Motherless Irony


Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn is turning out to be a pretty humorous novel, hidden behind the facade of a serious, hard-boiled genre. There are many examples that demonstrate this aspect of the novel, one of them being when Lionel is ‘kidnapped’. After stepping out of the Zendo, he is forcefully taken away by two men and then stuffed into a car with two others. Although they are trying to frighten Lionel, it does not seem to be working:

The four in the car had begun to chafe as seeing their faint authority slip away, devolve to the modern technology, the bit of plastic and wire in my palm. I had to find a way to calm them down. I nodded and widened my eyes to show my cooperation, and mouthed a just wait signal to them, hoping they’d recall the protocol from crime movies: pretend they weren’t listening, and thus gather information on the sly. I couldn’t help it that they weren’t actually listening. (149)

Lethem adds his own flair to the classic straight man/funny man technique in this part of his novel by adding some irony to it all. In a situation like Lionel’s, one would assume that the four men who abducted him would take on the role of straight man, or men in this case. It is ironic that the calm and collected character is in fact Lionel; you would think the opposite would be more likely considering he was kidnapped. As the men around him get more and more agitated (characteristic of the funny man), he is trying to calm them down, even tries to help them do their job by cluing them in on the fact that they should be taking notes on what he is saying on the phone. I found the entire scenario quite humorous, to think that an abductee would be trying to calm down his abductors; helping them too.

A little while later, after getting away from his captors, Lionel enters a fast food restaurant where he calls Loomis to try and get more information for his investigation. Shortly after the end of his call, a man sitting close to him starts complaining about cell phones, how people these days are always on them, talking to their phones instead of with the people that are physically with them: “Fucking people talking to themselves in a public place like they got some kind of illness” (163). This is irony at its best, considering that Lionel, in fact, does have a mental illness. I love little passages like these in books, where the author sort of laughs at his book, or one of his characters, I find them funny.

Charlotte Lapointe


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