By Luc Paquette
Dear Ed Nortan,
So you think you can just adapt the novel “Motherless Brooklyn” into a film, and play the main role of Lionel Essrog do you? Well I am sending you this formal letter to inform you that if you do not highlight these aspects of the novel, your film will lack depth and meaning, and just be another one of those dusty old DVD’s I wish I never bought. Its best that you follow my idea if you are to have success in this film adaptation.
“Motherless Brooklyn” by Jonathan Lethem is a story encompassing many odd combinations. With the grimy and busy city of Brooklyn, the motley of character variations, and the different relationships between those characters, you will need to really apply yourself Mr. Nortan if you are to grasp the backbone of this story. The core conflict of this story is man versus society, an interesting one, and best fitting for this story based on who the main character of this novel is. The protagonist of this story is Lionel Essrog, he is unlike any other considering he is an orphaned child who has Tourettes. At the beginning of this novel, it is already clear that he is not a person who meshes well with all those around him, rather he is the odd man out because of his Tourettes “Until rescued by Frank Minna I lived, as I said, in the library”.(37) It is because of his Tourettes that people choose to avoid him, and don’t see him as being worth anything. Not to mention, him being an orphan as well, contributes to his being secluded and unwanted. All in all contributing to the composition of the main conflict that Lionel is in search of belonging. Lionel throughout the plot is constantly trying to matter, in both search for self confidence and closer from the murder of his only true friend, Lionel must prove to all those around him that he is useful beyond his ticks.
Once Lionel meets Frank Minna and his Minna men, the typical day to day for Lionel changes, and he finally finds someone who knows him more for himself, than as an outcast. “It was Minna who brought me the language, Minna and the Court Street that let me speak” This quote acknowledges how Minna is the only reason why Lionel has a life outside of what may have been a library. The court street gave Lionel belonging, almost like his Brooklyn court street is a part of him now. The fact that Lionel can be a part of this new band of abandoned orphans is symbolism for him getting the family he has never had. It is now to them that he must prove himself to, in this way he must be the best Frank Minna between all of them.
A literary genre that becomes very crucial to the conflict is the protagonist’s narrative, and how it allows us understanding the inner conflict that Lionel must face as well.
“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 the disruptive—it teaches you this because you’re the one lobbing the intolerable, incongruous, and disruptive their way”(43)
by having the chance to see into the mind of Lionel shows more colour to how Lionel becomes part of the world around him. Its in this way that this quote highlights him actually being extremely far from becoming a part of the world that surrounds him. Lionel’s Tourettes both give him the ability to notice that he is unwanted, avoided, and ignored. However, in the same manner, his Tourettes are responsible for all of the above. Being that Lionel has Tourettes, much of his character is shown through the colourful, and very authentic ticks within his own mind, known only to the reader. Lionel though, wants to be a part of the society around him, yet he struggles to keep his turrets from describing who he really is. It is almost like Lionel in that way is fighting both himself and fighting those around him. This core and secondary conflict fit into each other nicely especially and allow the reader to fall deeper into the story being that every scene has underlying properties.
Now comes the problem that Lionel’s boss is murdered, and he must now find out who killed him. “Minna Men follow instructions, Minna Men try to be like Minna, but Minna is dead” (90) with his only role model gone, Lionel now has nobody’s image to follow. As his only father figure is taken away from him, Lionel’s whole life changes.
“I was the first awake in the world, … I dressed in my best suit, donned Minna’s watch instead of my own, and clipped his beeper to my hip. … I was Minna’s successor and avenger, that the city shone with clues.” (132)
With the process of events, Lionel now feels that he is responsible for Minna getting killed. He now feels obligated to find the murderer because the bond between him and Minna was much more special than that of any other relationship Lionel has. This is because Lionel actually relied on Minna to guide him into being accepted, which in turn allowed him to accept himself. Minna was even the reason Lionel understands his Tourettes, so now Lionel must be just as good as any of his other Minna Men or even better to catch the killer. That is when we see Lionel becomes his own character. Rather than running errands for Minna or following directions from Tony, Lionel now makes his own decisions on what he is to do next. From that Lionel’s character is developed in a whole different light. Instead of being a character that is always attached to another, never really important when on his own, he is now a changed man. Now, Lionel becomes forthright, self-confident, and sure that he will know what’s best because he knew Minna better than anyone else. Its with that development that the story shows a deeper meaning on Lionel’s character being the one that is always underestimated, when in reality, Lionel is easily one of the smartest individuals from the story.
The fact of the matter is that Lionel Essrog’s character has many angles. “There’s a lot of traffic in my head, and it’s two way” (131) he undergoes a change from beginning to end of this novel. As his character changes with the situation, we see Lionel become less concerned with his ticks, and less clouded by the people around him. Rather, he becomes more in depth with is Tourettes, and with himself. He finds peace in the fact that he is not Frank Minna, and he is not like his colleagues, rather he becomes his own unique character that no longer needs acceptance from anyone else, rather he will just take life as it comes to him. “Tell your story walking”(311) came out as the last phrase, and an image goes with it that the story worth listening to is the one that develops itself into something, and not remain the same.
Man versus society is definitely the over arching theme of this novel. We read and see the conflict go from within Lionel, to outwards to all those who surround him. However, it doesn’t stay there, towards the end of the novel Lionel becomes his own person. No longer does he need the library to sooth his Tourettes, he doesn’t need Frank Minna to aspire to, and he doesn’t need anyone’s acceptance to find his own self worth. Lionel finds something beautiful in this way, he learns to be himself for none other than his will, and that in itself is maybe the hardest thing we can do, to be proud as whatever you are is a novelty not everyone has.
Lethe, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. New York: Doubleday, 1999. Print.