In any detective novel, the readers are in doubt. They are indulged in the novel to find the answer to one particular question: Who is criminal and why did they kill him? But, Jonathan Lethem went beyond that. He created a fine piece of art that submerged the reader in the solving of a mystery, but also he created an emotional bridge between the protagonist, Lionel Essrog, and the reader. Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn evokes compassion and pity from the reader by putting the spotlight on the main character’s inner conflict. This is what adds depth and meaning to his novel. Therefore, I strongly believe that If Ed Norton were to produce a film based on this novel, he should definitely emphasize the protagonist’s inner conflict. Edward Norton needs to focus on the relationship between Frank Minna and Lionel. He should demonstrate how Lionel evolves and develops throughout the novel considering the absence of Frank and his Tourette syndrome, and how this leads him to recognize the true face of Frank.
The evolution of Lionel’s character is so compelling. The first scene that Edward should display in his movie is the flashback chapter. This chapter gives us, the readers, an insight on Lionel’s early years. Lionel grew up as an orphan along with three other Minna Men; Tony, Gilbert and Danny. They were outcasts of the society residing in an old, dusty library. They didn’t have a person that they can look up to. As a result, Lionel and the other boys were completely lost and confused. Lionel was missing a source of guidance. He needed an adult in his life, a role model; someone who is experienced. As a young teenager, Lionel was in a quest for an identity: “I sought signs of my odd dawning self in Theodore Dreiser, Kenneth Roberts, J.B. Priestley, and back issues of Popular Mechanics and failed, couldn’t find the language of myself … But it was Minna who brought me the language, Minna and Court Street that let me speak.” (37) At this point, the reader dives in the dreadful world of Lionel. Lionel’s life before Frank is lonely, gloomy and dark. As a scapegoat, Lionel took inspiration from people who, nevertheless, succeeded like J.B Priestley, an author that was motherless at a very young age and. He thought that reading Priestley’s masterpieces would, perhaps, give him a feeling of hope. There might be a successful and bright future for him. However, this wasn’t satisfying. Lionel had a low self-esteem and was insecure. Suddenly, a man saved him and lighten his life, FRANK MINNA. Frank gave a sense to Lionel’s life. As a result, Frank was an idol and became a father figure to Lionel. He guided every step that Lionel took and defined Lionel’s character. As a result, Lionel did not know his real identity. Lionel praised and admired Frank, but Frank wasn’t exactly the right model to follow. He used Lionel, Tony, Gilbert and Danny because they were young, innocent and naïve. Lionel was oblivious to this reality, but Gerard, Frank’s brother, knew that “[Frank] kept you charmed and flattered but also in the dark, so your sense of even his small world was diminished, two dimensional.” (231). He wasn’t seeing the different angle of Frank’s personality. However, Tony was wiser than this. Tony tells Lionel, “the problem with you, Lionel, is you don’t know anything about how the world really works. Everything you know comes from Frank Minna or a book. I don’t know which is worse.” (184) Lionel believed that Frank allowed him to find his identity. On the contrary, Frank threw him in a darker hole. Lionel became uneducated and brainless. In short, losing Frank was devastating for him. Lionel had to escape this dark hole that he lodged in for years. Also, in a scene at the Zendo, Lionel gets confused and mentions, “I wished that Frank would whisper a clue in my ear from the beyond.” (141) This demonstrates his dependence upon Frank; therefore, the relationship between these two characters should be the heart of the screenplay.
As the story progresses, the reader is seeing how the main character grows and develops independently. After the death of his idol, Lionel is completely lost. Slowly, he recovers and becomes independent. Also, Mr. Essrog becomes vigilant and skeptical. In a scene where he investigates the Zendo, we see how he is gaining confidence: “For once I was playing lead detective instead of comic – or Tourettic – relief.” (143) This feeling that Lionel has about himself shows that he is gaining more power and freedom with the absence of Frank. In a way, Frank was only setting boundary on Lionel and was confining him to specific, basic roles. For instance, Lionel mentions, “I’d never made a street call before, and felt quite Captain Kirk-ish.” (153)
(Yep, it’s Captian Kirk!)
Therefore, this case was more as a self-discovery task for Lionel. Going beyond his past daily life activities, Lionel discovered many facts about him and this made him feel good. Thanks to this case, Lionel was able to find a girl that he admired, Kimmery. While with Kimmery, Lionel says, “The distance between us had narrowed, but the distance between me and me was enormous.” (219) We see that Lionel wanted a person that loves and respects him. Without Frank, Lionel don’t know who he is and that created a confusion in him. He needed a person to fill the gap that existed within himself. Also, we see how Tourette played a major role in his life. Tourette was a barrier for him. It decreased his self-confidence. Despite that the relationship with Kimmery wasn’t successful, it still remained a big step forward in his life. Every human being grows by experiencing new things. As a result, I strongly believe that Edward should demonstrate this in his screenplay. Although Lionel is evolving, a part of Minna remains in him. Frank used innocent orphans to feel powerful. In fact, Lionel mimics Frank in a similar way. This time, he was the chief and Loomis, the Garbage Cop, was the old Lionel. Lionel asserted dominance over Loomis by commanding him: “Write that down. I need some records on the building, management company, head of the board, whatever you can find out. See if any names you recognize pop up.” (161) All in all, Frank stifled Lionel’s growth and, now, without Frank, Lionel has a hard time growing on his own. I believe that it would be awesome to see in the movie how Lionel walks across this storm.
The ending of the novel has many key scenes, perhaps the most important ones, that I believe Edward Norton should place greater emphasis on. After the death of Frank, Lionel wants to find who is behind this assassination. Little by little, Lionel peels away all of the layers that covered this mystery story. He learns that many untold stories were hidden behind the famous Frank Minna. This is the anagnorisis of the book. In the middle of the story, Lionel’s consciousness and understanding woke up: “I thought about Minna himself, the mystery of his connection in the Zendo, his caustic familiarity with his betrayer, his disastrous preference for keeping his Men in the dark and how he’d paid for it.” (118) All of the recognition demonstrates that Lionel isn’t brainless. He is a wise man, but Frank impeded his intelligence. Lionel was always dragged on the floor because of his disease. As a result, many people underestimated the composition of his brain. At one point, the pieces of the puzzle were all scattered, but Lionel was able to put everything together and to recognize the truth about Frank. Frank was only an impostor! At the end, an important, but peculiar, scene demonstrates the moment of recognition. The protagonist narrates, “I took off my right shoe, felt the polished leather that had served me well, the fine stitching and the fraying lace, kissed it good-bye on the top of the tongue, then threw it high and far and watched it splash silently into the waves.” (303) This scene, where Lionel is in front of the sea, has a strong symbolic meaning. Since Lionel acquainted Frank, Frank dictated every single step that Lionel took. Therefore, throwing the shoe that Frank gave him in a place deep like the ocean symbolizes that Lionel finally decides to not follow Frank’s footsteps anymore. However, this doesn’t mean that he’s done with Frank. In that same scene, Lionel “threw [ Minna’s beeper] as far as [he] could, but it didn’t have enough heft to keep from being knocked down by the wind.” (302) The fact that it wasn’t knocked down by the wind has also a symbolic. This symbolizes that it is impossible for Lionel to erase Frank from his life. This contradiction leaves a question to the reader. Is Lionel free from Frank? Perhaps, this could be a great question that the audience could interpret.
In all, I love the idea of making a screenplay based on this novel. Motherless Brookyln is such a rich book that needs to be discovered by the public. I would be thrilled to see the trailer and hope that Edward Norton would take my opinion into consideration.
Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn.
First Vintage Contemporaries Edition, October 2000.
By Ilyas Mohamed