Motherless Brooklyn

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Motherless Brooklyn
Motherless Brooklyn.jpg
AuthorJonathan Lethem
CountryUnited States
GenreDetective novel
Publication date
Media typePrint
813.54 21
LC ClassPS3562.E8544 M68 1999

Motherless Brooklyn is a novel by Jonathan Lethem that was first published in 1999. The story is set in Brooklyn, and follows Lionel Essrog, a detective who has Tourette's, a disorder marked by involuntary tics. Essrog works for Frank Minna, a small-time neighborhood owner of a "seedy and makeshift" detective agency. Together, Essrog and three other characters—Tony, Danny, and Gilbert—call themselves "the Minna Men".[1]

Critical reception[edit]

The novel won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction[2] and the 2000 Gold Dagger award for crime fiction.[3]

Albert Mobilio of The New York Times wrote:

Under the guise of a detective novel, Lethem has written a more piercing tale of investigation, one revealing how the mind drives on its own "wheels within wheels." Unlike the stock detective novel it shadows, the thriller in which clarity emerges on the final page, Motherless Brooklyn immerses us in the mind's dense thicket, a place where words split and twine in an ever-deepening tangle.[4]

Gary Krist of Salon wrote:

Motherless Brooklyn has a few problems—including some cartoon-like stock characters and one scene near the end that flirts with maudlin sentimentality—but it works far better than the average hip postmodern novel in terms of sheer emotional impact. Because Lethem never lets the metaphorical and linguistic possibilities of his narrator's illness overshadow his immensely appealing humanity, we really care about Lionel and his search for his mentor's killer.[1]

Film adaptation[edit]

Actor and filmmaker Edward Norton acquired the film rights almost immediately after the book was published. However, production started only in February 2018.[5] Norton wrote, produced, directed and starred together with Willem Dafoe, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Alec Baldwin. The film differs significantly from the book, which Lethem explained as "It’s as if the book was a dream the movie once had and was trying to remember it, you know?"[6] Regarding the transposition of the story from the book's contemporary time to the fifties, and Lethem's very literal interpretation of neo-noir characters, Lethem said "The alchemical quality of the written word makes it okay. But if you start photographing that, it’s going to look like Halloween, like they’re dressing up."[7]

The film had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on 30 August 2019.[8] It was not successful at the box office, with Slate's Marissa Martinelli summarizing "Norton’s film often feels less like an adaptation and more like a work of fan fiction 20 years in the making, with Norton borrowing Lethem’s protagonist and the broad strokes of his plot to create something almost entirely new."[9]


  1. ^ a b Krist, Gary (September 23, 1999). "Jonathan Lethem: Motherless Brooklyn". Retrieved November 29, 2009.
  2. ^ "All Past National Book Critics Circle Award Winners and Finalists - Page 2". National Book Critics Circle. Archived from the original on March 16, 2011. Retrieved November 29, 2009.
  3. ^ "The CWA Dagger Awards". The Crime Writers' Association. October 27, 2008. Archived from the original on July 23, 2012. Retrieved November 29, 2009.
  4. ^ Mobilio, Albert (October 17, 1999). "What Makes Him Tic?". The New York Times. Retrieved November 29, 2009.
  5. ^ N'Duka, Amanda (5 February 2018). "Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin & More Board Edward Norton's 'Motherless Brooklyn'". Retrieved 29 December 2021.
  6. ^ Martinelli, Marissa (4 November 2019). "All the Ways the Motherless Brooklyn Movie Departs From Jonathan Lethem's Novel". Retrieved 29 December 2021.
  7. ^ "Revisiting 'Motherless Brooklyn' | Brooklyn Based". 30 October 2019. Retrieved 29 December 2021.
  8. ^ Debruge, Peter (August 31, 2019). "Film Review: 'Motherless Brooklyn'". Retrieved October 18, 2019.
  9. ^ "Why These High-Profile Book Adaptations Bombed at the Box Office in 2019". Retrieved 29 December 2021.

External links[edit]