Thursday, August 6, 2009

Tick off

Lionel Essrog--the protagonist of Jonathan Lethem's 1999 novel, Motherless Brooklyn; a private investigator, a character with a fatal flaw--Tourette's Syndrome.

What a brilliant flash of imagination it was for Jonathan Lethem to have anointed his lead character with Tourette's Syndrome, an affliction that could be triggered at any moment, sending his cerebral circuitry off into a Karaoke of the mind, his tics and associations gathering momentum like the boulder of Sisyphus on its downhill course, gathering momentum until he was forced to give over to it. Lethem could have chosen other afflictions for Essrog, not the least of which could have been petite or grand mal seizures; he could have chosen autism or perhaps even bipolar shifts from the manic high to the depressive low. Lionel Essrog, in the moment of his creator's big bang of creation, became an icon. It is not that there were no afflicted characters before him; Willie Ashenden walked with a limp as, indeed, Somerset Maugham, his creator, did; Quasimodo was a hunchback, the eponymous phantom of the opera had a badly scarred face, Johnny Tremaine had his thumb fused to the palm of his hand when a pot of molten silver spilled. Pre-Essrogian literature is filled with men, women, and children who bore their fatal flaw and were transformed by it to the point where they made of it a valuable commodity.

In his way, Lionel Essrog took the fatal flaw to a new height; Tourette's Syndrom begins interiorally, then extends outward. Lionel Essrog opened the door for Mark Haddon's Christopher John Francis Boone of The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night Time, allowing Boone, an autistic, to do a detective job of his own, recording his adventures in a book that at first blush seemed to have had a mechanical defect of missing pages until we realize that his adventure is chaptered in prime numbers.

Jonathan Lethem did for affliction what Hammett and Chandler did for the mystery. Since the appearance of Lionel Essrog, it is no longer merely democratizing to bring the afflicted and unusual out of the closet and into the full light of inquiry, it is a dramatic enhancement by which the character displays his or her transactions with the flaw into a transformative story.

In the early days of pulp magazine mystery and suspense, Frank Gruber's Oliver Quade used his preternatural memory for fact to solve crimes. Quade was known as The Human Encyclopedia, his erudition the cause of the solution. Lionel Essrog succeeds not because of his Tourette's but in spite of it. Read of Essrog in Motherless Brooklyn and take notes.

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