First of all, let me say that I did enjoy reading Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. I was bored enough with the first two chapters that I almost put it down, but the book got better after that. Or at least better enough that I kept reading. The narrator and main character, who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome and tries to solve and avenge the murder of his boss, was interesting enough, and the way Lethem drew a link between associations in language and discovering the hidden motivations in people’s lives was done well. The book even had some truly funny stupid jokes.
None of this was material of startling brilliance though. The elements of detection in the novel were handled half-heartedly, being perhaps not quite the point in a book that is only making use of the notion of detective novels in order supposedly to tell us something more significant, or at least to entertain us differently. The characters involved with organized crime weren’t particularly original either, although making some of them simultaneously involved with a Zen Buddhist organization was a clever if ultimately overly obvious twist: men of a world of violent action posing as men of inner peace. So I thank the friend who recommended Lethem to me (half-heartedly enough himself, as it turned out) for leading me to look at the work of this novelist whose book reviews are regularly featured in the NY Times Book Review.
What does bug me though is that Motherless Brooklyn was winner of the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and was named by Esquire as novel of the year. Why would that be exactly? For its mugging references to Raymond Chandler (whose books I kept wishing I was reading instead every time Lethem’s main character mentioned them) while it simultaneously distanced itself from being considered mere genre fiction by the human truths it supposedly offered? And what were those? Would they include the insight offered by the character Julia that the narrator’s boss “said the reasons you were useful to him was because you were crazy everyone thought you were stupid’? In other words, that because of prejudice towards the disabled, their abilities are often overlooked? Is this what prompted Esquire’s statement that the book is “utterly original and deeply moving”? There were some original moments, but I was moved just about zero percent of the time.
I’ll stop carping though. I’m hoping I’ve learned by now that books win literary prizes because they appeal to the values of the judges of literary prizes. Sometimes those values are even good values, and sometimes books that win awards really are extraordinary books. Not this one, but sometimes. And of course all criticisms of this kind always contain that nasty subtext: why aren’t my values the ones being consulted in the awarding of literary prizes? Still, I’m hard pressed to imagine that anyone really does think Motherless Brooklyn is a great book, although it seems that some do. It was a decent summer read, no more.
But here’s my problem. The book was just decent enough that I can imagine someone saying of Lethem, “Well, that one was okay, but you really should have read his book so-and-so.” And I can imagine myself being persuaded enough to buy one more book by Lethem. And if that one was similarly okay? Would I then be led to a third by somebody else, and so on?
In other words, how many times am I willing to let the apparatus of praise keep me reading the work of a writer who, on a first take, I found only marginally satisfying?
I’m wondering if anybody else has similarly been led down the garden path of praise to read repeated books by a writer they don’t like that much. For the moment I’m holding my ground and reading no more Lethem. But I’ve been led down this path a few too many times to think I’ll never be led down it again.
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