L&L: Lionel and Language

by Claudia Keurdjekian

Dear Mr. Norton,

I heard that you were planning to make a film adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Motherless Brooklyn, but for some reason it has been delayed or cancelled for the moment. Luckily, I am here to help you get things back on track! As I was reading the novel for more than a month now, I found an element of the book that will tie the whole thing together as coherent movie. I’ve been watching movies for years, and may I say that I know what it takes to make an interesting movie. For that reason, I decided to write to you so I can lay out my vision for the film, which primarily focuses on one particular aspect of the novel as you’ve asked for. Language is one of the most compelling aspects of the movie since it adds depth to both Lionel’s character and the story.

Firstly, the language that is “unleashed” through Lionel’s tics adds humour to the story by surprising the readers with his spontaneous outbursts and his strange choice of words. Even though the events that are happening in the story are rather serious, Lionel’s tics make them seem less dark than they actually are. For instance, at the beginning of the novel when Lionel and the rest of the gang are on a stake out, Frank tells Lionel:

“Just listen. If you hear me say uh, ‘First I gotta use the bathroom,’ that means we’re coming out. You get Gilbert, get back in the car, get ready to follow. You got it?”

“Get, get, get, GOT!”, said [Lionel’s brain]. “Duck, duck, duck, GOOSE!”   (Lethem, 8).

Because Lionel’s uncontrollable tics happen at the most inappropriate times, this creates an overall silly tone. When Frank instructs him to follow his orders, Lionel’s Tourette’s is suddenly activated. He “naturally” connects words that are similar sounds (e.g. in this case, “get, get, get, GOT” and “duck, duck, duck, GOOSE”), but are not really related to each other whatsoever. This world play is funny because it is out of context and unexpected, which leads us readers to divert a little from the crime scene. In other words, Lionel is comedic character. In addition, Lionel’s tourettic impulses also add humor to the story because they are very bizarre in terms of their combination of words. For instance, he constantly repeats words like “Eat me!” and “Dickweed!” (119). His “seizure[s] of language” don’t really mean anything, but they sound funny to readers because they are unusual (175). There are many other silly parts in the novel like when Lionel asks Loomis for Ullman’s address, and says, “Tell me Ullman’s address,” [and then his brain goes] Man-Salad-Dress” (149). Once again, Lionel’s tics can’t help him from mixing words like “man”, “salad” and “dress” to make up for “Ullman’s address”. In short, Lionel’s tics add a comical side to the story, but it also tells us what kind of person he really is…

Secondly, language reveals the different evolving aspects of Lionel’s character throughout the novel. During his childhood, Lionel had a hard time defining his condition, and he didn’t really know much about it besides what others defined him as (e.g. “a free human freakshow”) (58). He only thought of himself negatively. After Frank gives Lionel a book to help him understand his Tourette’s syndrome, Lionel describes “[his] constellation of behaviours [as being] ‘unique as a snowflake’, oh, joy, and evolving, like some microscoped crystal in slow motion, to reveal new facets, and to spread from its place at [his] private core to cover [his] surface, [his] public front” (82). Here, Lionel creatively uses language to depict himself; the microscopic crystal is actually a metaphor for Lionel illustrating how one of a kind he is. The snowflake evolving to “reveal new facets” is similar to his journey in the investigation, where we as readers discover the “new facets” of his character. Little by little or as Lionel says “in slow motion”, he begins to spread his own wings, and becomes independent as he takes charge of the case while the rest of his friends aren’t much involved. In addition to this, the contrast between private and public symbolizes how Lionel has broken down the barriers that had imprisoned him from the outside world. At this point, Lionel expresses a feeling of freedom, and begins to transition his self-loathing and insecure side of his character to a more confident and open one. Although his snowflake metaphor was only foreshadowing his character evolution, it is confirmed near the end of the novel as Lionel stands on the edge of the ocean at Maine:

…It was as I […] turned to see the ocean that the vertigo hit me. I’d found the edge, all right. Waves, sky, trees […] I experienced it precisely as a loss of language, a great sucking-away of the world-laden walls that I needed around me, that I touched everywhere, […], cribbed from when I ticced aloud. Those walls of language had always been in place, I understood now, audible to me until the sky in Maine deafened them with a shout of silence. […] I needed to reply in some new tongue, to find a way to assert a self that had become tenuous, shrunk to a shred of Brooklyn stumbling on the coastal void: Orphan meets ocean… (264)

At this breathtaking moment of the novel, we witness once again Lionel utilizing descriptive language to express himself. His experience of a “loss of language” describes how astonished he is by the beauty of the ocean, and the thrill that it gives him to stand on the edge. The “walls of language” remind us readers how Lionel’s Tourette’s hindered him in life, and have played the role of barrier between him and the world. Those walls are “deafened by Maine with a shout of silence”. This symbolizes how Maine has allowed Lionel to calm his tics by soothing them. “Shout of silence” is an oxymoron, which brings a contrast between the words “shout” and “silence”.  Lionel tics aloud, but yet he is in silence, since there is no one else besides he and his inner-monologue. It almost sounds like a cry for help or just releasing his emotions. His “need to reply in some new tongue” means that he is looking for another path in his life. In addition, this quote creates another contrast between “Maine” and “Brooklyn”, where Maine is looked upon positively and gives Lionel a sense of freedom,  where as Brooklyn is seen as a cage that had imprisoned him his whole life. It gives the impression that Maine has changed Lionel, and has allowed him to evolve his character since it has liberated him from the “chains” of his syndrome.

Thirdly, Lionel’s language accentuates the difference between how we really view him as readers, and how the other characters do in the book. Lionel lives in a world where his skills in language are not appreciated nor are they really acknowledged, and his tics are seen as nothing but a nuisance. When Lionel was young, “[his] life story [would sum up] to this point: The teacher […], the social-services worker […], the boy […], the girl […], the woman […], [and] the black homicide detective looked at me like I was crazy” (107). Basically everyone around him thought that he was insane because he had the Tourette’s. Only the readers can notice his poetic language and can appreciate his creative thinking. According to Lionel, “Tourette’s teaches you what people will ignore and forget, teaches you to see the reality-knitting mechanism people employ to tuck away the intolerable, the incongruous, and disruptive- it teaches you this because you’re the one lobbing the intolerable, incongruous, and disruptive their way” (43). Lionel’s depiction of the Tourette’s tells us how people will reject anything that’s considered out of the ordinary or that’s not fitting in the standards of the society. Since Lionel has the Tourette’s he is able to notice that, and we are too, as readers. Many readers would agree that Lionel is a poetic,  and a rather intelligent person that has great “writing” skills, since he comes up with inventive ideas unconsciously while ticcing. The way others perceive Lionel is by reading the book (him) by it’s cover.

All in all, there are many gripping aspects about this novel that make it worthy to be adapted into a film. The possibilities are endless! I hope my vision of the movie will inspire you to get back on the initial project that was set, because I truly believe Motherless Brooklyn deserves second chance. I am certain that the fans who enjoyed reading the novel, will also love watching the movie. I look forward to hearing from you Mr. Norton!

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Claudia Keurdjekian

Works Cited

Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. Vintage Books, 1999. Print

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2 thoughts on “L&L: Lionel and Language

  1. This is a beautiful piece of writing. It does justice its subject matter: to write about language, you must be a good writer. And you are. A great writer, I would say. You have put this all together masterfully. So far, you are the only student who has chosen to write about language. And it is always refreshing to read a new take on it. But, you even surpass refreshing. Your reading of the novel and the citations you provide is just wonderful. You take a real profound bite out of the evidence you use, and it’s just really, really enjoyable to read. I feel I’ve learned a lot about the novel from reading your essay. The writing itself is great–sharp, clean, and personable. You’ve handled all the little mechanical details almost perfectly. This is polished and you evidently put a lot of work into it. You should be really proud of this terrific final product. Congratulations.

    Liked by 1 person

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