Thursday, January 1, 2009

Review: Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem, [Vintage Books, 1999]

Ever since Emile Zola wrote about the Rougon-Macquart family in the late nineteenth century novelists have used psychiatric ideas to give their works greater verisimilitude. The twentieth century was indeed awash with the influence of psychoanalysis. Now that Freud has been succeeded by the neo-Kraeplinians it appears that a new kind of psychiatrically inspired character has been born.
In Motherless Brooklyn, a spoof of a hard-boiled crime story, the narrator-detective suffers from Tourette’s syndrome. This provides the author, Jonathan Lethem, with an opportunity to engage some wonderful word-play. On being introduced to a hoodlum named Matricardi, for example, the narrator says, “I thought mister catch your body mixture bath retardy whistlecop’s birthday and didn’t dare open my mouth.” There are a lot of italics in this novel. Beyond this the narrator-detective’s ticcing and swearing allows him to acheive a valuable degree of invisibility because so many other characters think that because he is obviously crazy he must be stupid too.
Lethem also tries to use Tourette’s as a metaphor, writing, for example. “Conspiracies are a version of Tourette’s syndrome, the making and tracing of unexpected connections of a kind of touchiness, and an expression of the yearning to touch the world, kiss it all over with theories, pull it close. Like Tourette’s, all conspiracies are ultimately solipsistic, sufferer or conspirator or theorist overrating his centrality and forever rehearsing a traumatic delight in reaction, attachment and causality, in roads out from the Rome of the self.”
While this is a very entertaining novel, the ticcing of the narrator seems nothing more than a device for allowing the author some literary room to play. The narrator learns about his disorder casually, when someone hands him a book on the subject. Throughout, however, he speaks as an expert on Tourette’s. He speaks about himself as if he were presenting a case history. The acknowledgement to the books of Oliver Sacks seems appropriate, though Sacks writes about his characters with more compassion.
Is this the legacy of neo-Kraeplinian psychiatry to literature. It’s enough to make one nostalgic for the pat symbolism of psychoanalytically inspired fiction.

Edward M. Brown

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