The Noire Brooklyn

Dear Edward Norton

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem is a mix of many contrasting themes and genres, in general the novel is a detective novel. The difference is that Lethem enjoys playing with the genre and breaking certain conventions.

To create a film based on this book there has to be a strong sense of the detective genre, to be effective it also needs to play with the standard conventions just as Lethem did in the novel. In particular the idea of killing characters before they appear on screen, Julia must be portrayed as a Femme Fatale, the idea of a novel that incorporates fair play, and the idea of Lionel’s justice in the final chapters.

Lethem plays with the idea of unknown characters throughout the novel, the reader becomes aware of one of these mystery characters in the first chapter, “‘Eat shit, Bailey!’ Bailey was a name embedded in my Tourette’s brain, though I couldn’t say why. I’d never known a Bailey.” (10) “Bailey” follows Lionel through the story as an unknown character, Lionel is haunted by “Bailey” even though he has no effect upon the story. Lethem employs this idea of an unknown character with Ullman. Ullman gets killed the reader sees his name and then all of a sudden he is killed of screen for unknown reasons. Lethem enjoys playing with the genre and it must be represent in a movie that the genre is still being played with, Lethem says,

Have you ever felt, in the course of reading a detective novel, a guilty thrill of relief at having a character murdered before he can step onto the page and burden you with his actual existence? Detective stories always have too many characters anyway. And characters mentioned early on but never sighted, just lingering offstage, take on an awful portentous quality. Better to have them gone. (113)

Lethem is joking with the reader about the genre he is writing, this alone shows Lethem’s versatility and willingness to play with the genre in order to create a more powerful novel.

Detective fiction is supposedly very structured with numerous conventions that must be followed in order to provide the possibility of the reader solving the case along with the detective. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem provides lots of excess information that confuses the reader throughout the case. To add to the confusion the detective has a mental illness which can be extremely distracting for those trying to follow the case. Lionel Essrog, the detective in the novel has Tourette’s which regularly interfere with the story, unfortunately for the reader while most of the tics are meaningless to the story there are some that actually hint to the solution of the case, “I vant to go to Tibet. … Come home, Irving. … Your family misses you. … I vant to go to Tibet! … I vant to speak to the Lama! … The High Lama will grant you an audience. … Irving, come home. … Your brother misses you Irving.” (195, 196, 197, 199, 200) These tics, which are each separated by several paragraphs, hint at an important fact, that Roshi Jerry is Gerard Minna, Frank Minna’s brother and killer. These tics are important to the case but the majority of the other tics are random words or curses. This confuses the reader because the tics are not expected to be full of information. While detective fiction is supposed to be possible to follow and solve in time with the detective it is generally supposed to be challenging for the reader to solve the case, therefore although slightly unusual in structure the general idea behind giving hints in Lionel’s tics is perfectly valid because the reader must take into account every detail throughout the novel.

Lionel spends the complete novel chasing the case, from the beginning he is chasing the car Frank is in to chasing Tony and the Giant to Maine he is one step behind. Until he finally meets Julia on the lighthouse he does not reveal what happened to the reader, the ironic par tis that he is still one step behind because Julia is able to pull a gun on him. He is able to get out of the situation but the fact that he gives her the opportunity to hold him at gun point is baffling since the detective is supposed to be an extremely intelligent person who is always one step ahead of the reader. Lionel does not seem to possess the genius quality that other detectives do such as Sherlocke, Marlowe and co. Lionel is very intelligent, albeit not Sherlocke, and the other characters are not able to see that, this as well must be shown throughout the film so as to connect the viewers with Lionel. As Julia points out in her confrontation with Lionel,

‘He said the reason you were useful to him was because you were so crazy everyone thought you were stupid.’

‘I’m familiar with the theory’

‘I think I made the same mistake,’ she said. ‘And so did Tony, and Frank before that.’ (300)

Julia and all the other character’s judge Lionel by his Tourette’s which Lionel ends up doing to himself but he is more intelligent and does have more to offer.

The novel ends on a note of mystery, the reader is left to ponder whether or not Lionel is happy and whether or not anything has changed. Lionel seems to be matured but he is in the same position as at the beginning of the novel, “We were Dapper and the Stooges, it was plain to the eye.” (306) Lionel is still a freak and still working for someone else, whether it is Frank or Danny, Lionel feels the need to work for someone and is not able to separate himself from the group. Lionel also does not find love which seems to make reference to all the other character’s comments about Lionel being too crazy for anyone to actually want. Lionel does come to grips with his Tourette’s in the final chapter he says goodbye to his excuses that he was defined by Tourette’s and Tourette’s alone.

“Ullman? Never met the guy. Just like Bailey. They were just guys I never happened to meet. To both of them and to you I say: Put an egg in your shoe, and beat it. Make like a tree, and leave. Tell your story walking.” (311)

A film based on this novel has to show the cyclical nature of the story and also the evolution of Lionel within the cycle, it must show a juxtaposition of Lionel maturing without moving on from L & L.

Motherless Brooklyn as a motion picture needs to encompass the noire or detective genre while playing with the aspects of it just like Jonathon Lethem does throughout the novel in order to captivated the audience and create a masterpiece.

Thomas Leclaire


One thought on “The Noire Brooklyn

  1. This is a good start. I like the discussion of genre.

    But…it’s not clear which of the aspects from the instructions you’re discussing. Tone? Genre and tone aren’t exactly the same thing (though there is obvious overlap). Best to speak to me about this.

    This brings me to my most important comment: I don’t yet get a clear sense of one thread running through this paper. That’s fine, you didn’t need to have one for a rough draft. But, I would like you to try and think of one overall thing you’re trying to say in this paper. In your opening paragraph, you list four things. I imagine you may have been taught to write thesis statements like this, to list the things you will discuss. There’s nothing wrong with this, but as it stands, there doesn’t seem to be a strong enough thread tying all of your paragraphs together. Try for your final draft to think of one overarching point you’re trying to make, rather than listing a few things you will discuss.

    Another tip: when writing rough drafts, it’s totally normal to repeat a phrase over and over again. You say “play with genre” about 7 times in the first two paragraphs. I think this is a great idea to explore, but rather than repeat this phrase, try to really explain what it means to play with genre. What does that mean to you? Try to write these paragraphs without saying “play with genre” more than once.

    Finally, you are making one very important mistake with sentence structure. You make it often, in about half the sentences in here. It would be beneficial to you to try and fix it. Ask me about it and I’ll explain exactly what I’m referring to.

    So, I think a discussion of genre could be really interesting. With a more unified idea throughout, this could become a great final draft.


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