Dave Young Annotation
JONATHAN LETHEM'S MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN
Motherless Brooklyn is Jonathan Lethem's fifth novel (published in 1999), and is set in New York in the late 1990s. The narrative is from the point of view of Lionel Essrog: orphan, and sufferer of tourrettes syndrome. Growing up in an orphanage in Brooklyn, Essrog falls in with a group of other "motherless" boys at his school, all of whom are taken under the wing of local "fixer" and small-time businessman Frank Minna. Employing them as part of his removals company, he takes them out of school to move miscellaneous boxes, conspicuously without any explanation. This extended prologue describes the affectionate relationship Essrog builds with Minna, and also gives to reader a good insight into the perhaps nefarious activities he's running in the background of his business. Minna announces one day that he must leave New York city for a while, with Lionel being aware that something is amiss. The novel really begins with the return and sudden murder of Frank Minna. The boys have all grown up by this stage, and Lionel quickly takes on the role of a private eye, trying to find out what Minna may have been hiding, and who killed him.
Lethem disrupts the typically "cool" detective noir-genre by subverting private-eye cliches with moments of farce and dark humour. The novel investigates New York as a cinematic and literary icon - landmarks, soundmarks, lowlifes and gangsters, femme fatales, newspaper vendors and fast food joints provide a simultaneously believeable yet constructed vision of Brooklyn. It fits in with Lethem's canon - common themes between Motherless Brooklyn and his other novels include social isolation, obsession, human fallibility, and New York city itself.
Lethem was said to be a part of a so-called group of "genre-bending" North-American novelists in the late 90s. Other writers somewhat similar to Lethem worth investigating would be Rick Moody, Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon, and Margaret Atwood.
Other notable works by Lethem:
The Fortress of Solitude - an epic semi-autobiographical account of growing up in mixed-race Brooklyn in the 1970s.
Chronic City - loneliness, alienation, and the cult of celebrity in 21st century New York.