A sea of language at full boil

Jonathan Lethem is an author whose back catalogue I’ve been slowly, happily pecking away at. His protean, genre-blending style will not appeal to all tastes, but I’ve greatly enjoyed the few I’ve read. The most recent of these is Motherless Brooklyn, which won a couple of awards as the century turned. I single it out here because its narrator is obsessed with language.

Lionel Essrog is an orphan now grown up, more or less, and he has Tourette’s syndrome. (In his acknowledgements Lethem mentions Oliver Sacks, whose book An Anthropologist on Mars has a chapter on Tourette’s.) Lethem’s depiction of the syndrome is sympathetic and thoughtful, but he is alive too to its comic and dramatic possibilities, and the novel is often funny, tense, or otherwise affecting.

Lionel’s Tourette’s has its own particular contours, characterised by compulsive counting, ticcing, tapping (people’s shoulders, especially), kissing, collar-fixing, copying other people’s utterances and actions, and a kind of self-fuelling wordplay that draws on words heard or seen and then cannibalises itself unstoppably.

Early in the novel, staking out a meditation centre with a fellow orphan, the word Zendo catches Lionel’s eye and mind:

Of course after any talk my brain was busy with at least some low-level version of echolalia salad: Don’t know from Zendo, Ken-like Zung Fu, Feng Shui master, Fungo bastard, Zen masturbation, Eat me! But it didn’t require voicing, not now, not with White Castles to unscrew, inspect and devour.

Eating eases his symptoms. That ‘low-level echolalia salad’ is a background constant; with enough momentum or material – from conversation or other environmental sources – it reaches a critical point and must be expressed.

Here, Lionel recalls his orphanage days, before he had heard of Tourette’s:

Meantime, beneath that frozen shell a sea of language was reaching full boil. It became harder and harder not to notice that when a television pitchman said to last the rest of a lifetime my brain went to rest the lust of a loaftomb, that when I heard “Alfred Hitchcock,” I silently replied “Altered Houseclock” or “Ilford Hotchkiss,” that when I sat reading Booth Tarkington in the library now my throat and jaw worked behind my clenched lips, desperately fitting the syllables of the prose to the rhythms of “Rapper’s Delight” (which was then playing every fifteen or twenty minutes out on the yard), that an invisible companion named Billy or Bailey was begging for insults I found it harder and harder to withhold.

The insults – and there are many: this is a book about alienated boy-men in NY – are often pretty mild, with Essrog riffing on Eat me! and Bite me! a lot of the time. His Tourettic outbursts are likewise mostly non-profane, though dickweed, from the moment he first hears it, is integral, ‘lodged thereafter in my uppermost tic-echelon’. Threatened by another boy, the teenage Lionel reproduces the word and then morphs it into variant nonsense-epithets like Dickyweed and Dicketywood:

I was trapped in a loop of self, one already too familiar, that of refining a verbal tic to free myself from its grip (not yet knowing how tenacious would be the grip of those particular syllables).

Despite the (minor) danger, he cannot shrug it off: ‘“Restrictaweed, detectorwood, vindictaphone,” said I, prisoner of my syndrome.’

His own, unusual name, Lionel Essrog, also elicits irresistible deviation (Unreliable Chessgrub, etc.), often alluding to his immediate circumstances or preoccupations. Names, having natural gravity, draw special focus, few more so than Prince’s Love Symbol #2, pictured. Under the eye of a suspicious cop (who thinks Lionel’s name is Alibi – long story), Lionel browses the magazines in a local shop:

I spotted a familiar face, on a magazine called Vibe: The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. Before a blurred cream background he posed resting his head against the neck of a pink guitar, his eyes demure. The unpronounceable typographical glyph with which he had replaced his name was shaved into the hair at his temple.

‘Skrubble,’ I said.


‘Plavshk,’ I said. My brain had decided to try to pronounce that unpronounceable glyph, a linguistic foray into the lands On Beyond Zebra. I lifted up the magazine.

‘You’re telling me you’re gonna read Vibe?’


‘You trying to make fun of me here, Alibi?’

‘No, no, I’m a big fan of Skursvshe.’


‘The Artist Formerly Known as Plinvstk.’

Dr Seuss’s invented letters in ‘On Beyond Zebra’

A little later Prince reappears in a musical digression:

Music had never made much of an impression on me until the day in 1986 when, sitting in the passenger seat of Minna’s Cadillac, I first heard the single ‘Kiss’ squirting its manic way out of the car radio. To that point in my life I might have once or twice heard music that toyed with feelings of claustrophobic discomfort and expulsive release, and which in so doing passingly charmed my Tourette’s, gulled it with a sense of recognition, like Art Carney or Daffy Duck – but here was a song that lived entirely in that territory, guitar and voice twitching and throbbing within obsessively delineated bounds, alternately silent and plosive. It so pulsed with Tourettic energies that I could surrender to its tormented, squeaky beat and let my syndrome live outside my brain for once, live in the air instead.

‘Turn that shit down,’ said Minna.

‘I like it,’ I said.

‘That’s that crap Danny listens to,’ said Minna. Danny was code for too black.

Lethem riffs on the parallels between Tourette’s and conspiracies…

Conspiracies are a kind of Tourette’s syndrome, the making and tracing of unexpected connections a kind of touchiness, an expression of the yearning to touch the world, kiss it all over with theories, pull it close. Like Tourette’s, all conspiracies are ultimately solipsistic, sufferer or conspirator or theorist overrating his centrality and forever rehearsing a traumatic delight in reaction, attachment and causality, in roads out from the Rome of self.

…and insomnia:

Insomnia is a variant of Tourette’s – the waking brain races, sampling the world after the world has turned away, touching it everywhere, refusing to settle, to join the collective nod. The insomnia brain is a sort of conspiracy theorist as well, believing too much in its own paranoiac importance – as though if it were to blink, then doze, the world might be overrun by some encroaching calamity, which its obsessive musings are somehow fending off.

On the road, on a mission, Lionel sees on the map ‘a coastal village called Musconguspoint Station’ – a name whose ‘chewy, unfamiliar flavor … tantalized my syndrome’. The road signs, he knows, will ‘provide some nourishment’ for his compulsion. Properly away from the city for the first time, the sudden absence of its ubiquitous supply of words hits him:

Waves, sky, trees, Essrog – I was off the page now, away from the grammar of skyscrapers and pavement. I experienced it precisely as a loss of language, a great sucking-away of the word-laden walls that I needed around me, that I touched everywhere, needed for support, cribbed from when I ticced aloud. Those walls of language had always been in place, I understood now, audible to me until the sky in Maine deafened them with a shout of silence.

Amidst the musings on language and Tourette’s there’s a story, too, but Lethem’s style and storytelling are the real attraction.

8 Responses to A sea of language at full boil

  1. John Cowan says:

    Michael Everson pointed out to me that the final, innominate, letter of the On Beyond Zebra alphabet is actually a ligature of ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ.

  2. A.R. Duncan-Jones says:

    Thanks, interesting. Could I please ask, however, about your own choice of a couple of words ?
    – riffs on the parallels …: an (almost) non-musician, with little knowledge of jazz, I had always thought ‘riff’, v. to describe having a theme as the basis or background for improvisations / variations, rather than the improvisations themselves: or has the difference been elided ?
    – staking out a meditation centre: this seemed a charming notion, of keeping the centre under close observation, possibly with the intention of rushing in to steal some of the more valuable meditations. But is that what you meant ?

    • Stan Carey says:

      I meant riff in the sense ‘write playfully, creatively or informatively’ on a subject. I suppose the usage still borders on slang, but it falls partly under definitions like: ‘perform a monologue or spoken improvisation on a particular subject’ (Oxford), ‘speak amusingly or make amusing comments or remarks’ (Collins), and ‘speak for a long time on a particular subject, especially in a humorous way’ (Cambridge).

      By ‘staking out a meditation centre’ I meant that Lionel and his friend were keeping it under close observation – not with malice aforethought but because their boss was conducting a transaction inside and had instructed them to keep a lookout from the car.

  3. I’ve read (and bought, and given) On Before Zebra but I had no idea that it was published in 1955. I thought it was a recent publication in the Seuss style published through his estate or something. Even the most enthusiastic Seuss fans, I find, have never heard of it. Perhaps, in 1955, it was simply too far ahead of its time.

    Tourette’s is an interesting topic, in part because — in a diluted form — I recognise some of its characteristics in myself.

  4. […] Speaking of Oliver Sacks, I recently read his book The Island of the Colour-blind and Cycad Island (Picador, 1996). Like all […]

  5. […] started with Jonathan Lethem. For more on his writing, and less punctuation geekery, see my post on Tourette’s syndrome in Motherless Brooklyn: ‘A sea of language at full […]

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