Saturday, August 26, 2006


Lionel Essrog is the direct descendant of Benjamin Compson, the developmentally disabled narrator of the opening section of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. But, as anyone who has read the two books knows, Faulkner’s classic is itself a worshipful homage to James Joyce’s Ulysses. But style in Ulysses, especially first-person style, whether that of Stephen Dedalus or Leopold Bloom, is relatively free form, playful – Joyce is making a point about realism’s commitment to a single uniform model of representation. Stream of consciousness, so called, is put through a variety of paces, shifting chapter by chapter, hour by hour as Bloomsday passes. Faulkner, on the other hand, deploys the device strictly to shape the character. If Quentin Compson is a pale version of Stephen Dedalus, it is Benjamin and his rapacious brother Jason who represent the triumph of this literary device, Benjamin especially because his developmental challenges rob him of an ability to interpret what he sees:

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit. Then they went on, and I went along the fence. Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass.

One of the great first paragraphs in the history of the novel – and one of the great first sentences of the 20th century – this description of the game of golf functions not just to set the context for what happens next, but also to prepare us for the heavily filtered lens through which we will have to view the action. One might quibble that the verb “hunting” requires too much interpretation here, and it’s true that Faulkner was no psychologist – Benjamin is as much a projection of stereotype & narrative needs as he is a person – but after Faulkner any novelist in English became able to use literary form to shape the narrator of a tale – one might read this as a colonization of the techniques of dramatic monolog (and which might explain the steady decline of that genre throughout the 20th century). From Faulkner to Alice Walker, David Markson & Carole Maso is a very short leap indeed.

Lionel Essrog, however, is not stream of consciousness, but rather the first-person memoir mode of so much American detective fiction. The protagonist of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Broooklyn has Tourette’s syndrome, a tic disorder, one that in Essrog’s case shows more signs of palilalia and echolalia than the more infamous coprolalia – chronic obsessive swearing – that is often associated with the disorder. It’s a condition that stigmatizes the protagonist, but more importantly it enables the author Lethem to work with multiple layers, shifting between the hyperliterate narrator – other characters complain about his bookishness – and the touchy, ticky first person EatMeBailey character who is apt to punctuate even the simplest statement with inappropriate riffs:

“You shouldn’t make fun of – Lyrical Eggdog! Logical Assnog! – you shouldn’t make fun of me, Julia.”

Freakshow, as Essrog is called by most of his closest associates throughout the book, is one of a quartet of misfits recruited literally out of an orphanage by a Fagin-like character, Frank Minna, who is a penny-ante hood who does errands for geriatric made guys not so terribly different, say, from Uncle Junior on The Sopranos. Minna is killed in the book’s opening scene & what ensues is your classic whodunit, as told through Tourette’s & involving not only a rich portrait of life in Brooklyn, but curiously involving the inner workings of a Yorkville Zendo.

Lethem – who once worked at Pegasus Books in Berkeley back when its manager was Steve Benson – has a tremendous ear for language, spoken, written or ticked. One of the baddies here, a mammoth murderer, is labeled for his snack preferences the Kumquat Sasquatch, a phrase I’ve been rolling around in my head & mouth for a week now. What makes the novel work is just how well Lethem negotiates the multiple realms of narrator & actor in this drama, a distinction that is going to be a considerable challenge for Edward Norton’s screenplay for the forthcoming film adaptation. Unlike Faulkner, Lethem has the advantage of living in a time when the works of Oliver Sacks have demystified many neurological phenomena & Lethem actually thanks Sacks in a list of credits in the back of the book. Thus, to a degree unmatched elsewhere that I can think of, the outside of Lionel Essrog, the Human Freakshow, is radically unlike the person beneath.

Motherless Brooklyn was named “book of the year” by Esquire, received the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Macallan Gold Dagger for crime fiction and the Salon Book Award, only one of which seems a likely candidate for a genre work. The book transformed Lethem’s career. He won a Macarthur last year & is Bob Dylan’s interviewer in the current issue of Rolling Stone. Uncharacteristically, he actually deserves all of these good things. If Motherless Brooklyn isn’t the best novel I’ve read in the past five years, it certainly is up there with the best of Joe Torra or DeLillo’s Underworld.


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