Which is better, the book or the movie? In this case, the jury is out about the movie Motherless Brooklyn, but the book, by Jonathan Lethem, is stunningly good. That’s good news in this time of closed movie theaters and sheltering in place.
It’s hard to imagine Motherless Brooklyn as a movie because it’s so much about language, distorted, deconstructed, and turned sideways by the narrator, who has Tourette’s. Here’s what he thinks when he hears his own name, Lionel Essrog: Liable Guesscog. Final Escrow. Ironic Pissclam. And so on.
We are privy to this endless and often very funny invention, much of which takes place in Lionel’s head. He keeps it inside until the pressure mounts to an unbearable level and he has to explode verbally — sometimes with these pun-like iterations and sometimes with a good old-fashioned obscenity. Lionel also obsessively counts and touches things.
“For me, counting and touching things and repeating words are all the same activity,” he says. “Tourette’s is just one big lifetime of tag, really.”
Lionel is one of four “Minna men” who work for a small-time gangster named Frank Minna. The flawed but genuinely likeable Minna found them as boys at a Brooklyn orphanage and hired them for odd jobs, until they graduated from high school and came to work for him full-time. Essentially, Frank raised the four of them, and they grew up together to become as close and as contentious as siblings. Now they work for the Minna Agency, a car service cum detective agency on Court Street in Brooklyn.
Ah, Brooklyn! Motherless Brooklyn was written in the ’90s, long before Brooklyn was the least bit chic. Minna’s world (and therefore Lionel’s) centers on Court Street. Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill are his universe. Lethem lovingly portrays the delis, convenience stores, Korean markets, and front stoops in such detail that you feel you are there. This is a book that draws you into its own reality, chiefly by the power of language.
There is action and suspense, however. The book opens with a stakeout on the Upper East Side (one of only two times Lionel has been to Manhattan) that goes sideways and turns into a thrilling car chase. The book is also a murder mystery, a kind of Tourette’s noir. The mystery is complex and deeply satisfying, but this is unmistakably a literary novel, and a novel of character, compelling from page one.
Motherless Brooklyn is available as an e-book from CLAMS libraries. The film is not yet streaming for free but is available for rental online.
Nan Cinnater is lead librarian at the Provincetown Public Library.