Monday, August 12, 2013

Motherless Brooklyn: WebMD doesn't list symptoms for Rebel Against Society

Motherless Brooklyn is a take on the classic detective novel, sure to appeal to the Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett/James M. Cain set. Aside from being staged in present-day Brooklyn, what primarily separates this book from the classics it pays homage to is its narrator, Lionel Essrog. He was a young orphan tapped to work for small-time mobster Frank Minna. Now he's a grown man trying to uncover the truth behind his boss-type father figure's brutal murder, under the guise of Minna's limo service/detective agency/front-for-ill-doings-about-town. Lionel also happens to have Tourette's syndrome.
For me, counting and touching things and repeating words are all the same activity. Tourette's is just one big lifetime of tag, really. The world (or my brain—same thing) appoints me it, again and again. So I tag back.
Can it do otherwise? If you've ever been it you know the answer. (pp. 5-6)

I'm not super familiar with Tourette's, but this is the best description of the condition I've ever heard. Ever-ever. And Lethem keeps DOING that.
My own name was the original verbal taffy, by now stretched to filament-thin threads that lay all over the floor of my echo-chamber skull. Slack, the flavor all chewed out of it. (p. 7)
So I'm sure you can imagine that Lionel's Tourettic impulses play a prominent role in his interactions. When he's around Frank and the other Minna Men (also orphans recruited as children from St. Vincent's Home for Boys), all of whom have known him since his symptoms first started manifesting in childhood, he can boop a 6-foot-tall man gently on the nose, shout "EAT ME, BAILEY," or whisper "doublebreasts" in the middle of a conversation, and no one will bat an eye.

But as he plays the role of detective to solve the mystery of Frank's death, he's thrown into situations where his Tourette's constantly threatens to interfere with his goal of uncovering valuable information. I mean, you can't just go around caressing strangers, says Polite Society.

And sometimes an impulse can put Lionel in physical danger. For instance, in a battle of wills with Albert the private security guard:
I began to want to grab at the nightstick in Albert's holster—an old, familiar impulse to reach for things dangling from belts, like the bunches of keys worn by the teachers at St. Vincent's Home for Boys. It seemed like a particularly rotten idea right now. . . .
As we brushed past Albert I indulged in a brief surreptitious fondling of his nightstick. (pp. 32-33) 
Aside from being positively edible, the writing FEELS classic. I would forget sometimes that the story wasn't set in the '40s. Then there would be a reference to Mariah Carey or power windows, and I would go, "EH?"

Oh look, moregoodwriting:
A part of each of us still stood astonished on the corner of Hoyt and Bergen, where we'd been ejected from Minna's van, where we'd fallen when our inadequate wings melted in the sun. (p. 79)
Have you ever felt, in the course of reading a detective novel, a guilty thrill of relief at having a character murdered before he can step onto the page and burden you with his actual existence? Detective stories always have too many characters anyway. And characters mentioned early on but never sighted, just lingering offstage, take on an awful portentous quality. Better to have them gone. (p. 119)
Now . . . I just need to make it about me for a quick sec.

For as long as I can remember, I've had these random impulses to do inappropriate things at just REALLY inappropriate times. I'll be sitting in a quiet room (church, for example) and think, "What if I just stand up and yell, 'I HAVE TO POO'?" Or I'll be making with the small talk at a restaurant and think, "What if I poured my coffee on this person's head?" Or, slightly more concerning, I'll be standing at the edge of something very high up (say, just for example, the Golden Gate Bridge) and think, "What if I jumped?"

The impulses aren't particularly strong. I have never, in fact, done any of those three things mentioned above. But is it weird that I even THINK about it? Do I have some excessively watered-down form of Tourette's? Or am I just a badass rebel, propriety be damned?

More important, will I be thinking about pouring hot liquids in your lap the next time we get together?

Me, at any given moment. Right now even.


  1. Well this seems charming. And no, I don't think you have a watered-down Tourette's; those mischievous impulses are normal in situations where we are bound by societal rules. The jumping from bridges/high up places thing is thrill-seeking behavior - the same as the impulse to ride roller coasters (assuming you're not, y'know, suicidal, of course).

    That writing is delightful. Hmm.

  2. Thank you, Dr. Tika. You speak with authority, and I am comforted.

  3. I'm going to say something, and I'm being totally and completely respectful of Tourettes and things when I say this, but... I now want to whisper 'doublebreasts' in the middle of conversation. Possibly EVERY conversation.

    Also I work in a totally silent office cause we're all listening to stuff, and weekly I have the urge to shout things/stand up and run out/do something weird. So I'm glad Tika's already said that's fine :)

  4. If you whisper it very quietly, maybe no one will notice.

    The world would be so much more interesting if we just acted on our impulses. Except I would probably be dead from jumping off a

  5. I will inform my therapist that her advice and reassurances are wider-reaching than she first thought.

  6. This sounds excellent. I mean, look at that writing! So many books you're making me add to my list.

    I also will be sitting around thinking "What if I were to (lightly) slap this person while they're talking?" And the jumping off stuff.

  7. You know, I read somewhere that the fear of heights isn't that you're super high in the air, it's the fear of the impulse to jump/fall/let go from great heights. Which makes sense because I am terrified of heights when I'm on the top of a building or mountain or something kind of unprotected, but absolutely fine in a plane.

  8. Also, you are winning with the books recently. I am just adding everything you review directly to my TBR.


    Also, that writing is not doing it for me, but I'm ALSO not very into detective books. Like at all. I read Dashiell Hammett, but I didn't enjoy the experience aside from Nick & Nora being cute.

  10. Great excerpts! I only know about the mechanics of Tourette's from school stuff and all that, but this book gets into all of the internal conflicts, which is the big hook to getting me to read it! Excellent Parks and Rec gif - perfecto!

  11. You were actually the one I thought of most when I was reading this, because I know your reading tastes tend to gravitate in this detective-type direction.

    As long as you slap the person lightly, I'm sure it will be fine.

  12. That makes a LOT of sense, except I have this weird contradiction in that my fear of roller coasters stems from my lack of control. Like, once you get in that car and the lap bar comes down, no amount of mind-changing as you go clicking up the hill will get you off that ride. And once it's going, you're totally depending on the competence of the ride engineers and those pimply teenagers at the controls. Of course, that doesn't stop me from riding ALL the roller coasters.

  13. I've read a few meh books lately, but I just haven't felt like talking about them. So this reading streak of excellent books is sort of an illusion.

  14. I didn't think you would like this one. Detective novels aren't my in, it takes me a while to decide to pick one up and actually read it. But then WHILE I'm reading it, I usually like it. Until it's time to read another one, and then the cycle begins anew. This all sounds a little unhealthy, doesn't it?

  15. I wrote down SO MANY. And then I tweeted some while I was reading because I got really excited about the wooooords and how nicely they were put together.

    But I really do think, without the Tourette's angle, it might've been a sort of blah plot.

  16. Dat writing. TBR'd madame. Also, "I indulged in a brief surreptitious fondling of his nightstick." *snigger*

  17. THANK you...because yes. Never is "fondling" not a naughty word.

  18. I can totally relate to those feelings, except it's less rollercoasters and more the kind of rides that necessitate turning me upside down. I have zero trust that the engineers are good enough to keep me in the ride until the ride has finished. And then I get excited and want to go again!

  19. Awww well now I HAVE to read it