By Vanessa Correia
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem is a serious novel. One man suffers from a mental illness, another man is left to die in a dumpster. Both cases are no laughing matter. But Lethem is no a conventional author, and thus, he hasn’t written a conventional detective novel. He makes use of comic relief to offset the tension and severity of story and all its facets. Laughter is also a bonding experience. The characters’ antics make them seem less two-dimensional and more real.
Lethem utilizes several techniques to demonstrate humor in the novel. When Tony and Lionel are in the car, the tone employed is serious. Both characters are aware of the secrets they are keeping from one another, and the distrust is deteriorating their relationship. While Lethem could have let the tension slowly intensify, he instead chooses to elicit a laugh. Tony, in an attempt to bully and belittle, calls Lionel a “Freakshow,” which “cued [Lionel’s] Tourettes [and] cut right through the layers of coping strategies” (155). This scene represents an element of humor known as straight man/funny man. Tony is the straight one, focused on the task, while Lionel is launched into a world of ticcing, taking up the funny man role. (It is also important to note that he plays the “funny man” role in most of the novel thus far). Just like an itch or a sneeze, Lionel must submit to his compulsion, shouting: “Likable lunchphone, veritable spongefest, teenage mutant Zendo lungfish, penis Milhaus Nixon tuning fork” (156). Wordplay and absurdity go hand in hand in this instance. This string of words is so incoherent that is qualifies as absurd. There are over a million words in the English language, and thus millions up millions of different ways in which those words could be arranged. This “sentence” is so random, simply beyond comprehension.
Another funny instance in the novel is when detective Lucius Seminole and Tony are discussing “The Clients”. Seminole asserts that they should pay ‘Uncles” Matricarde and Rockaforte a visit, a perfect opportunity for Tony to insert a wise-crack (191). He says that they aren’t home because “They went though a tunnel in the basement… They had to get back to their hideout, since they’re got James Bond- or Batman, [he] can’t remember which- roasting over a slow fire” (191). Both characters are being extremely sarcastic with one another. A serious situation, one with a gun involved, suddenly becomes a sketch. All of these seriousness slips away when they engage in such aggressive sardonic dialogue.The wordplay is also so smooth and on the spot, almost as if the joke had been previously concocted, just waiting for the perfect moment to be used.