The Tower of Babble

By creating a detective with Tourette's syndrome, Jonathan Lethem addresses the mystery of language

Jonathan Lethem has a knack for pushing commonplace ideas to absurdly literal ends. In one novel by this wildly inventive, metafictional writer, As She Climbed Across the Table, a scientist falls in love with a laboratory-created void. The artificially aged toddlers of Gun, With Occasional Music smoke, drink, and cry for their mommies. And the story "The Hardened Criminals," collected in The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye, describes a prison whose walls are made entirely out of convicts.

Lethem has long been lumped with the science-fiction/fantasy camp, though his work tends to chafe against strict genre boundaries. Indeed, he's best known for his often audacious genre hybrids, such as Gun's 1940s gumshoe tale, which is wrapped in a future dystopia of talking animals and karma police. Or the genetic engineering-cum-basketball fable "Vanilla Dunk," an uproarious short story in The Wall of the Sky featuring Michael Jordan's DNA and a clueless white kid who ends up with it.

While the author's often dizzying story constructions have been consistently inspired, his characterization and dialogue are equally adroit. Take Lionel Essrog, the narrator of Lethem's newest and best book, Motherless Brooklyn (Doubleday). An orphan with Tourette's syndrome, Lionel spends much of his time rearranging words into a fever dream of jumbled associations. (Attempting to meditate, he turns the phrase One mind into Oreo man.) As he attempts to solve the murder of Frank Minna, a small-time Mafia operative and longtime mentor, he acts on his compulsions to shout stream-of-consciousness nonsense, constantly rearrange furniture, and touch everything within reach.

Though Motherless Brooklyn appears to be Lethem's most straightforward work to date, its story is shaped to highlight Lionel's erratic thought processes. "Right at Lionel's core is the delusion that he's a Chandleresque private detective," Lethem explains from his home in Brooklyn, shortly before leaving for a book tour that will bring him to the Hungry Mind this Friday, October 1. "The need for a plot in which his delusion could play out was implicit in his character."

As veteran Lethem readers will note, this nonsense-speaking technique is hardly new to his work. All of Lethem's novels feature at least a few characters who steal the stage with their fractured babble: the Babyheads, the old blind men of As She Climbed Across the Table, the Archbuilders of Girl in Landscape. "I very much see Lionel as a culmination of that aspect of my work," Lethem says. "It's a tendency that in the past I've kept quarantined in my work. Those characters are always forced to work the margins as a sort of Greek chorus or comic relief to the main elements. In Motherless, I wanted to see what would happen if I let the free-associational, blathering element stand front and center. Tourette's came along, by means of an Oliver Sacks essay, at just the right moment to suggest itself as a vehicle for my own attack on this division in my work."

Did this interest in nonsense come from its contemporary master, Don DeLillo, whose White Noise helped inspire Lethem's own academic satire, As She Climbed Across the Table? "He may have helped confirm my interest when I encountered him in my twenties," Lethem says. "But that tendency was formed much earlier. My reading as a teenager tended to follow two rough paths: the poetic, ecstatic beat generation, free-writing path, which also included my fascination with surrealist and Dada writings. And my love of tightly organized, neatly schematic, well-plotted novel structure. That came both out of my love of certain English novelists--Anthony Burgess, Grahame Greene, early Kingsley Amis--and from the crime novels and science fiction I was devouring, none of which made room for babbling free-writing."

This range of influences continues to lead Lethem on forays into uncharted narrative territory, at the same time as the writer's reputation has shifted away from the genre, sci-fi, that has made such projects its main mission. In 1998 Lethem wrote a Village Voice essay, "The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction," in which he attacked the way the SF industry has pandered to 12-year-old macho fantasies. Yet the author claims not to feel constrained by this form--or any other. "That essay is, for me, a kind of tombstone on my own ability to think profitably about genre boundaries," he says. "Now I feel exhausted by these issues at worst, oblivious to them at best. I certainly don't write anything out of a sense of positioning myself. I'm not trapped at all."

 
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