Lionel’s Tics

In Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, Lionel welcomes us into his world of Tourette’s. Lionel is not your typical detective. As a matter of fact, if the novel is interpreted from a certain perspective, Motherless Brooklyn focuses on Lionel’s individual development rather than the crime itself. Why is Lionel so special? Well, the obvious answer would be because he has Tourette’s. To say the least, Tourette’s is what makes Lionel so compelling and interesting to the reader. However, it’s much stronger than that. It is all about what Tourette’s means. Tourette’s means that Lionel has another world inside of him, a brain that he cannot control. Tourette’s defines Lionel, Tourette’s controls him, Tourette’s decides the outcome of interactions between characters in the novel. Lionel’s inner conflict is not the only reason why his disorder is his most compelling aspect. Through his Tourette’s the reader witnesses the humorous outcome of having such a disease, his interactions with other characters, and what these mean to Lionel. Lastly, the reader understands that Tourette’s means having to constantly distinguish reality from tics, and tics from reality. Lionel has got Tourette’s. He’s a funny guy who definitely always has a lot to say.

Through the production of the film, a light would need to be shaun on the darkness Tourette’s brings into Lionel’s life. It would be merely impossible to learn about how Lionel feels about himself if he were not narrating the story. Three lines into the novel and Lionel already uncovers his most important characteristic: “I’ve got Tourette’s” (1). A flaw or a quality? Through the first part of the novel, his tics and obsessions would be described as a nuisance to himself, to society, and as “one big lifetime of a tag, really” (5). Lionel does not know his place in the world, or if he had any at all. He was recruited by Frank Minna, but felt as though he was “plucked up by the outside world and seated in the dark” (38). Lionel felt alone, he felt self-loath, and insecure. In terms of society’s mechanism, Tourette’s allowed Lionel to learn about people’s intolerance. He did not view the judgmental population as those in the wrong, but decided that he was wrong. His Tourette’s lobbed “the intolerable, the incongruous, and disruptive” (43) towards those incapable of handling differences, which was society itself. It is thorough his description of his Tourette’s we learn how Lionel feels about himself. The outcome of the novel would not be the same if Lionel were to be a confident and comfortable individual in society. It is sealer that Lionel is lost. Through his Tourretic mind we learn that Lionel is the definition of an outcast, a loner, and an underdog. At this point in the novel, the reader finds himself cheering for Lionel to change and find that positive uniqueness Tourette’s can offer.

Lionel’s Tourette’s controls how he interacts with other characters, and how they respond to him. Lionel cannot control what he speaks especially when he finds himself in nervous situations. Lionel explains that his “tics were always worst when [he] was nervous” (11). One could only imagine how many conversations have gone wrong from his stress-triggered disease. For example, when Lionel gets interrogated by a detective he screams out: “Tourette’s is the shitman!” (110), which only left the detective feeling teased and frustrated. On the other hand, Lionel’s tics are often humorous. We can find ourselves laughing, but really we aren’t laughing at Lionel, it is just the natural human response. Sometimes it is unclear whether we should laugh or pity Lionel, which makes his disease all the more interesting. With a mix of humour and sympathy, the movie would be all the more compelling for its viewers. Lionel Essrog was his name, but “Tourette’s was [his] other name, and, like [his] name” (110) Lionel explains: “my brain could never leave the words unmolested”(110). It is important to notice Lionel’s language here as he choses to describe Tourette’s as molesting his thoughts. This means that Lionel has trouble actually expressing what he thinks, and what he feels. Lionel’s tics “mean no harm. They placate, interpret, massage. Everywhere they’re smoothing down imperfections, putting hairs in place, putting ducks in a row”(1).The words blurted out sometimes mean absolutely nothing and are a product of Tourette’s mind of its own. A stressful scenario might lead Lionel to screaming, “Eat shit, Bailey!” (11). Who is Bailey? He does not exist. Which underlines the fact that Tourette’s has a mind of its own. Bailey does not exist, which is fascinating because many of Lionel’s words can be confused with reality.

His interactions with characters outside the scope of the investigation must also be considered. Most of Lionel’s time in the novel is spent trying to find Minna’s killer. However, like everyone else in society, we all seek love. Lionel has trouble receiving this type of love and validation, especially from this one girl named Kimmery. Lionel has strong feelings for Kimmery and because of his Tourette’s he has trouble communicating with her and becomes obsessive. Kimmery, who at first seemed interested in Lionel, instantly shuts him down when Lionel calls her one too many times: “Just stop calling now. It’s way too much …It’s not romantic” (260). Lionel tics are our of control at this point. His brain went “Tourette’s slip drip stinkjet’s bless drop mutual-of-overwhelm’s wild kissdom” (259). Not only do his tics affect him in his everyday life, his job as a Minna Men, but prevents him from having one of the things he wants most: love.

An aspect that also needs to be considered is the positive outcome that Tourette’s brings to Lionel’s life. Tourette’s is not only a nuisance in the end. Lionel’s tics differentiate him from the others in society. Unfortunately, people do not take him seriously. This can be of course frustrating for Lionel, but very beneficial in efforts to solving the crime. Lionel explains, “a Touretter can also be The Invisible Man”(44). Most people would not expect Lionel to be so devoted and advanced in a murder investigation, but he was. His obsessiveness and compulsiveness due to his Tourette’s adds to Lionel’s focused to solving this mystery as well.

Finally, why would anyone want to watch a movie that is all about Tourette’s? The reason is simple. Besides the disease itself, there is not much difference between Lionel and ourselves. We all have that “itch [ in our] whole life” (2) that we cannot seem to scratch.  Feeling any kind of connection the main character is essential in producing a successful movie as it evokes a strong emotional response. Tourette’s affects all of Lionel’s emotional and physical reactions. When we think to associate a word with Lionel, it is Tourette’s. However, Tourette’s role in Lionel’s character is what one needs to recognize. The viewers need to have access to Lionel’s own world because that’s what makes Lionel Essrog the extraordinaire character he is.

Works Cited

Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. New York: Doubleday, 1999. Print.


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