— Patrick Star
To the esteemed Mr. Edward Norton,
It has come to my attention that you are currently in the process of producing a film adaptation of Jonathon Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn. I have also heard news of your current difficulties in producing a proper screenplay due to creative differences among your staff. Although I find it admirable that you have undertaken such a demanding task, I direct this letter to you with a different goal in mind, which is to convince to stop production altogether. My concern comes primarily from Lionel’s character, as a large amount of his character development is left unexplored in the novel and by its conclusion, he is really left no closer to his goal than he was at the beginning of the story. The lack of change within his character is jarring and it is a critical reason why an adapted screenplay of Motherless Brooklyn would be a failure.
From the outset of the novel, Lionel possesses both traits that are relatable and unrelatable. In terms of his relatable traits, Lionel personally feels a sort of disconnection from the rest of the world, calling himself “a walking joke, preposterous, improbable, unseeable. […] I was merely crazy” (Lethem 83-84), his comments in this passage regarding his past marking the greatest conflict in the story, which is his struggles with accepting himself for who he is. Over the course of the story, Lethem brings Lionel through a journey, engaging the reader through many of Lionel’s memories as well as showing how he interacts with the various new people he must associate with in his attempt to uncover the truth behind Frank’s death. While Lionel’s true emotional conflict is cleverly hidden within this detective fiction aspect of the novel, Lethem fails to bring closure to Lionel’s emotional change, leaving a highly open-ended conclusion and little evidence to support the fact that the entire investigation had any long-lasting impact on Lionel’s character. While Lionel shows hints of change throughout the novel, by the end he has simply returned to his original state of mind.
One significant aspect of his lack of change is his inability to discard his glorified image of Frank. While he does appear to gradually gain awareness of Frank’s true nature, Lionel never stops to consider whether Frank might have been the villain the entire time. This lack of change can be first remarked in his phone call with the Clients, after he reveals Gerard’s whereabouts, there is the following exchange:
There was a long silence.
“This is not what we expected from you, Lionel.”
I didn’t speak.
“But you are correct that is of interest to us.”
I didn’t speak.
“We will respect your wishes”. (285)
While Lionel has reason to take revenge on Gerard, much of the novel up to this moment deals with Lionel’s discovery of the truth behind the relationship between the Minna brothers. He knows Frank once wronged Gerard, and therefore Gerard might have felt compelled to have Frank murdered before Frank might have done the same to him, however Lionel is still unable to digest these facts and views the entirety of the situation subjectively favoring Frank over every other individual simply because he considers Frank to be the one who truly gave him life. Furthermore, when Lionel is about to throw Frank’s watch into the ocean, however he “was sentimental about the watch. It had no taint of doormen or Clients” (303). This passage is indication of the fact that Lionel has failed to truly move on from his memories of Frank and the fact that he is still of the mindset that the Clients are malicious beings. Despite having learned of how Frank was nothing more than a dirty coward and a glory seeker, Lionel still holds him in high regard, while holding a great deal of disdain for the Clients even though they pose no real threat to him and their actions were never unwarranted. This shows that Lionel is still unable to accept the truth since it contradicts what he believes. Towards the end, he notes “deep in my grain, deeper than mere behavior, deeper than regret, Frank […] gave me my life” (310). This particular line is quite troubling, as it is clear proof of the fact that he will never abandon his current perception of Frank, and hence his attempts at changing himself will forever be hindered by his inability to live on as an individual he shapes.
The other major reason that Lionel fails to change throughout the novel is the fact that he never comes to fully accept himself. In the final paragraph of the novel, Lionel is unsure of the existence of Ullman, questioning whether he was just a fabrication in his mind, but the then shrugs off the notion and doesn’t bother to think about it (311). What this passage demonstrates is that while he is no longer as self-conscious about his mental problems, he does not seem to have come to acceptance with them rather than simply caring too little about his life anymore for it to bother him. This shows a complete lack of resolution towards this end of the story’s conflict, especially Lionel appeared to be on the verge of a major breakthrough in terms of finding self-worth. This flaw of his plays out heartbreakingly in his relationship with Kimmery. When Lionel first meets Kimmery at the Zendo, she tells Lionel “Yes, but you’re my friend now” (144) in reply to his questioning her easygoing personality around him. This triggers a shift in Lionel’s attitude for a long part of the story, as he realizes that there is substance within his personality that can make him likable and he doesn’t need to act like someone he isn’t in order to live a happy life. After this incident, Lionel’s gradual transformation from a self-conscious and aloof individual to someone who can stand up to Tony and have the confidence to go through with his throughs is very noticeable. Later on, after Lionel begins sleeping with her, he notes “I suppose I’d imagine us sheltered in Kimmery’s childlike foyer, her West Side tree house, three cats hiding. But no I understood she was rootless, alienated in this space” (213). Lionel feels a connection with Kimmery that goes further than their lackadaisical lifestyles, as he considers them as one of the same, people who are living in their own world, unable to fit in with the rest of the world. Through this, Lionel beings to understand how narrow his perspective of the world was, as he once considered himself the only person in the world who could understand himself. Now that he understands Kimmery, he realizes that there exists a world whose existence he never considered, and he finally gains the resolve to go to Maine and confront the truth, something he had been avoiding for an extended period of time due to his unease at whether or not it would make him happy. Lionel’s understanding that Kimmery is who showed him the world parallels his relationship with Frank, who he believes to the one that gave him life, and he begins to shift his dependence on Frank onto Kimmery. The end result is his tragic breakdown towards the end of the novel, when Kimmery tells him over the phone “Just stop calling now. […] It’s not romantic” (260) and “that thing that happened with us, it was just, you know – a thing” (309). The sudden awareness that Kimmery never thought of Lionel as he thought of her breaks him mentally, and he loses sight of himself. It causes him to believe that he will never find someone who truly accepts him, as when he states “She didn’t need to know it was just a tic, just echolalia that made me say it” (309) shows just how detached form the world he has become; he finds that there is no need to explain anything because nobody will bother to care. He feels that there will never be someone who will accept him no matter his position in life, hence his comfort with Danny taking over L&L and with not knowing whether Ullman ever existed or not, and therefore he feels that there’s no need for self-acceptance, as in his mind it will be completely pointless. His efforts at self-acceptance are completely lost by the end of the novel, and he is left in nothing more than a lethargic state of mind, empty of feeling and devoid of passion.
In the end, what remains Lionel’s problem is not the fact that he does not know how to change, but rather he has grown an unwillingness to do so. Lionel feels changing who he is will leave him vulnerable to his emotions and they will eventually cause him even more suffering than he was feeling in the past. Although Lionel has achieved his initial goal of learning the truth behind Frank’s death, it has come at a high cost, one that strips him of his ability to become a different person and leaves him a shell of himself. Like a member of the youth, Lionel is quick to hope, following that path with such painful blindness that when his idealistic virtues are deceived, he is truly left in a world of his own, with no path to escape.
As I have detailed above, Mr. Norton, there is little value in adapting this novel, as the evident lack of change in Lionel’s character will serve no benefit to your ambitions. I urge you, Mr. Norton, to reconsider this endeavor of yours and while I understand that this novel is of great importance to you, I feel that it is in your best interest to expend your time and resources on some other wish of yours.
Lethem, Jonathon. Motherless Brooklyn. Vintage, 2000.