Get on it, Norton!

After having read Motherless Brooklyn, I can’t help but question why such a compelling and different novel hasn’t been successfully made into a movie yet. You lack focus, don’t you? Well here’s my advice to you. You could focus on so many aspects of the novel, but there’s one thing you should put this specific importance on. The language that is used throughout the novel is the source of Lionel’s greatest frustration, and it allows him to fully embrace who he is as an individual. This Mr. Norton, is worth using to make a motion picture!

Through Lionel’s narration the reader gets a glimpse of his inner mind and thoughts and what better way to understand what someone is going through, than openly hearing it first hand, by the character themselves. From the very opening pages of the novel, Lionel explains that his tics are nothing he can control. Lionel says, “I’ve got Tourette’s. My mouth won’t quit, though most I whisper or subvocalize like I’m reading aloud, my Adam’s apple bobbing, jaw muscle beating like a miniature heart under my cheek, the noise suppressed, the words escaping silently, mere ghosts of themselves, husks empty of breath and tone.” (1). The use of visual imagery paints a picture in the reader’s head, and it is your job, Mr. Norton, to recreate this picture into a reality. The fact that Lionel says that his Adam’s apple is bobbing shows the constant stress and tension there is. As if having one heart beating at an unimaginable pace wasn’t bad enough, his Tourette’s is like a gear/organ in itself which is working on its own, and there is nothing more frustrating than knowing there is nothing he can do to control this urge. It is important to highlight this annoyance and irritation. The struggles Lionel faced when he was younger and attending St. Vincent’s School are illustrated when he states that “[He] kept [his] tongue wound in [his] teeth, ignored the pulsing in [his] cheek, the throbbing in [his] gullet, persistently swallowed language back like vomit. It burned as hotly.” (48).  This reveals the physical pain he experiences to keep his tics from being heard.. It physically burns him, as he ignores the throbbing to experience the scorch. Speaking simply doesn’t come easily for Lionel. By making the reader aware of what he’s going through, we realize that Lionel cannot control his speech, and we will sympathize for him.

Lionel’s boss, Frank Minna, encourages Lionel to make his opinion heard. Lionel says, “Minna encouraged me to have a take on everything, and to spit it out, as though he thought my verbal disgorging’s were only commentary not yet anchored to subject matter. And he adored my echolalia. He thought I was doing impressions. Needless to say it wasn’t comments and impressions, but my verbal Tourette’s flowering at last.” (57). Lionel personifies his Tourette’s and this demonstrates the evolution of Lionel’s verbal tics. The idea of his Tourette’s flowering implies how his verbal tics are slowly beginning to unravel themselves to be heard and transform into what they really are. Spitting out words may seem vulgar, but it is precisely what Lionel does, uncontrollably, and Minna embraces this in hopes that Lionel will soon do the same.  Minna wouldn’t look down upon Lionel or make him feel bad, yet instead he makes Lionel come out of his shell and truly start to develop.

A unique and funny movie is a good movie. Lionel describes himself as being: “[Minna’s] special effect, a running joke embodied.” (57). Lionel was like Minna’s humorous sidekick and was also similar to a student writing down your every move in hopes of one day falling into your footsteps. He begins to adapt Minna’s “Minna-ism’s” (233) and this is portrayed when he tells us, “That’s the day I heard Minna use the term that would become lodged thereafter in my uppermost tic-echelon: dickweed.” (76) This is the first time Lionel hears it, and it will definitely not be the last that we will hear it. Frank Minna is Lionel’s role model and biggest influence. This word being in his “uppermost tic-echelon” is a captivating idea and demonstrates the high ranking and value he associates to the words Minna introduces him to. These words will become something that Lionel will turn to when feeling urges to tic.

Lionel is described, by Minna himself, as being “A free human freak show.” (58), yet Minna still accepts him. A scene that can relate to this was a conversation between Seminole, Lionel and Tony, and this scene should have much emphasis put on it for the movie. We can see the importance in the following conversation between Lionel and Tony, which occurs after Lionel faces Tony at gunpoint, but the detective Lucius Seminole comes in to interrupt the danger Tony might’ve had planned for Lionel:

“Detectahole!”, says Lionel

“Alibi, you are not making me happy.”


“Don’t kill him, Superfly,” said Tony, grinning broadly. “I know it’s pitiful, but he can’t help himself. Think of it as a free human freak show.”  (p. 188).

This is the perfect example of Lionel’s verbal tics taking over in a stressful situation. Being a “free human freakshow” implies that everyone gets to watch a show containing an entertaining individual, or rather a “freak”, but free of charge. This can be interpreted in many ways. Lionel possibly isn’t getting the reward or response he deserves for the “show” he provides to those around him. Despite this, Lionel himself needs to find his own interpretation in order to look past it rather than be offended by what others may label him as.

We soon see Lionel come to terms with this and embrace who he really is, as at the very end of the novel, he goes out to the water and begins to scream out things such as “Freakshow”, “Bailey”, “Eat me! Dickweed!”, “Essrog”, “I claim this big water for Essrog” and finally classifies himself as being a “freak of nature” (265). Ironically, as Lionel shouts out into the nature some of his verbal tics, he finally understands that he is a freakshow, and this idea comes full circle by the end of the novel. By Lionel labeling himself, we can see that Lionel finally accepts the fact that he is different, and there’s nothing that he can do to change this.

Lastly, we see Lionel’s emotions portrayed through his verbal tics. When speaking to Loomis, he feels the need to add things into their conversations such as “gofuckacop” (124), and the reason this verbal tic of his is being heard is because he truly does hate Loomis. Another example would be when Lionel is speaking to the doorman asking for clues, Lionel asks him to keep an eye out for anything suspicious. Towards the end of the conversation, Lionel says, “I’d appreciate hearing from you- Doorjerk! Doorjam! Jerkdom!” (134). This is where the reader has a clear understanding that his emotions are difficult to hide, and they attempt to disguise themselves in his verbal tics, but aren’t effective in doing so. His emotions are also shown when speaking to Kimmery, as she breaks the news to him that she has decided to get back with her ex-boyfriend, Lionel says, “WantmeBailey!” (297). Even if he doesn’t straight up state how he feels about someone, his verbal tics give us a pretty good idea. When these tics are transformed into the reality, they must be aggressive and compelling, so we as viewers get to feel Lionel’s emotions through his tics.

Well Mr. Norton, really hope this gave you some ideas for your film. When Lionel expresses himself, we get to see his true colors and appreciate him for who he is. The language used will bring you great success. It’ll be worth it in the end!

Sara Vetere

Work Cited:
Lethem,  Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. Vintage Books, 1999


One thought on “Get on it, Norton!

  1. This is an excellent essay. You do a really nice job of taking a close look at the language, and how it helps inform Lionel’s character. So few students wrote about language, but it’s such a unique aspect of this novel. So, I appreciate that you took on this topic. I really like how you look at the connotations of the imagery when he describes his Adam’s apple. I like when you dissect the meaning behind “free human freak show.” I like when you take a look at his evolution near the end through the scope of his language. I like a lot of this. This essay is a very well-written and substantial meditation on the weight of the language in the novel. I enjoyed reading it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s