— Patrick Star
To the esteemed Mr. Edward Norton,
It has come to my attention that you are currently in the process of producing a film adaptation of Jonathon Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn. I have also heard news of your current difficulties in producing a proper screenplay, however I direct this letter to you with the goal of convincing you to stop production altogether, as Motherless Brooklyn is nothing more than a story of a emotionally troubled man who struggles to move away from his past mistakes and change as an individual.
From the outset of the novel, Lionel possesses both traits that are relatable and unrelatable. In terms of his relatable traits, Lionel personally feels a sort of disconnection from the rest of the world, calling himself “a walking joke, preposterous, improbable, unseeable. […] I was merely crazy” (Lethem 83-84). These comments regarding his past mark the greatest conflict in the story, which is his struggles with accepting himself for who he is, an almost ubiquitous feeling everyone has experienced at some point in time. Over the course of the story, Lethem brings Lionel through a journey, engaging the reader through many of Lionel’s memories as well as showing how he interacts with the various new people he must associate with in his attempt to uncover the truth behind Frank’s death. While Lionel’s true emotional conflict is cleverly hidden within this detective fiction aspect of the novel, Lethem fails to bring closure to Lionel’s emotional change. This leaves a highly open-ended conclusion, with little evidence to support the fact that the entire investigation had any long-lasting impact on Lionel’s character, and while Lionel shows hints of change throughout the novel, by the end he has simply returned to his original state of mind.
When reading the novel, the most apparent issue with Lionel’s character is not the fact that he can’t change, but that any noticeable change it is always temporary and tends to disappear quickly. The first thing Lionel attempts to do after Frank’s death is to gain a serious and distant composure, believing it to be his job to carry out the investigation to discover the truth. Throughout his conversation with Detective Seminole, Lionel comes off as being highly indifferent, even in the face of heavy risk, such as when Seminole mentions the Clients:
“So let’s compare notes. The name Alphonso Matracardi and Leonardo Rockaforte mean anything to you?”
“Never heard of them,” I breathed.
“Why don’t I believe you?”
“You’re fucking sick.” (115)
While Lionel plays this role quite well at the moment, Lionel quickly loses this composure upon meeting Kimmery the next day, losing himself in mundane matters, indicated in their conversation about Oreos:
“Wait a minute. You’re saying every package of Oreos has cookies from both bakeries?”
I tried to keep from thinking about it, tried to keep it in the blind spot of my obsessiveness, the way I would flinch my eyes from a tempting shoulder. But it was impossible. “What motive would they possibly have for mixing batches in the same package?” (142)
This indicates one of Lionel’s main problems throughout the story: his tendency to distract himself within his own thoughts, losing track of what he had previously set his eyes on accomplishing. This characteristic of his personality is what makes Lionel unable to experience any true character development throughout the novel, as any change he undergoes is eventually lost when he transitions from one state of mind to another. This problem presents itself again when Lionel is on his way to Maine, initially thinking “Now I had only to take the lead in this secret interstate race” (253), focusing intently on his desire to finally solve the murder and ease his mind. To the reader, he appears to have reached a point where he is fully concentrated on one goal, having finally broken through the barrier that was shielding him from permanent change. However, he then goes to call Kimmery, with the conversation being highly bleak from his perspective. This leads him to completely lose his focus and he is left thinking “How could phone calls-cell-phone calls, staticky, unlikely, free of charge- how could they alter what real bodies felt? How could ghosts touch the living?” (262). The reason Lionel never undergoes any long lasting change is because he has little to no idea what real change is. He envisions himself as being different and not fitting in because he “wasn’t tough, provocative, stylish, self-destructive, sexy, wasn’t babbling some secret countercultural tongue, wasn’t testing authority, want’s showing colors of any kind”, indicating that he finds changing can only lead to him being like the rest of society. Because he fails to truly grasp the concept of real change, Lionel loses himself in a confused state, feeling that he is changing for the better, but constantly feeling a disconnection from everyone else. As a result, he tries to remodel himself repeatedly, each time failing to find a sense of comfort and leaving himself back in the state he started from.
While Lionel shows instances of adapting his personality to his environment, there remains many parts of his personality that remain constant throughout. One significant aspect of Lionel’s lack of change by the end of the novel is his inability to discard his glorified image of Frank. While he does appear to gradually gain awareness of Frank’s true nature, Lionel never stops to consider whether Frank might have been the villain the entire time. This lack of change can be first remarked in his phone call with the Clients, after he reveals Gerard’s whereabouts, there is the following exchange:
There was a long silence.
“This is not what we expected from you, Lionel.”
I didn’t speak.
“But you are correct that is of interest to us.”
I didn’t speak.
“We will respect your wishes.”(285)
While Lionel has reason to take revenge on Gerard, much of the novel up to this moment deals with Lionel’s discovery of the truth behind the relationship between the Minna brothers. He knows Frank once wronged Gerard, and therefore Gerard might have felt compelled to have Frank murdered before Frank might have done the same to him. However, Lionel is still unable to digest these facts and views the entirety of the situation subjectively, favoring Frank over every other individual simply because he considers Frank to be the one who truly gave him life. Furthermore, when Lionel is about to throw Frank’s watch into the ocean, he “was sentimental about the watch. It had no taint of doormen or Clients” (303). This passage is an indication of the fact that Lionel has failed to truly move on from his memories of Frank and that he is still of the mindset that the Clients are malicious beings. Despite having learned of how Frank was nothing more than a dirty coward, Lionel still holds him in high regard while holding a great deal of disdain for the Clients, even though they pose no real threat to him and their actions were never unwarranted. This shows that Lionel is still unable to accept the truth since it contradicts what he believes. Towards the end, he notes that “deep in my grain, deeper than mere behavior, deeper than regret, Frank […] gave me my life” (310). This particular line is quite troubling, as it is clear proof of the fact that he will never abandon his current perception of Frank, and hence his attempts at changing himself will forever be hindered by his inability to live on as an individual he shapes.
The other major reason that Lionel fails to change throughout the novel is the fact that he never comes to fully accept himself. In the final paragraph of the novel, Lionel is unsure of the existence of Ullman, questioning whether he was just a fabrication in his mind but instantly shrugging off the notion and not bothering to think about it (311). What this passage demonstrates is that while he is no longer as self-conscious about his mental problems, he does not seem to have come to acceptance with them rather than simply caring too little about his life anymore for it to bother him. This shows a complete lack of resolution towards this end of the story’s conflict, especially Lionel appeared to be on the verge of a major breakthrough in terms of finding self-worth. This flaw of his plays out heartbreakingly in his relationship with Kimmery. When Lionel first meets Kimmery at the Zendo, she tells Lionel “Yes, but you’re my friend now” (144) in reply to his questioning her easygoing personality around him. This triggers a shift in Lionel’s attitude for a long part of the story, as he realizes that there is substance within his personality that can make him likable and he doesn’t need to act like someone he isn’t in order to live a happy life. After this incident, Lionel’s gradual transformation from a self-conscious and aloof individual to someone who can stand up to Tony and have the confidence to go through with his throughs is very noticeable. Later on, after Lionel begins sleeping with her, he notes “I suppose I’d imagine us sheltered in Kimmery’s childlike foyer, her West Side tree house, three cats hiding. But no I understood she was rootless, alienated in this space” (213). Lionel feels a connection with Kimmery that goes further than their lackadaisical lifestyles, as he considers them as one of the same, people who are living in their own world, unable to fit in with the rest of the world. Through this, Lionel beings to understand how narrow his perspective of the world was, as he once considered himself the only person in the world who could understand himself. Now that he understands Kimmery, he realizes that there exists a world whose existence he never considered, and he finally gains the resolve to go to Maine and confront the truth, something he had been avoiding for an extended period of time due to his unease at whether or not it would make him happy. Lionel’s understanding that Kimmery is who showed him the world parallels his relationship with Frank, who he believes to the one that gave him life, and he begins to shift his dependence on Frank onto Kimmery. The end result is his tragic breakdown towards the end of the novel, when Kimmery tells him over the phone “Just stop calling now. […] It’s not romantic” (260) and “that thing that happened with us, it was just, you know – a thing” (309). The sudden awareness that Kimmery never thought of Lionel as he thought of her breaks him mentally, causing him to lose sight of himself. It leads him to believe that he will never find someone who truly accepts him, as shown he states “She didn’t need to know it was just a tic, just echolalia that made me say it” (309). Lionel has become detached from the world; he finds that there is no need to explain anything because nobody will bother to care. He feels that there will never be someone to accept him, no matter his position in life, hence his comfort with Danny taking over L&L and his uncertainty about Ullman’s existence. Lionel feels that there’s no need for self-acceptance and he is left in nothing more than a lethargic state of mind, empty of feeling and devoid of passion.
What remains Lionel’s problem by the end of the novel is not the fact that he does not know how to change, but rather the fact that he has grown an unwillingness to do so. Lionel feels changing who he is will leave him vulnerable to his emotions and they will eventually cause him even more suffering than comfort. Although Lionel has achieved his initial goal of learning the truth behind Frank’s death, it has come at a high cost, one that strips him of his ability to become a different person and leaves him a shell of himself. Like a member of the youth, Lionel is quick to hope, following that path with such painful blindness that when his idealistic virtues are deceived, he is truly left in a world of his own with no path to escape.
To conclude, Mr. Norton, there is little value in adapting this novel, as the evident lack of change in Lionel’s character will serve no benefit to your ambitions. I urge you to reconsider this endeavor of yours, as it is in your best interest to expend your time and resources on some other wish of yours.
Lethem, Jonathon. Motherless Brooklyn. Vintage, 2000.