In ‘Motherless Brooklyn,’ Johnathan Lethem utilizes language through Lionel’s condition and through the discourse of characters such as the other Minna Men and Julia Minna in order to portray the theme of identity and what it means to lack identity. For Lionel Essrog, it is as if language defines him being that his Tourette’s causes him to manipulate and shout out words. Thus his identity relies heavily on how others, such as the Minna Men, The Clients, Julia Minna, and Kimmery, react to his disorder. Additionally, by way of conversation between Lionel and the other Minna Men and also Julia Minna, it is evident that they too struggle with identity for reasons different from Lionel’s. For instance, after the death of Frank the Minna Men do not know how to act being that they based their lives around Frank Minna. Also, Julia’s seemingly undying happiness caused by her marriage to Frank plays a role in her creation of selfhood because her discontentment daunts her husband. Questions about identity formation is reflected in the text in how Lionel is treated due to his Tourette’s, how the Minna Men feel detached from each other after the death of Frank, and in the impassive nature of Julia and Frank’s marriage. An examination of these critical situations reveal that selfhood is complicated by loneliness, ultimately portraying that identity is shaped by the validation of others.
In the text, Lionel is repetitively either ridiculed or ignored because of his disorder which has a great impact on the development of his identity. A vital instance in which Lionel is treated differently because of his Tourette’s is evident when he says, “He could be certain I’d puzzle over the Irving clue while Gilbert would write off as our mutual insanity. And he felt, rightly, that no conspiracy around him could possibly include his pet Freakshow. The other boys would never let me play” (201). What is noteworthy about this is that Lionel’s self-worth is measured by what the other Minna Men think of him. Lionel works fervently to solve the murder of his boss in order to prove himself and to gain some dignity not only for himself but in the eyes of the other Minna Men. Lack of faith in Lionel is also present when he goes to meet with The Clients, they say to Lionel, “Tony should have your help in bringing that day closer. You should stand behind him” (175). Although this statement makes it seem as if The Clients value Lionel’s effort to solve the murder, they undermine him by suggesting he stand “behind” Tony, insinuating that Tony is the leader of this investigation. Tony tells Lionel, “To shut up and quit asking questions. And stay in Brooklyn” (185). Tony attempting to bully Lionel to cease his search for Frank’s killer shows that the other Minna Men feel they can easily command Lionel to do anything because of his disorder; Tony feels that Lionel is an incompetent detective and should mind his business instead of continuing his pursuit.
Another scene in which is Lionel is undercut is when Julia says, “He said the reason you were useful to him was because you were so crazy everyone thought you were stupid” (300). Julia here is explaining that no one takes Lionel seriously because he has Tourette’s, she is also clarifying that Frank found a use for Lionel’s disorder thus Lionel felt validated by his boss. Without Frank Minna, Lionel cannot determine his position in society; his Tourette’s proved to be valuable only to his boss and now that he is gone Lionel is lost and feels that solving his murder will provide some sort of satisfaction. An imperative moment in which Lionel struggles with identity is when he calls all the other Essrogs in the phonebook, “Just long enough to hear another Essrog breathe” (69). This moment is crucial because it reveals Lionel’s loneliness while at the same time uncovers his attempt to find some control by looking up all the other Essrogs. This occurs later on in the novel as well; when Kimmery stops answering Lionel’s calls, he calls one of the Essrogs attempting to regain some control because he has obviously no power over his relationship with Kimmery. Kimmery eases Lionel’s tics and now that he has lost her, he must find another outlet to lessen his lonesomeness. Similar to Frank, Kimmery accepts Lionel’s tics and is unbothered by them, she even says, “I like, um, I like it when you talk. When you make sounds” (222). Thus Lionel is attempting to fill the void left by Frank’s death by latching onto Kimmery, basically forcing his identity to depend on Kimmery’s approval.
Not only does Lionel face the struggle of identity, the other Minna Men also encounter difficulties with selfhood. This struggle surfaces when Lionel says referring to Danny, “I felt I didn’t know him with Minna gone…we were suddenly fourteen years old again and occupying our opposite niches at St. Vincent’s Home for Boys” (124). This is an indispensable moment because it shows that without Frank, the Minna Men are practically strangers to each other despite the fact that when their boss was alive they formed a sort of makeshift family. This is represented once again when Tony and Lionel meet, Lionel says, “If we couldn’t trust each other, Tony and I were at least reminded we were two of a kind, especially in the eyes of a cop” (190). This quote works to show that Tony and Lionel only recall their connection to each other when in the eyes of an outsider now that Frank has been killed.
Similar to Lionel, the other Minna Men also feel this need to prove themselves. Tony seems to want to be the new Frank Minna, this is evident when he says, “I’m long over my disappointment that Frank liked to surround himself with a cavalcade of clowns. It was a way of life. I won’t be making the same mistake” (185). This quote portrays that now that Minna is dead, Tony assumes he is the new Frank and will take over the affairs of the Minna Men. What makes this significant is that is shows the hold Minna had over the Minna Men, how much they so very much struggled to be just like him. Lionel even states, “Minna Men try to be like Minna, but Minna is dead” (90). In this line, Lionel is directly addressing that the Minna Men try to imitate Frank in practically every way. This line also suggests that now that Minna is dead, what will happen to the Minna Men? The Minna Men also strive to be like Frank in the way that they want the love of Julia Minna. Lionel discloses, “If we had Julia we would do better than Frank, and make her happy” (98). This quote exemplifies the Minna Men’s obsession with Frank, how they want to be just like him; however what they truly strive for is to be better than him. Since they grew up without a familial structure to shape them, the Minna Men rely heavily on Frank to form their identities.
Another character who struggles with selfhood in a way unique from Lionel and the other Minna Men is Julia Minna. Lionel claims, “Minna dragged her back to Carlotta Minna’s old second-story apartment on Baltic Street, where she’d stayed for most of fifteen years, a sulking housewife” (98). Lionel’s is demonstrating here that Julia was unhappy being married to Frank, and unhappy living in Brooklyn. Julia then later verbalizes, “This isn’t how I dress, really. This isn’t how I look. I don’t even like these dresses” (101). Julia’s statement exposes that before Frank died she lived by his physical standards by wearing the dresses he wanted her to. This is also evident later on when Lionel says in reference to Julia, “They bleached her dark hair to platinum blond. It was as though she were the one who should be in disguise here” (290). This line is intriguing because it not only shows that Frank wanted to change his wife’s appearance but he somewhat wanted to disguise her, almost as if changing her physicality would make her his, turn her into the woman he wants her to be.
Nevertheless, physicality is superficial and although Frank made Julia change her appearance, it was Julia who carried the real power in the relationship. Lionel says, “Julia terrified us at first, not for anything she did, but because of her cool grip on Minna, and also how tense he was around her, how ready to punish us with his words” (97). Here, Lionel uncovers how Julia uses her unhappiness and disappointment in Frank to have a hold on him, Lionel even naming her an “idol of disillusionment.” Julia even seeks to find happiness in affairs with the other Minna Men and Gerard Minna but fails and this is clear when Lionel claims, “We studied you to understand what a Minna Woman might be, and saw only rage – rage I now understood had concealed disappointment and fear, oceans of fear” (297). Lionel’s understanding of Julia’s fear unveils that Julia is and never was happy and seemingly never can be, especially by the way of Frank Minna. Julia and Frank seem to have a grip on each other; Frank is intimidated by his wife’s unhappiness, Julia obeys Frank’s desires to change her look, and yet they both appear unable to depart from each other, not until Frank’s death.
Lethem’s ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ explores the concept of identity in many ways. Lionel grapples with identity because of his condition which he is constantly undercut for, the other Minna Men contend with the idea of self because they are so accustomed to striving to be like Frank, and Julia and Frank toil with selfhood within their marriage due to Julia’s unhappiness and Frank’s attempts to change his wife physically. An analysis of these key moments within the novel expose that because the concept of self is convoluted by lonesomeness, identity is eventually formed by the acceptance of others. This essentially means identity formation depends on the recognition and approval of surrounding people more so than one’s own self.