The unreliable or limited narrator filters experience; to represent this, a tortured or puzzling use of language embodying the speaker’s voice pushes towards incomprehension. I am thinking of the opening of Joyce’s Portrait; Stephen’s infant consciousness defies easy recognition of sounds, shapes, environment. The language Joyce employs in its incompleteness carries the meaning through denying it – on first glance. Faulkner does something similar in the opening of The Sound and the Fury – and we can name many more.
Rereading Jonathon Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn forced a consideration of narrative limitation to mind. Lethem’s Lionel, if you remember, suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. Unlike Joyce’s Stephen, he will not mature to leave behind the prose that offers us infant sensibilities, and unlike Benjy in Faulkner’s novel, Lionel possesses a critical intelligence and verbal sophistication. As a narrator then, Lionel both speaks out of his Tourette’s plagued consciousness and reflects on its workings. He understands himself to be “twitch” or “tic” governed and, in his interior monologue that carries the narration, he reflects upon this state.
Now Lethem is working a fine introspective line: Lionel in dialogue speaks in copralalic bursts, interjecting in halting and explosive tics his response to his boss, Frank Minna, and his fellow “Minna men.” The plot of the novel has Lionel searching for the murderer of his mentor, Frank, and his investigations cause him to interact aggressively with a broad range of people, well out of his usual haunts. Lethem has Lionel describe the physical aspects of his Tourette’s in his compulsive touching, his focused counting of acts he must repeat, and his sense that at any moment, his disease is a curse and a blessing. Just as it limits and estranges him it licenses the misrule of his tongue and hands. He becomes something of a Holy Fool, or Court Jester.
But featured in gaps in the action are Lionel’s self-reflections and in these Lethem goes beyond the metaphorical power of Tourette’s as limiting condition to Tourette’s as a new and brilliant filter with which to see the world, that is the reader comes to see the world anew. The creation of the world through Tourette’s unrolls. At one point, at the climax of the novel, Lionel stands in the alien environment of coastal Maine. A man raised in Brooklyn knows only streetscapes and skyscrapers. He reflects that he has lost the grammar of discourse, that the fluency he possesses in Brooklyn – not in speech but in composing or understanding his world – is gone. He has not even the structure to “tic.” Briefly, his compulsions fade – but only briefly.
In another passage, riding on the New York subway, Lionel realizes that the subway’s is a Tourette’s vision: the disjunction of sights through the windows, the jolts, the blurs and the driving pressure forward and the effort of restraint against that motion. His world mimics his experience: to have Tourette’s is to ride the subway constantly in the tunneling consciousness that is his perceptual present.
Even as he grows in his realization, that Frank’s murder has removed one stable point of reference in his life, he understands that grief is again an experience that mimes Tourette’s. The pain is impulsive, releases itself from pent-up stops into violent outbursts only to recur.
Lethem’s artistry delivers to us a universe both comic and manic. Yet it also opens a deeply reflective understanding of the cost of stability and the risks of loyalty. Lionel resolves his conflict with an act of vengeance which he pushes away as a malevolent Tourette’s twitch. He advises himself, in the novel’s final words, “Make like a tree and leave. Tell your story walking.” Life is the Tourette’s continuum and the affirmations come by talking the experience. But guilt over vengeance lies just beneath the mental and verbal flow. The linguistic pyrotechnics of the story he has just told walking is proof enough of what a “Tourette’s resolution” entails.