I finished Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn last Thursday night. It was recommended to me by my workshop instructor, and it’s the last thing I’m going to read that isn’t Infinite Jest for the next three months.
The story: a former orphan with Tourette’s Syndrome tracks down his boss’s killer. There are Jersey mobsters, Zen monks, a giant polish assassin, lots of Brooklyn stuff, and the main character’s soda-can-thick bent penis. Of course he’s got a big penis. The only recurring female characters in the novel outright reject the narrator’s help/protection/romantic advances multiple times (so that and the orphan thing is what puts the “motherless” in Motherless Brooklyn).
My only exposure to Tourette’s is this book and watching Tim Howard play in goal for Everton and USMNT. So it’s probably really insensitive of me to say that the best parts of this book were basically all the Tourettic outbursts that always came at the wrong times. The rest, well, it gets a bit tedious as it goes along. We don’t really go more than two or three pages without some other character reminding us that they think the narrator, who’s been incredibly expressive in his narration, is nothing short of a freakshow. So none of the other characters ever take him seriously. And I had problems taking him seriously once I realized his hunt for his boss’s killer was, symbolically, nothing more than just another expression of his Tourette’s. Slap on top of that the sudden leaps of illumination that help the narrator (spoiler alert) solve the crime that absolutely come out of nowhere.
Case in point: the biggest one comes while he’s meditating in a Zen school. I guess this is supposed to be symbolic: the ever-active Tourette’s mind battling against/coming into synchronicity with the Zen One Mind leads to the ultimate enlightenment. But in the moment, it was incredibly forced, and I recognized it immediately for what it was: a convenient “out” for a plot that had stalled. Man, whatever.
I’m not going to say I didn’t like the book, but I’m also not going to say I’d recommend it. It’s basically…how does the expression go? A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.