Thursday, June 25, 2020

Book 239: Motherless Brooklyn



"Minna Agency errands mostly stuck us in Brooklyn, rarely far from Court Street, in fact. Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill together made a crisscrossed board game of Frank Minna's alliances and enmities, and me and Gil Coney and the other Agency Men were the markers- like Monopoly pieces, I sometimes thought, tin automobiles or terriers (not top hats, surely)- to be moved around that game board. Here on the Upper East side we were off our customary map, Automobile and Terrier in Candyland- or maybe in the study with Colonel Mustard."

Dates read: June 5-8, 2018

Rating: 3/10

One of the things that writing this blog over the years has done is help me get a better sense of who I am as a reader. Thinking about my reactions to a book in a critical way has really done a lot towards making sense of what appeals to me and what doesn't. Even writing out the plot summaries that I do helps me figure out what aspects of the stories were most salient and important in my memory (as well as trying to give anyone that reads here enough of a preview that they can figure out if the book might be right for them). I used to comb through lists of what other people were reading and add to my own list books that they liked, but now I usually skim, looking for key words (like "character-driven", "spellbinding", "beautifully written") that usually correlate with my own tastes. I still take chances on things that are outside my usual wheelhouse, but I know my own preferences much better.

Jonathan Letham's Motherless Brooklyn was a book that I'd originally added to my list because I'd seen something positive about it on the internet. Then I came across a copy when I was browsing for a buy and reading the back and skimming the text, decided it might not actually be for me. A couple years later, it was selected as a book club read, so this felt like a good test of my own ability to predict whether or not a book would work for me. And it turns out I do know myself: this subversive take on a noir detective story fell completely and totally flat for me. Part of it, I think, is due to my own lack of depth in the mystery/detective genre (the enjoyment in watching tropes get undermined is best enjoyed when you're already familiar with the tropes), but part of it was just that I didn't think it was very good.

The story centers on Lionel Essrog, one of four men who grew up in an orphanage taken under the wing of Frank Minna, a small-time gangster in (pre-gentrification) Brooklyn. Despite the criminal acts into which Frank draws him beginning when he's just a teenager, Lionel is deeply loyal to Frank, one of the only people who has ever shown compassion for and understanding of his severe case of Tourette's Syndrome. When Frank is murdered at the beginning of the book, Lionel puts all his sleuthing skills to work to find the killer: could it be Frank's mysterious wife, Julia? Could it be "the clients", the old Italians who dole out tasks to the team? Could it even be another member of the team looking to create a leadership vacancy? And how does the Zen Buddhist center where Frank was last seen alive tie into everything, if it does at all?

I'll start with the positive, as I often like to. Even with a relatively limited reference point for the cliches of noir, I could understand the way that Lethem was playing with them: the silent, repressed detective hero is completely turned on its head with Lionel's Tourette's making him fidgety and unable to keep quiet. The femme fetale, Frank's wife Julia, instead of tempting Lionel with her sensuality, reveals she's slept with every member of the team besides him and doesn't intend to change that. Lionel at one point gets bounced from a Buddhist meditation session by obvious criminals and no one lifts a finger to stop it because they're too absorbed in their practice. It's over the top and ridiculous in a way that's clever and meant to be funny.

But for me, all of that humor failed to land. I didn't get involved at all in the story because I didn't care for a second about any of the characters. I couldn't have cared less who killed Frank or even Lionel's journey, because Lethem didn't bother to write Lionel (or anyone else) as remotely compelling. The entire book felt like an exercise in intellectual masturbation, in which Lethem decided he wanted to engage in wordplay and wrote the Tourette's into the story to give him the opportunity to do so. After a while I found myself skimming virtually all of the dialogue because it got tiresome to read. And don't even get me started on the sex scene, one of the most cringeworthy ones I've ever read and that I dearly wish I could un-read so as to never think of again. Y'all, I hated this (though I was definitely in the minority of my book club in so doing) and I recommend avoiding it at all costs.

One year ago, I was reading: Amsterdam (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Perfect Murder, Perfect Town (review to come)

Three years ago, I was reading: Spook

Four years ago, I was reading: Zero K

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