Exercise: Pages 1-35 Instructions (in-class exercise)

Motherless Brooklyn, pages 1-35, research exercise (in-class, Sep 1)

You will be split into groups. Each group will be assigned one of the following categories to work on. Your goal will be to publish one blog post for your group that researches one element of the novel, and compares what you found in your research to specific moments from the first 35 pages.

What you will need to do:

  1. Create a post. Give your post an appropriate title (based on the category you are working on)
  2. Insert a featured image into post.
  3. Write the names of the members of the group at the top of the post.
  4. Write a short paragraph detailing one interesting thing you discovered during your research.
  5. Include one secondary source that discusses the aspect of the novel you’re discussing. You will include this source either as a hyperlink, or as a posted video, or picture.
  6. Then, make a connection between what you found in your research and the chapter you’ve read for today. Illustrate this connection by including one citation from the novel. Discuss how this citation is an interesting connection to what you found in your research.
  7. If you have time, repeat step 6 with another citation.


  1. The city:
  • Research options: Brooklyn and/or Manhattan in the 90s; Greenpoint; Go on Google Earth and look at the locations that Lionel goes to. How is the real image of it similar/different from his description?
  • In the novel: Cite one image of the city. How is the city described? What does it mean to Lionel?
  1. References:
  • Look up one of the following references in the novel: White Castle (2); Kaos and Control (2); Monopoly pieces/Candyland/in the study with Colonel Mustard (3); Robert-Ryan-in-Wild-Bunch (6).
  • What can you tell us about these references. What do they tell us about Lionel’s character? About the world we’re inhabiting? About the tone of the novel?
  1. Lionel:
  • Who does Lionel remind you of? Why? Give us a link to something about this character, a video clip or photo or Wikipedia page.
  • Find one citation from the novel that demonstrates something about Lionel’s character, or where the connection to the above person is evident.
  1. Lionel’s tics:
  • Research Tourettes.
  • Cite one moment where Lionel’s Tourette’s comes out. What role do his tics play in the tone of the story, and how he relates to other people? Look closely at one verbal tic. If this was a poem, what might you say about it?
  1. Minna
  • Do research on relationships in fiction.
  • Cite one moment when Lionel’s relationship to Minna is evident. How would you describe how Lionel feels about Minna, and how Minna feels about Lionel?
  1. Gilbert
  • Do research on relationships in fiction.
  • Cite one moment when Lionel’s relationship to Gilbert is evident. How would you describe how Lionel feels about Gilbert, and how Gilbert feels about Lionel?
  1. Dialogue
  • Research how to write good dialogue.
  • Cite one moment of interesting dialogue. What is interesting or noteworthy about the dialogue?
  1. Story
  • Research principles of good storytelling.
  • What is interesting about how the story unfolds in the first chapter? How is the rest of the story set up for us?
  1. Hard boiled
  • Do some more research on hard boiled conventions.
  • Cite one moment from the novel where hard boiled conventions are either adopted or broken.

10. Humour

  • Research how to write humour.
  • Cite one moment from the novel that you found funny. What, exactly, is funny about it?

When you’re done, make sure to give your post and appropriate title and set an appropriate featured image!


Sample post (I used “I”. You can use “we.”)

Let’s say my category is tone.

By reading the Wikipedia entry about Tone in literature, I realized that I’ve been confusing the concepts of tone and mood. I thought tone was just an overall feeling that a piece has, but apparently that’s closer to mood. According to Wikipedia, “Tone and mood are not the same, although they are frequently confused. The mood of a piece of literature is the feeling or atmosphere created by the work, or, said slightly differently, how the work makes the reader feel. Mood is produced most effectively through the use of setting, theme, voice and tone, while tone is how the author feels about something.” Literary-Devices.com sheds some more light on the idea of tone: “The tone of a literary work is the perspective or attitude that the author adopts with regards to a specific character, place or development. Tone can portray a variety of emotions ranging from solemn, grave, and critical to witty, wry and humorous.” This makes sense, as a concept. So, like a movie can have a comedic tone, by have a dark mood. I guess?

In that case, I would say the tone of the first chapter is humourous, funny. I find the style of the writing and the reactions of the characters to be comedic, almost cartoonish, even though the subject matter is pretty serious. It seems like Lethem is really playing with the genre of detective fiction, having fun with it. One place where I felt this is when Gilbert is talking to Minna before he goes into the Zendo:

“We’re not carrying,” said Coney.

“What?” said Minna.

“A piece, I don’t have a piece.”

“What’s with piece? Say gun, Gilbert.”

“No gun, Frank.” (8)

I find this really funny because it subverts our expectations of the hard boiled genre. They frequently use metaphors to describe everything. It is an unnatural and somewhat hackneyed style, and the fact that Lethem plays with it shows that his attitude toward this style is playful and inventive. He’s not interested in simply repeating old tropes of the genre, he’s seeking to reinvent it.

This comical tone reminds me of the film Pulp Fiction, by Quentin Tarantino. For example, in the one of the first scenes, where Samuel Jackson and John Travolta’s characters are having a casual conversation about a foot massage gone wrong, right before they have to go and kill a bunch of people. It’s a light-hearted send-up of the pulp film genre.


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