Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday). Cloth, $23.95.
ALFRED HITCHCOCK COINED the term "McGuffin" to describe the genre-driven plot elements he used to distract viewers from the deeper, often more insidious, ideologies running rampant in his twisted visions. For example, the Nazis-hiding-uranium-in-wine-bottles plot of Notorious was merely a front for Hitch's exploration of the sadomasochistic nature of heterosexual union, glamorously enacted by Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. Author Jonathan Lethem has obviously perfected the transference of the McGuffin to the world of contemporary literature, as he proves in his new fictional work, Motherless Brooklyn.
Over the course of several novels, Lethem has become one of our most fascinating young revisionist writers, capable of a seemingly effortless, genre-splicing alchemy. Never tackling the same literary genre twice, Lethem thrills because he cannot be classified. Whether fusing quantum physics with modern romance and Lewis Carroll (in As She Climbed Across the Table), or melding a female coming of age story with John Ford's classic Western film The Searchers, and setting it on a distant planet (in Girl in Landscape), Lethem takes startling chances that shouldn't work, but do.
In Brooklyn, he turns his radar to the hard-boiled detective novel, and manages to create a conventionally satisfying thriller while simultaneously transcending the well-worn genre by adhering closely to its conventions, then twisting them into strange new shapes. Ostensibly an homage to the pulp crime fiction of Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane (Lethem's McGuffin), the novel is far more interested in detailing the tricky maturation process of a troubled and tortured outsider named Lionel Essrog, known to both friends and enemies as "The Human Freakshow."
From Sam Spade to Mike Hammer, the hard-boiled dick has typically been portrayed as an ambivalent, existentialist loner, prowling the harsh city streets with his trench coat collar turned up against a society he both defends and despises. In Brooklyn, Lethem uses this familiar archetype as a springboard to explore the inherent social and personal alienation of the brittle literary gumshoe. Containing all the conventional, hangdog misanthropy of the classic private eye, Lethem's scruffy investigator Lionel Essrog possess an extra trait which literalizes his existential angst: Tourette's Syndrome. Tolerated as a benign, semi-competent lunatic by his partners in a shady, wiseguy-funded detective agency, Lionel's obsessive-compulsive tics (such as the need to tap acquaintances repeatedly on the shoulder and fondle their shirt collars) and his often violent and florid verbal outbursts (evident in his burning desire to scream "Eat Me!" at flustered clients, or the need to conjugate brain-lodged words into an endless stream of seeming gibberish), place him at arm's length from the world, and recruit him into a fierce struggle with language, expression and social convention.
Unlike other recent fiction, such as Anne Tyler's Patchwork Planet, which has utilized a Tourette's-afflicted character as a mere gimmick, Lethem uses his "freaky dick" to engender a thoughtful rumination on how the acceptance of one's inherent difference from others dismantles the walls of fear and self-doubt created by society. To enable readers to better understand the uncontrollable impulses of his protagonist, Lethem artfully (and uncannily) conveys the twitchy rhythms of Lionel's constantly-agitated brain in passages that are not only insightful, but lyrical as well, as when Lionel first introduces his disorder: "I'm a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster...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...yet they mean no harm."
Throughout the novel, Lionel's verbal tics are contrasted with those of the numerous eccentric characters who assault him with their own peculiar forms of language distortion (heavy Brooklynese, mob slang, Zen Buddhist riddles, etc.), conveying the notion that to some extent, everyone creates their own language to place themselves in reality. Lethem's off-kilter sense of humor and grasp of the idiosyncrasies of pop culture are also given ample chance to shine, as when Lionel attempts to explain his obsession with the music of The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, claiming it soothes his churning cerebrum to hear the Short Purple One's funky, Tourette's-like stutters, shrieks and moans, because it temporarily cuts his own need to tic to the world.
As Lionel struggles to break the surface of his own reality and find his place in the world, a satisfyingly tense and complex murder mystery plunges him headfirst into the world of the hard-boiled pulp novel. While Lionel furiously attempts to solve the murder of his boss/mentor, Frank Minna, Lethem piles on all of the necessary detective thriller conventions (violent set-pieces, double-crossing dames, narrative twists, etc.), but bends them into bizarrely quirky aberrations. A ruthless assassin with a penchant for kumquats, a femme fatale who happens to be a Zen Buddhist with an obsessive desire to find the perfect Oreo cookie, a pair of corpselike mob bosses, a confused pet cat who becomes a nervous wreck after assimilating all of Lionel's Tourette's tics...all conspire to entangle our hapless hero. Through it all, direct quotations from Chandler and Spillane, as well as references to famous gangster films, weave themselves into the tricky meta-structure of artistic allusions that herald Brooklyn a crime novel about crime novels.
The novel also takes an unexpected Oliver Twist-esque trip into the past, detailing Lionel's hard-knock childhood in a Brooklyn orphanage, and his rescue from this world by the Fagin-like Frank Minna, who eventually becomes Lionel's boss, mentor and questionable father-figure. The surprisingly touching relationship between these two lost souls further displays Lethem's desire to tamper with the calcified conventions of the crime novel. An outcast from birth, Lionel's path toward self-discovery is finally put into motion by Frank's murder, as he is forced to overturn both the world's and his own expectations of himself as "a walking special effect" who is good for nothing except "freaking people out" in his attempts to solve the mystery. As one astonished character tells Lionel when he has cleverly pieced together a major part of the puzzle, "Because you're crazy, we all thought you were stupid." Tapping into hidden resources of deductive reasoning to solve the crime, "crazy" Lionel surprises himself and everyone else by discovering that he is indeed far from stupid.
Much of the strength of Motherless Brooklyn comes from following Lethem's tortured protagonist as he struggles to integrate who he is with how the world perceives him. Unlike most teflon-coated literary detectives, this self-doubting human freakshow doesn't get the girl, doesn't tie up the loose ends of the mystery, and doesn't bring the bad guys to justice. His life just continues on its low-rent, grungy way. Yet through the course of the novel, he discovers that the whole damn "normal" world is a freakshow, and that his "affliction," while it may be more colorful than most, need not define his identity. Thankfully, Lethem never succumbs to a sentimentally phony resolution, and never allows Lionel's journey to become an important life lesson, remaining true throughout to the genre's cynical core, yet still allowing his postmodern gumshoe to realize personal growth with a matter-of-fact shrug. The triumph of Lethem's freaky hero is the same as his dazzlingly revisionist crime novel itself -- the realization that expectations are meant to be subverted.