Bryan Tarnowski / The New York Times

January 28, 2020

“Motherless Brooklyn”: More Than a Murder Mystery

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“Motherless Brooklyn” by Jonathan Lethem is not your typical murder mystery. Instead, “Motherless Brooklyn” is focused on the narration of an uncertified detective named Lionel Essrog as he earnestly navigates the secrets surrounding the death of his father figure, Frank Minnie. Meanwhile, Essrog also aims to reconcile with the symptoms of his neurological disorder.

Throughout the book, it is easy to relate to Essrog even as he consciously attempts to overcome an inappropriate surging tic. During Essrog’s interaction with other characters, Lethem masterfully describes Essrog’s perspective. For instance, he normalizes Essrog’s necessity to  stroke a new acquaintance’s shoulder exactly six times (no more, no fewer). It even felt natural for Essrog to read each and every book possible from start to finish in a library because there was no other option.

“Motherless Brooklyn” shatters notions of normality — Lethem skillfully provokes his readers to reconsider their definitions of normal. More than your average murder mystery, “Motherless Brooklyn” is an engaging book that deconstructs society’s notions of standardization by illuminating and empowering a misunderstood population. Lethem shows that individuals with tourettes are not definitively “disordered” and thus not definitively “unable.” In fact, Lethem presents Essrog as the only individual capable of solving the murder of Frank Minnie.

However, compared to other representations of murder mysteries, like that of “The Witch Elm” by Tana French or “One of Us Is Lying” by Karen McManus, the plot of “Motherless Brooklyn” did not quite emphasize the “mystery” of the murder. Instead, Lethem chooses to break the mystery plot into mini-episodes. Essrog’s memories of past events with Frank Minnie and other characters fill in the gaps between each episode. As I was reading, I felt that these “fillers” were negligible and rather illogical considering the development of the main plotline — they detracted from the thrilling pace of the story. To offer some perspective, the entirety of the book is around 300 pages. In the first third of the book, the murder occurs … subsequently, “fillers” were provided until around page 180, resulting in essentially 80 to 100 pages of dominantly insignificant details.

Although I felt the “fillers” distract from the essential plot of “Motherless Brooklyn,” they were helpful in developing readers’ understanding of Essrog’s experience of the world. Consequently, relating to Essrog gradually becomes easier. This technique is of particular significance, as “Motherless Brooklyn” has been adapted to become a major studio film directed by Edward Norton (released November 2019). It would be fascinating to see how the “fillers” translate to the big screen. Would those scenes draw empathy from its audience or leave them feeling disinterested?

Despite the fillers that pivot from the mystery, “Motherless Brooklyn” is a satisfactory read with a worthy ending that forces readers to challenge the way they view individuals with neurological disorders. Lethem compels his readers to consider difficult questions. Who decides what is — and how to be — “normal”?

 

Jeremiah LaCon is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at jcl345@cornell.edu.