When Lionel Essrogg's longtime mentor, Minna Frank is murdered, Lionel must turn detective, and find the killer—without letting his Tourette's get in the way. As Lionel untangles the complex, shadowy web of relationships, threats, and favors that make up the Brooklyn world he thought he knew so well, he finds that no one is who they seem.
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.