Thursday, March 02, 2006

The grammar of skyscrapers and pavement

I read and loved The Fortress of Solitude in September--what a great novel--and then I went to the library and checked out all of Lethem's other books. But for some reason the only one I read at the time was The Disappointment Artist (here was what I thought). There is something anaphrodisiac about having a shelf full of someone's complete works from the library, I got a lot of A. L. Kennedy on that same trip and though I absolutely loved her novel Paradise having all her books sitting there (and they're short-story collections mostly, so not so much my cup of tea) left me unmoved to take up and read (Augustine!).

Anyway I got a recall notice the other day for Motherless Brooklyn so I thought I had better actually read it and as soon as I started I was completely captivated. It is a lovable novel, more lovable though perhaps less technically impressive (less completely overwhelming) than Fortress; the narrator is incredibly appealing (you have to slightly suspend disbelief that he is so articulate, though of course it is in the best tradition of noir to have these under-educated hyper-articulate narrators), the language is excellent, the whole Tourette's Syndrome thing works really well. I pretty much loved it, in other words; its pathos-type appeal is really stronger because Lionel Essrog is so much more moving (and a first-person narrator, too, that's part of the reason) than Dylan Ebdus in the later book.

A few things I especially liked:

The phrase "blond by nurture"--I am going to start using that--but it especially captures the tawdriness of belated-gumshoe noir.

Lionel's riffs on the Artist Formerly Known as Prince and the glyph for his name (which I am intrigued to learn is represented by O ( + > in ASCII characters--now there's your trivia fact for the day, and if I were a Lethem-like obsessive I would link to the actual magazine cover story the novel references and tell you exactly when it ran thereby dating the incidents of the novel, but I am too lazy to investigate further); in a corner store Lionel picks up a copy of Vibe because Prince is on the cover (the black cop interviewing him puts this down as mockery) and is seized by the need "to try to pronounce that unpronounceable glyph" ("Skrubble," "Plavshk"--what this really reminds me of now, of course, is those word verification strings in blog comments). Later on there's a really excellent passage about the Tourettishness of Prince's music ("The way he worried forty-five minutes of variations out of a lone musical or verbal phrase is, as far as I know, the nearest thing in art to my condition"), it's beautifully written and made me listen differently to the music of Prince as well, which is remarkable as I listen to it all the time. And the last appearance comes when Lionel learns from a Maine fisherman that "urchin season" runs from October to March and says the word "Urchin?" without comprehension and feels as he says it "that I'd ticced, that the word was itself a tic by definition, it was so innately twitchy" and that it would have made a good pronunciation for Prince's glyph. Endearing, no? Smart, cerebral, but not at the expense of the emotional tug on the reader.

The drive to Maine near the end of the novel is especially well-realized and well-written. Lionel says of a coastal town called Musconguspoint Station that the "name had a chewy, unfamiliar flavor that tantalized my syndrome": "Whether or not Maine's wilderness impressed me more than suburban Connecticut, the road signs would provide some nourishment." And, facing the ocean:

Waves, sky, trees, Essrog--I was off the page now, away from the grammar of skyscrapers and pavement. I experienced it precisely as a loss of language, a great sucking-away of the word-laden walls that I needed around me, that I touched everywhere, leaned on for support, cribbed from when I ticced aloud.

The person who should read this novel if he hasn't already is Ken Bruen, I would love to know what he thinks of it (there's a funny Gene Hackman reference that totally reminded me how much I loved The Hackman Blues which is a work of particular Bruenesque genius; and the two books while not particularly similar are both novels about vengeance, or "taking the V train" as Lionel puts it).

(Lethem also has an unusually beautiful but rather enigmatic website.)

Now I've been set underway, I'm going to read all the other Lethem. There is something counterintuitive about reading a novelist's irv (a Lethem coinage) backwards, as it were; I am going to stick to that reverse order, it is like watching one of those time-lapse photography sequences backwards (the flower folding itself back into the bud).


  1. Too bad you weren't around for his free discussion with A.M. Homes and New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman at Miller Theatre on Tuesday. He read a brilliant story from his latest book "Men and Cartoons" and seemed very down-to-earth and engaged. A.M. Homes was really provocative and said a lot of smart things about writing as well.

    Last week they had Malcolm Gladwell for free as well...this New Yorker Nights series is one of the best things that the CU Arts Initiative has done, in my mind, since I've been here.


  2. What did you think of AL Kennedy's "Everything You Need?" I'd love to hear your thoughts.

    Sorry to digress. I loved "Fortress of Solitude" and "Motherless Brooklyn," too, but I was curious to hear more of your thoughts on Kennedy.

  3. Nola: Haven't read that one, and it doesn't seem to be one of the ones I checked out; will get it & see, don't know when I'm going to get to it though. But I plan to read the couple others I have before I have to return them in May, so look back in a little while.

    Gautam: Yeah, that sounded really good. Ah well, I'm sure there will be more opportunities in future.

  4. Several friends have raved to me about A.L. Kennedy's Everything You Need, one even going so far as to buy me a copy, and I still haven't gotten to it. Perhaps eventually we can compare notes... Of course, now I feel compelled to add a few Lethem titles to my list as well!

  5. All right, clearly I MUST get "Everything You Need" in the immediate future!

  6. I Love Jonathon Lethem. I started out with Gun, With Occasional Music, way back when, and then Amnesia Moon, and others as they came along. I liked Motherless Brooklyn a great deal, though not as much as I had hoped, based on the buzz around it. But I loved the way he wrote the main character's Tourette's-- I identified so strongly with many of the tics and quirks, and it brought a lot of questions to mind about the overlap between eccentricity and disorder. Haven't yet read Fortress of Solitude, but I plan too, especially after such a high recommendation.