way through this challenging case, this inventive novel offers up a complicated vision of a place alive with mystery and crime.
Lethem's title suggests a dense urban panorama, but this novel is more cartoonish and less startlingly original than his last. Lethem's sixth sense for the secret enchantments of language and the psyche nevertheless make this heady adventure well worth the ride.
Lethem’s latest novel is a seriocomic takeoff on the genre that breaks down barriers by getting inside Lionel’s head. It also tosses Zen Buddhism and the Mafia into the mix, treating both with a serious irreverence that other writers often shy away from ... Lionel’s description of the investigation--complete with Tourette tics and observations--is a tour de force of language. The descriptions of the buildups to the tics are masterful, and the tics themselves, especially the verbal ones, are in the best tradition of the Zen non sequitur--thus neatly, and securely, tying the narrative and the plot. But the interesting thing is the subtle way in which the verbal outbursts work upon the reader: at first you are stunned, but in time, as with his colleagues, Lionel’s strange behavior and outbursts merely extend the boundary of normal behavior.
A brilliantly imagined riff on the classic detective tale ... a delirious yarn ... hilariously enhanced by Lionel’s 'verbal Tourette’s flowering'—a barrage of sheer rhetorical invention that has tour de force written all over it; it’s an amazing stunt, and, just when you think the well is running dry, Lethem keeps on topping himself. Another terrific entertainment from Lethem, one of contemporary fiction’s most inspired risk-takers. Don’t miss this one.