Dear, Mr. Norton
Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem, is an eventful novel full of mystery and surprises from the unraveled tale that Frank had kept from the Minna Men. With this discovery, Lionel, the main character, undergoes changes within him, such as becoming more independent, having self-acceptance, and love from others. Frank’s death was more than what meets the eye: the more Lionel discovers the truth behind Frank’s murder, the more Lionel discovers who he is.
Frank was a big part of the Minna Men’s life. “What’re you staring at? Eat your food!” Frank says to the boys, which shows how Frank was more like a mother figure to them, other than anything (72). It’s ironic how the tile of the novel, Motherless Brooklyn, and even Frank telling his mother in this scene how he “got all of motherless Brooklyn up here for you,” showing off “his” boys to his own mother, demonstrates how these boys aren’t really “motherless” after all (71). Lionel, and the others, looked up to Frank, as any other kid would look up to their mother, and not only because he was also their boss. However, out of all the boys, Frank demonstrated a different side of himself towards Lionel, under the tough exterior that he usually portrays, “seen through the prism of Minna’s rough endearments, became my trademarks, my Freakshow” (45). This shows how Frank had a soft spot for Lionel, and how they shared a unique relationship, and how Frank would care a lot for Lionel more than the others by giving him his own identity. “Understanding Tourette’s Syndrome was the title, first time I’d seen the word” was the book Frank gave Lionel, before he left for a while with his brother, which once again shows the mother-figure side of Frank (81). This book described the reason behind why Lionel strangely talks or yells something out of nowhere, it described the reasoning behind why Lionel was such a “Freakshow,” and only Frank, at the time, would be the one to cope with it in his best interest (45). This book gave Lionel more meaning to his life, it gave him his identity. Frank led Lionel to self-discovery, which made Lionel build character, but also made him very dependent over Frank. For this reason, it was hard for Lionel to accept the reality of Frank’s death. “Why are you pretending your man Minna’s still with us,” saying the black cop to Lionel, in this scene, as they are walking to the casino where Frank used to always be, which shows how Lionel reminisces Frank’s presence (114).
Nonetheless, Lionel learns to grow stronger as the days go by and accepts the fact that Frank is gone by properly grieving for Frank. “I put the song on repeat and sat in the light of my candle and waited for the tears,” this reveals how Lionel is going through grief for someone he used to depend on (128). In this scene, Lionel is in a completely dark room, and the romantic candle light symbolizes Frank, and how he was the only bright light in Lionel’s life. The dark room symbolizes Lionel’s darkness of his own insecurity; his Tourette’s syndrome. The romantic candle light and elegant song playing in the background also shows a feminine side of Lionel, where Lionel is going through a heartbreak moment, of grief and letting go of Frank’s presence. However, after his time of grief, Lionel “killed the music, blew out the candle” which foreshadows Lionel’s exact reaction at the very end of the novel (129). At the end of the novel, Lionel “killed” the outcome of the story, and the secret he had discovered, and “blew out the candle,” which signifies that he moves on with his life and the past he shared with Frank Minna (129).
In contrast to Lionel always being Frank’s go-to person, and always taking notes of the situation, now that Frank’s gone, Lionel steps into his shoes and takes initiative. “Let Danny sleep, let Gilbert wait in his cell, let Tony be missing. I’d go to the Zendo” which indicates how Lionel is putting matters into his own hands creating self-reliance, and with this, he becomes more independent of certain situations to solve for Frank’s murder (132). At the end of the novel, with all the secrecy of the story behind Frank’s death that Lionel learns, Lionel also discovers how to be true to himself. With the truth he learns, Lionel thinks about vengeance for all that the Minna brothers have caused:
You can go back to pretending if you like. I know I will, though the Minna Brothers are a part of me, deep in my grain, deeper than mere behavior, deeper even than regret, Frank because he gave me my life and Gerard because, though I hardly knew him, I took his away. I’ll pretend I never rode that train, but I did. (310)
Even though the Minna brothers will always be a part of Lionel’s life, the more he discovers the truth, the more he learns that it was a slippery slope to be part of their life full of scandal and wished instead that he “never rode that train” of revenge against them, but he did (310). Although, Lionel wants to “pretend” not to have “rode that train,” he used vengeance to take Gerard, Frank’s brother, life away, when Frank was the one to give Lionel his life, and his identity (310).
On the other hand, when Frank was still around Lionel was not accepted by others, because Lionel did not accept himself. “A Touretter can also be The Invisible Man,” Lionel felt like an outcast and knew that he was not like anyone else; he was different (44). However when Lionel was dissecting the mystery behind Frank’s murder, he independently guides himself in the right direction. Taking the case alone, Lionel realizes that he has his own identity without Frank, and he can be his own person which makes him gain confidence in himself. Kimmery was the first girl that Lionel encountered that was attracted to Lionel for who he is and showed interest and care for his tics. “How does it feel when you do that … What do the words mean” Kimmery asks Lionel, as she treats him like a normal human being (217). Lionel finds love for himself through the concern and love of others towards him, which makes Lionel accept himself for who he is. “We sat together in the L&L storefront at two in the morning, playing poker on the counter,” this happens at the end of the novel where Lionel and the other men are living their lives having a real friendship (304). With love from his friends, Lionel can now love himself and acknowledge that he is different but he is still a regular person now part of an actual car service, and an actual family of friendship, rather than it being based on lies when Frank was still around.
The unique spark that Frank found in Lionel, Lionel as well had found it in himself. As he dissects the truth behind Frank Minna’s life, Lionel learns the truth about his identity and moves on with his life. Lionel let’ go of Frank, as someone he used to know, and let’s go of his insecurity of his tics by accepting the reality of both always being a part of him. Lionel’s obsession was more than finding Frank’s murderer, it was always about finding himself.
Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. Vintage Books, 1999.