To Edward Norton,
The novel by Jonathan Lethem entitled Motherless Brooklyn is characterized as a hardboiled novel, which means it involves a protagonist with an inner-conflict that overpowers the main idea of the story. In particular, this novel is about Lionel Essrog, a man suffering from uncontrollable outbursts of noises and phrases, also known as Tourette’s. The greatest challenge to reading this book is not getting preoccupied by the story but instead to fully indulge yourself in the character and his life. With the main character being the focus, I believe that the novel is really about Lionel, a troubled character both internally and externally, on a journey of finding peace.
The first moment of the novel where Lionel finds a moment of peace is when he is mourning Frank Minna’s death in his apartment, eating, drinking, listening to music, and reminiscing. This scene is very low-paced, heavy, and has a lot of subliminal meanings. In this scene, despite the fact that Frank Minna has passed, Lionel’s tourettic thoughts never quit occupying his brain “… then centered plate, candle and drink on the table in a way that soothed my grieving Tourette’s.” (127) The candle in this scene makes the atmosphere very peaceful and ritual-like. Lionel then plays a really sad song by an artist who he feels deeply about named Prince. This scene is ironic because Frank never liked Prince’s music, yet Lionel is using his songs to ease the pain of losing Frank. This can be looked at as a way of him disconnecting from Frank since Lionel’s purposely playing music that he wouldn’t approve of. Lionel also seems to find peace in Prince’s musical genre “Prince’s music calmed me as much as masturbation or a cheeseburger. When I listened to him I was exempt from my symptoms.” (128) For Lionel, not having tourettic episode’s is liberating because he feels like he has control over himself and can be at peace. The novel is supposed to be filled with suspense and Lionel should be the “hardboiled” character that’s strong and tough and never cracks. In this scene his emotional side breaks free and we can really tell how much Frank Minna actually meant to him and what impact him being gone has on Lionel.
The following scene that includes Lionel in a peaceful situation is when he attends his first Zen class. Zen meditation is practiced in absolute silence and mindfulness. For Lionel, it’s an unusual place to be because of his tourretic outbursts. For a person who has a brain with no off switch, it can be hard to be mindful and recollect thoughts when they’re jumbled and interrupted by irrelevant noise. Despite this internal obstacle, Lionel uncovers an important piece of evidence during his stay at the Zendo centre. Seated at the front of the room are important monks and the owner of the centre who goes by the name Roshi. When Lionel notices Roshi he experiences some sort of déjà vu “I recognized some terrible force of authority and charisma in his features.” (199) Authority and charisma are words one would use to describe Frank Minna’s character, therefore Lionel is finally starting to make a connection but he doesn’t know it until a few minutes later where he says,
“Roshi looks like Minna.
Your brother misses you, Irving.
Irving equals Lama, Roshi equals Gerard.
Roshi was Gerard Minna.
Gerard was the voice on the wire.” (200)
One of Lionel’s main goals is figuring out who murdered one of the most important people in his life and he gets his first lead in the Zen center. Therefore, during a moment of peace Lionel was able to figure out something crucial to his investigation, something that would’ve been impossible to achieve elsewhere. He is now one step closer to discovering the truth, and putting this whole thing to rest, which will lead him to find peace within himself.
The third situation in the novel where the main character experiences inner peace is when he’s with a woman named Kimmery, an individual who makes him feel wanted and who accepts his tourettic side. He met her while investigating the zen centre and he immediately felt a connection with her. To Kimmery, Lionel is strange but she accepts him and looks past his imperfections, without drawing attention to them. In a scene where Lionel is at Kimmery’s apartment and things are pretty heated, he admits “I was never less ticcish than this: aroused, pressing toward another’s body, moving out of my own.” (220) He mentions this feeling again while Kimmery is kissing him “Language was destroyed. Bailey he left town.” (222). Bailey is a tic he uses a lot, and in this case, he’s referring to “Bailey” as being his Tourette’s and that he “left town” means that they’ve disappeared. By being with Kimmery, he’s released from his tourretic episodes which permit him to be less anxious and to be at peace. Kimmery’s a person he looks to as a saviour from the evil that is Tourette’s. This is greatly important to Lionel’s character development because despite the fact that he’s usually uncomfortable around women, Kimmery encourages him to be confident. This bring him one step closer to reaching inner peace because he doesn’t have to worry about impressing her or freaking her out with his tics because she accepts him for who he is.
The before last scene that I believe represents Lionel inching towards finding peace of mind takes place in a small town called Nantucket in Maine, with Julia, Frank Minna’s wife. He, with the help of Julia, has solved the great murder and thus easing his guilty conscience about being responsible for the whole thing. The scene includes Lionel and Julia holding each other at gunpoint. A Tourettic compulsion takes over Lionel’s brain and he throws his gun into the sea before him and counts to one. He then lunges at Julia and twists hers out of her hand and throws it into the sea and counts to two. In search of something else to throw he reaches for Frank’s beeper. This is where we see Lionel’s will to detach from Frank by getting rid of his belongings, things that once made him feel empowered for carrying with him. For Lionel the beeper was an important piece to the investigation “It was a tool for the Clients, evidence of their hold on Frank, and it deserved to be interred with the guns.” (302) He counts to three. Next came the cellphone that belonged to one of the doormen that worked at one of Fujisaki’s hotels. He throws it into the ocean counting to four. The fifth and final object that Lionel decides is worthy of getting rid of, is his right shoe that belonged to Minna. These actions we’re Lionel’s way of expressing his separation from Frank Minna and proving to himself and the readers that he’s able to be independent. This scene is very moving because we are acquainted with a completely different Lionel; one that is no longer dependent of Frank Minna. This scene is a perfect representation of how much the main character has grown and has become someone no longer identified as an “underdog”. Lionel is one step closer to reaching the end of his long journey to finding peace.
The absolute last scene is a reflection of how Lionel’s character has changed for the better. He comes to many realizations that lead him to find peace within himself. Among many of his improvements, he managed to detach himself from Frank Minna, who was once his world. Countless scenes included him acting like Frank, wearing his clothes and even talking like him. There was even one scene where Lionel had no problem impersonating Frank just to get into the Fujisaki building to solve his murder case “I took out one of Minna’s cards. “Frank Minna” I said. The name came easily…”(158) This was obviously at the beginning of the novel where Lionel was vulnerable and unhappy in his own skin. In the end, Lionel realizes something very important “we’d all been notes in the melody, but the point of the song was the brothers…” (304). He realizes that Frank and Gerard we’re the only ones that mattered and that the rest of the Minna Men, himself and many others, were pawns in their game of money and power. His devotion to Frank meant nothing anymore and therefore he chooses to let it all go and be at peace. He also understood that people tend to feel most guilty about the things they can’t control “I can’t feel guilty about every last body.” (311) Lionel, a character who was supposed to be hardboiled but gave us a peek at his emotional side, has now settled with the fact that he is not a hero and cannot save the ones who don’t want to be saved like Julia, Frank and Kimmery.
All of this is to say that one perspective of reading this book is a man seeking to be at peace with himself despite many inner and outer conflicts. Lionel Essrog is a brave man who lives with an incurable and uncontrollable disease that makes him seem like a “freakshow”. By being loyal to his boss and mentor from a young age, he is able to uncover one of the biggest mysteries of Court Street and put an end to the whole investigation. Lionel is an example of someone who deals with an uncontrollable inner-conflict but that strives by accepting his flaws which make him gain confidence in himself. His journey to finding peace may not have been easy so far but he got through it and still has a long way to go because after all, absolute peace is reached only when you figure out the sound of one hand clapping.
Thank you for your time,
Work cited : Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. Vintage Books, 1999.