Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Jonathan Lethem, _Motherless Brooklyn_

ANOTHER BACK CATALOG foray, as the only other novel I have read by Lethem is the book that followed this one, The Fortress of Solitude.

Motherless Brooklyn is a fine novel, and a prize-winning one (National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction) -- yet its winning that prize surprises me, because it's one of those honors that normally goes to literary fiction rather than genre fiction, and Motherless Brooklyn sure seems like classic noir detective fiction to me.  

Some literary fiction is obviously inspired by or modelled on genre fiction in general and detective fiction in particular -- Auster's New York Trilogy comes immediately to mind.  You would not actually mistake City of Glass for an honest to god detective novel, though, would you?  The metafictional games, the lack of resolution.... 

The blurb on the back of my copy of Motherless Brooklyn calls it a "compelling and compulsive riff on the classic detective novel," and a "homage to the classic detective tale," but in what respect is it a "riff" on or "homage" to the detective novel rather than, simply, a detective novel?

I can imagine someone asking, "if it's a good novel, who cares how you classify it?"  Reasonable point.  Classifying it as one thing rather than other does have practical consequences, though, such as where it is placed in the store and whether it will get serious consideration for, say, the National Book Critics Circle award.  So what makes a detective novel a "riff" on rather than an instance of its own genre -- hence in a more prestigious if typically less lucrative category?

Maybe our narrator?  Our narrator, Lionel Essrog, is quite a bit more interesting than Philip Marlowe (in my opinion) or Easy Rawlins or whoever we are following around in James Ellroy, not only because of his Tourette's -- did this book inspire the TV series Monk, do you suppose, with its neurologically-awry detective? -- but also because he develops and finds himself in the course of his investigations in a kind of frantically compressed bildungsroman.

Great ending, too -- although that alone makes it seems more genre fiction than literary fiction, as our literary fiction writers seem to have entirely misplaced the whole art of ending a novel.  So many novels that I very much liked -- Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision, Jennifer Egan's Look at Me, Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House, anything by Zadie Smith, even The Fortress of Solitude for that matter, left me thinking, "hmm...what?...that's an ending?"

Someone I once talked to had a theory: novelists sell a novel on the basis of the first few chapters, which consequently they slave over, get other opinions on, polish to a fine sheen and so on, but once they have a contract on the basis of those chapters it is in their interest to finish the rest as expeditiously as possible, and so we are now in the era of under-achieving endings of novels.

This could never happen with genre fiction, though -- you couldn't write a romance or a mystery unless you knew how it ended.  

So, since Motherless Brooklyn has a corker of an ending, it must be genre fiction?  Hmm, that won't work either, will it?

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