Motherless Brooklyn, the New York City detective story that Jonathan Lethem wrote in the year 2000, brought the Brooklynite author
national recognition when it was named novel of the year by the
National Book Critics Circle. The novel seems poised to bring Lethem
yet another coveted distinction: there may soon be a Hollywood
adaptation with a major movie star in the lead role.
by Jonathan Lethem
The novel tells the story of Lionel Essig, an orphan with Tourette's
syndrome working for a small-time criminal enterprise in present-day
Brooklyn. When Essig's boss-cum-father figure is murdered, he sets out
to solve the mystery. What follows is standard detective novel fare - a
main character trying to solve a murder while police detectives accost
him for interrogations,long-lost family members show up bearing
insights, and pistol-packing goons lurk in parked cars.
The book, Lethem said, was a homecoming of sorts. Lethem moved away from his native New York,
from his adopted home in California.
"I'd been away and I'd excluded New York from my writing, and then I
came back and I fell in love with it all over again," he told the Guardian. "... [T]he energy comes from
an absence, that yearning for New York when you are not there."
Motherless Brooklyn is indeed a colorful depiction of the area
where Lethem grows up. It also hints at the racial issues that he fleshes out in his most recent novel Fortress of Solitude. But the defining element of Motherless Brooklyn is its depiction of Lionel Essig, the novel's main character. Essig's
Tourette's, says Lethem, mirrors the violent urgency in the speech of all New Yorkers.
A detective with Tourette's may seem like a cheap gag, but reviewers
have praised Lethem for the compassion with which he describes his protagonist. Essig's periodic outbursts also provide
Lethem with a chance to pepper the novel with short passages of
free-form word association - a technique that many have singled out as
the book's major success.
"The ticcing bypasses the analytic triage desk in the reader's brain
and goes directly to the gut in a way that poetry is supposed to but
only manages now and then,"
wrote Luc Sante in the Village Voice. "Lionel, ticcing and brilliantly parsing his own
tics, is a supremely vulnerable and affecting hero."
Essig's character also grabbed the attention of Edward Norton, who quickly
grabbed the rights to turn the novel into a movie. Norton has been
working on a screenplay - based on the book but set in the 1950s - in
which he will play the lead.
Lethem told the Guardian that he likes Norton's idea, but doesn't want
to spend his own time adapting the book to the screen.
"I think Ed Norton's a great choice and it would be a very interesting
thing to see come together. But I don't want to be involved," he said. "I don't want to write screen plays. I want to take their money in good faith and go off and do something else."