by Jonathan Lethem
Review by Marc Nash
Jonathan Lethem has a new book out, but since it's in hardback & I'm a cheapskate, I was going to take a chance on an author new to me with something cheaper and in paperback. I plumped for 1999's "Motherless Brooklyn" for this voyage of discovery.
This book contains quite possibly the best opening chapter I have ever read. It introduces you to the voice of the main character, a Tourette's Syndrome sufferer, so from the off we are shown dazzling linguistic play as he tics and forms thrilling, improbable phrases. But in addition it paints convincing voices for other characters, depicts a milieu and drags you headlong through it at breakneck pace. Quite simply it does everything an opening should do; introduce, make out, go all the way and then light a cigarette and bask in the glow. And it doesn't employ any rubber prophylactic. Dangerous, breathless stuff.
Of course Chapter 2 eases up on the freneticism and the linguistic pyrotechnics in favour of extended flashbackstory, which is a pity, but Lethem has banked a lot of credits with me so I'll forgive him. The noirish plot too is a bit mundane, though stylistically it pays homage in all the rights ways (a body of water in Brooklyn being described as "made up of 90% guns"). The last 2 chapters tying up loose plot ends is really low key and could even be disposed of altogether were it not for a presumption of closure required by the reader.
But I want to focus on the extraordinary language and themes of this book. At its centrality is Tourette's Syndrome, but this is used for a wider consideration of the workings of the human mind. The mentor of "Motherless Brooklyn", the man who takes four orphans and gives them odd jobs to do within his streetwise, bit of this-bit of that commercial empire, has a hip, caustic street language. His bosses are a couple of Soprano-like Wise Guys who talk with stilted English as second language menace, mangling grammar in order to establish status through what lies behind and unsaid. While instantly recognisable to the reader's ear, Lethem is skilled enough to offer them as mere alternative idioms to that of the Tourettic explosions of language. They are glibber, but no less exotic than the eructions from Lionel the Tourette's sufferer's mouth. We each have our own schtick. Again Lethem dissects each dialogue he offers, to show who has the greater status at any one point and who has lost it in the verbal negotiation. Lionel never has any status, because people think he's an idiot, a "freakshow", which endows him with unseen power since he interacts with the world on more levels than most: he feels its bumps, warts and all, like a phrenologist.
When Lionel leaves NYC for the first time in his life in an extended chase into Maine, he realises he is unfamiliar with the wider world beyond. And his ticcing and language react accordingly, trying to wedge new words and phrases into his brain with which to cope with a strange new landscape. This is a brilliant evocation of how language works to organise our sensory impressions for us. Through the device of someone who struggles to organise it, because his language is untamable. The imagination displayed by the author in offering up new linguistic combinations, in the form of Tourettic outbursts is a marvel. But it is also the physical compulsions he writes about. Counting and touching in an OCD manner, yet which is also about straightening edges, rubbing off rough burs of asymmetry, trying to make the world regular and predictable. His is a mind that cannot co-exist with physical reality in the manner we may take it for granted. He constantly has to reinvent it through direct manipulation. And through his deeper interactions with it, he possesses a deeper knowledge and appreciation than most. Even more than the Buddhist students in the book, who look to meditate their way towards the great unknown truths. Their stillness is clearly the wrong approach; they should adopt the incessant energy and questioning of the Tourettic. We all should, or failing that, read this book. It's depth of vision is breathtaking, given that it takes the guise of a humble thriller.
Okay, I'm going to have to get that hardback now. And I no longer have any birthday book tokens left, since I used them to buy this book. Still, with my twins' birthday coming up, maybe I'll get the chance to steal any they get.
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