By Jerry Huang
“Lambs go to the slaughter. A man, he learns when to walk away.”— The Greek, The Wire
To the esteemed Mr. Edward Norton,
It has come to my attention that you are in the process of producing a film adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. I have also, however, heard news of your current difficulties in writing a proper screenplay. While I know adapting this work has been a longtime interest of yours, I address to you this letter not to bring about suggestions as to what you can do with it, but rather to convince you to stop production altogether, as this novel is nothing more than a story about an emotionally troubled man struggling to move away from his past mistakes and failing to change as an individual.
From the outset of the novel, Lionel, the narrator, expresses a disconnection from the rest of the world. He calls himself “a walking joke, preposterous, improbable, unseeable…merely crazy” (Lethem 83-84), marking his life’s greatest conflict: his struggles with self-acceptance. Over the course of the story, Lethem brings Lionel on a journey, one that has the reader engage with many of the protagonist’s memories and his interactions with the various new people he must associate with to solve the mystery behind Frank’s death. While his emotional conflict is cleverly hidden within the detective fiction aspect of the novel, Lethem fails to bring closure to Lionel’s emotional change at its conclusion. As a result, Lionel’s tale is incredibly open-ended and by extension, leaves many questions regarding the impact the case has on his character.
Throughout the novel, one of Lionel’s major flaws is not the fact that he can’t change, but rather that any change he displays is always temporary. This is clear immediately after Frank’s death when Lionel tries to remodel himself after Frank. The change is evident in his conversation with Detective Seminole, with whom he appears cold and aloof, refusing to cooperate with him:
“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)
Here, there is an obvious shift in Lionel’s demeanor compared to the beginning of the story, where he is portrayed as excessively hyperactive and somewhat of a loose cannon. Despite maintaining and playing his new role effectively for a while, Lionel loses his composure instantly upon meeting Kimmery the next day, as he gets caught up in a discussion 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. (142)
This goes to show of one of Lionel’s most frustrating habits: his tendency to distract himself with his own thoughts and lose track of what goals he had previously set. It is a major player in why Lionel fails to go through any permanent change; his constant transitioning from one state of mind to another hinders his character evolution, leaving whatever part of him he has modified an unfinished product meant for disposal. This issue presents itself once more when Lionel finally makes the decision to go to Maine and confront the truth behind Frank’s murder, when he thinks to himself, “Now I had only to take the lead in this secret interstate race” (253). In this moment, he is focused solely on solving the case, with the reader convinced that he has finally broken the barrier preventing him from permanent change. However, after deciding to call Kimmery, 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). In fact, from the beginning, he never really understood what change meant. He is aware of his emotions, but fails to control them much like how he fails to understand what he wants to become. Lionel thinks he doesn’t fit in because he “wasn’t tough, provocative, stylish, self-destructive, sexy, wasn’t babbling some secret countercultural tongue, wasn’t testing authority, wasn’t showing colors of any kind” (84). He believes change is the only catalyst to his eventual integration into society. This lack of understanding locks Lionel in a confused state, where he feels that he is changing for the better but remains disconnected from surroundings. As a result, he repeatedly attempts to remodel his character, each time failing to find a sense of comfort and reverting back to his original state of mind.
While some pieces of Lionel’s character vary throughout the novel, others do not, such as his mental glorification of Frank. While much of the novel deals with Lionel uncovering many hidden truths about Frank’s real personality, the former never stops to consider that Frank might have been at fault and was playing the villainous role the entire time. In his phone call with the Clients, Lionel reveals Gerard’s whereabouts while knowing his actions were wrong, as revealed in their 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 feel disdain for Gerard, it is also clear that his actions are all to avenge Frank. What makes this passage particularly jarring is that Lionel knows Frank once wronged Gerard, and therefore Gerard must have felt compelled to have Frank murdered before Frank did the same to him. Even with these facts laid out for him, Lionel cannot digest the truth and continues to view Frank subjectively, imagining him as having been the victim; despite knowing it to be wrong of him to have Gerard murdered out of spite, he sees it as necessary retribution for Frank’s death, which it clearly is not. Furthermore, Lionel’s meeting with Gerard had already revealed the fact that Gerard was now at the mercy of Fukushima as well as the Clients. Therefore, he was bound to be in a miserable situation even if Lionel had not made the call. This fixation on Frank is shown once again when he is about to throw Frank’s watch into the ocean, but “was sentimental about the watch. It had no taint of doormen or Clients” (303). Lionel is delusional and unable to move on from his memories of Frank. Even while knowing that Frank was likely the most immoral being he knew, he cannot piece the facts together and continues to hold Frank in high regard. By the end of the novel, Lionel notes that “deep in my grain, deeper than mere behavior, deeper than regret, Frank…gave me my life” (310), a troubling indication that he would never abandon his perception of Frank and would never be able to change and build his own personality.
While Lionel’s inability to abandon the character Frank has shaped him into is a cause of his lasting character issues, another important reason he does not move past them is the fact that he never comes to truly accept himself, a flaw that is most exposed in his relationship with Kimmery. Upon first meeting her, she leaves an incredible impression on him when she tells him “Yes, but you’re my friend now” (144) in reply to his questioning her easygoing personality around him. These words trigger a big and immediate shift in his attitude, as he realizes that there is substance within his personality and he does not need to act like someone he is not in order to be happy. He gains the confidence to stand up to Tony and follows through with his plans, a notable difference from his previously meek self. After Lionel begins sleeping with her, he comments “I suppose I’d imagine us sheltered in Kimmery’s childlike foyer, her West Side tree house, three cats hiding. But now I understood she was rootless, alienated in this space” (213). He feels a deeper connection with her that goes beyond their lackadaisical lifestyles. He considers them one and the same: people who live in their own reality, unable to fit in with the rest of the world. This makes him aware of how narrow his perspection of the world was. Lionel believed only he could sympathize with himself, shutting himself off from much of the outside world at the same time. Now believing that he shares his world-view with Kimmery, he finally gains the resolve to go to Maine. However, the positive shifts in character are due to Lionel’s growing dependence on Kimmery and his wish to please her, much like his relationship with Frank. This is confirmed over their phone calls, where she tells him “Just stop calling now…It’s not romantic” (260) and “that thing that happened with us, it was just, you know – a thing” (309). Discovering that Kimmery never thought of him the same way breaks Lionel. He loses sight of himself and begins to believe that his loneliness is eternal:“She didn’t need to know it was just a tic, just echolalia that made me say it” (309). Lionel becomes detached from his surroundings, and this makes him believe that action is futile because nobody cares. He feels his position in society will remain the same. This explains his indifference with Danny taking over L&L and Ullman’s existence. Lionel’s new belief that change is burden leaves him in a state devoid of any motivation to do so, the fatal blow to his ambitions.
Lionel’s problem is not that he does not know how to change, but rather that he has become unwilling to do so. He is of the mindset that doing so will leave him vulnerable to his emotions, which will inevitably bring more suffering. Lionel is quick to tread along the path of idealism, following it with such painful blindness that when his virtues are deceived, he is left in a world of his own with no path to escape.
Mr. Norton, I hope to have shown you the lack of value in adapting this novel and I urge you to reconsider this endeavor of yours. While I respect the fact that the final decision belongs to you, it is in your best interest that I urge you to expend your time and resources on some other project, as it will surely be more meaningful than this.
Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. Doubleday, 2000.