Obsession for the Opposite Sex

 In the novel, Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem, the background story and the development of the protagonist are thrilling and interesting. All readers will learn what type of character Lionel is, after reading this unique and ‘ticcish’ novel. Well, Mr. Norton, I believe that by trying to bring to fruition your film based on secondary characters, especially on female characters, could do wonders. They are the ones, Julia and Kimmery, that reveal us the characteristics of Lionel and his mysterious Tourette’s which are two important features in the novel. The secondary characters reveal secrets of the main character and Lisa Rosenberg supports it by saying on her blog,

“Supporting characters can shine light on the main character’s hidden humanity, offering hope or a dramatic turnaround where none seems possible. They can remind us why the journey of the main character is important, especially when that character is most troubled or lost.” 

       Julia is the first female character to be introduced in the novel and she has an important role in Lionel’s development. In their first scene together, Lionel has a keen eye for small details:

“I saw the redness in her eyes and the heaviness and softness of the flesh around her mouth. She groped for a pack of cigarettes that lay on the dresser, and when she put one between her grief-swollen lips I checked myself for a lighter I knew I wasn’t carrying, just to make a show of it.” (99)

To describe a mouth, a small feature, means that Lionel is interested in her. He might be in love with her because lovers tend to catch small details about the one that they are fond of. For Lionel to act as if he has a lighter which he doesn’t in reality, is another sign of love because lovers wish to help in any way the one that they love or their love makes them strange in a way that they act differently. Also, our protagonist pictures himself in crazy scenes because his Tourette’s brain is searching for a comfort zone or a goal:

“I fought off a weird imagining: that she’d catch her slip on fire–it did seem flammable, practically looked aflame already–and that I’d have to put her out, drench her with a glass of water. This was an uncomfortable feature of Tourette’s… I wanted to protect someone, and Julia would do.” (100)

We know that at that point of the novel, Frank is dead and he is considered as a father figure to Lionel. Therefore, with Frank not being in his life anymore, Lionel is searching for something to protect, a reason for him to live, and so far he believes that Julia “…would do” (100), that she can fill the gap missing in Lionel’s heart. The touretter tends to have sexual thoughts around Julia. Such as when Julia moves Lionel’s hands to her breasts, he says that he likes sex very much and if he could, he would have kept his hands on her breasts for a week or so, in order for him to think straight. (104) Julia sees Lionel as a childish and inexperienced guy, and she toys with him by bringing up sexual topics in their conversation and she plays with his feelings. He seems jealous when he asks about Julia and Tony’s relationship and Julia responds, “I don’t know. Screw Tony. I like you better, Lionel…” (104) Lionel doesn’t know how to respond and wishes that his tics got control over him. Afterwards, Julia admits coldly that she doesn’t like him. (105) In their second scene, their interaction is short, but Julia still is harsh towards him and treats him as a child: “Screw you, Lionel. You fucking freak.” (274), but Lionel still questions and observes her carefully without any concerns about her attitude. In fact, the protagonist is trying to find clues about the investigation and to understand her emotions: “It was pitying and bitter and desperate at once.” (274)

Finally, in their last scene together, it is rather dramatic. Lionel believes that Julia’s safety is his to protect, but she does not even give any interest in his care. (292) The touretter is inferring all the clues he got about the investigation with Julia. As their interaction goes on, Lionel notices that she is resenting, restless, in pain and angry, he practically sees through her. When Julia admits that she had sex with every Minna men except Lionel, he then feels bad, “’Maybe it was Tony,’ I said, and regretted it even worse.” (296) He wants to believe that Julia is a woman that the Minna men should look up to. Lionel finds that he is similar to Julia; they both lost Minna and that they are abandoned: “…I need her to see that we were the same, disappointed lovers of Frank Minna, abandoned children.” (297). When Julia pulls a gun on him because she doesn’t trust him, Lionel finally realizes that they have nothing in common. That she hasn’t actually lost Frank Minna since she never had him in the beginning: “I’d been wrong, Julia and I had nothing in common.” (300)

The relationship between Kimmery and Lionel may be the closest, most intimate and shortest relationship Lionel could have. This relationship also reveals a lot about Lionel and his development, it includes Lionel’s attention to detail, about his Tourette’s and his difficulty earning Kimmery’s trust. Again, Lionel is very observant, especially about facial details: “… she’d removed her eyeglasses for the first time, and her eyes looked tender and small and searching.” (210) In the apartment, Lionel goes through his investigation with Kimmery wishing to share feelings with her, but Kimmery still isn’t convinced about what she was told: “I wondered if I could ever share with her how terrible it was.” (215) It proves that Lionel wants to accept Kimmery in his life and it is because she soothes his tics and he founds out that they both have something in common. They are not truly accepted in the outside world: “She was rootless, alienated in this space.” (213) It is quite evident that Lionel wants to create a bond with Kimmery and by finding something in common is a way to approach her and to start a love relationship. When Kimmery and Lionel had an intercourse, it is noticeable how Lionel is unexperienced and childlike:

 “You can touch me there,” she said

“I am,” I said, wishing for accuracy.

“You are so excited,” she said. It’s okay.”


 “It’s okay. Oh Lionel, that’s okay. Don’t stop, it’s okay.”     

“Yes,” I said…                                                                                                                                                                         (216)                                                                

In this passage, we see how much their sexual intercourse is really awkward such as when Lionel was repeating “Yes,” and Kimmery, “It’s okay.” Lionel ticcing with Kimmery whereas he believes that she is his cure, is quite the irony: “Ticcing with Kimmery was especially abhorrent to me, now that I’d declared her my cure.” (254) Lionel’s Tourette’s brain is obviously his subconscious telling him that the bond between Lionel and Kimmery is not real and ticcing is the subconscious way of communicating. While his conscious thinks the opposite. Therefore, there is a sign of a mental conflict between his subconscious and conscious mind. For him to try to avoid his tics means that he basically wants to flee from his Tourette’s and for this reason he wants to create a close relationship with Kimmery, but Kimmery does not give any affection, furthermore she tries to keep the calls short by giving excuses. In their phone calls, she shows less interest in him compared to when they were in the apartment, surprisingly she cares more about her keys than him; “Did you take my keys?” and when it is about Lionel and his line of work, she is doubtful as if he is talking gibberish:

“I’m a detective, Kimmery.” I almost said, I’m a telephone.

“You keep saying that, but I don’t know. I just can’t really accept.”

“Why not?”

“I guess I thought detectives were more, uh, subtle.”                                                                                                                                                                                               (255)

She sees him as an insane guy, and asks herself why is Lionel telling me about the investigation he is going through while detectives are normally in low profile. It is because Lionel trusts her and again wants to create a mutual bond, trust is necessary for a good relationship. In addition, we see Lionel getting jealous when phone calling Kimmery: “Are you saying Oreo man had Tourette’s syndrome?” Here, Lionel believes that Kimmery’s ex had the same symptom as his which could make Lionel not so unique, but he also never tells her that he has Tourette’s. He may think that Tourette’s is labeled as a “freak” and he is scared to be called such by a woman that he loves. Finally, in their last scene, Kimmery reveals that she got back with her ex: “I’m moving back with Stephen,” (309) It is as Julia said: “No woman will ever want you, Lionel.” (297) Surprisingly, Lionel does not seem to have expressed any emotions; although, Kimmery is to Lionel, a kind of remedy for his tics hence it also means that he finally accepts his Tourette’s.

As you can see Edward Norton, Lionel interacting with Julia and Kimmery draws a lot of information about the famous compulsive touretter. He is alert, he notices small details about both Julia and Kimmery and for this reason he gets to understand them easily about their feelings. He wants to find a part of him in those two female characters, because he doesn’t want to be rejected and it is also a way to flee from his Tourette’s. While the story progresses on he starts to accept his syndrome and keeps moving on while being detached from the others, he basically found his independence. The relationship Lionel has with Julia and Kimmery makes the readers understand Lionel and his Tourette’s, while both of those characters’ relationship with Lionel have their own similarities and differences. Therefore, I hope you, Mr.Norton, that you will take in consideration my proposal for your incoming movie.

Works Cited

Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. First Vintage Contemporaries Edition, October 2000.

 Rosenberg, Lisa. “Importance of Supporting Characters.” SF360,  http://www.sf360.org/?pageid=12518. Accessed 13 October 2009

Hersi Nur


One thought on “Obsession for the Opposite Sex

  1. This is an interesting look at the two women in this novel, and how they shed light into Lionel’s character. I think focusing on just the two of them was a good choice. It gives your paper more focus provides a nice contrast between how these two characters help understand Lionel better. You do a nice job of making comments about Lionel by focusing on their interactions, rather than on the other characters themselves. Good work.

    Liked by 1 person

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