• Dan Tillebæk
4. term, English, Master (Master Programme)
This master’s thesis investigates representations of disability and normality in Jonathan Lethem’s acclaimed detective novel Motherless Brooklyn (1999/2000) with the aim of showing how this narrative resists the predominant literary usage of disability as a stereotypical entity and spectacle that works to reinforce normative ideology and validate the normal self, while instead liberating a figure of disorder to speak, act and contemplate the world around him. Moreover, the thesis discusses how this liberation allows us to rethink both our perceptions of figures of Otherness but also the naturalised structures and ideologies of reality which we usually accept as universal. Focusing on literary engagements with disability and normality, the fairly new academic field of disability studies becomes the obvious choice of theoretical approach with its interest in how and why specific meanings are assigned to normal and disabled bodies. The thesis presents a concise overview of the dominant concerns, arguments, theories and terminologies of disability studies in form of a survey, exploring especially the notion of disability and normality as social constructs; Otherness as a repressed form of self; literary traditions vis-à-vis the disabled figure; and, finally, more political aspects concerning discrimination and civil rights. Framed by the cultural insights that this field of study offers, the thesis contains two separate but to a great extent overlapping analytical chapters. The first of these examines the genre conventional dimensions of Lethem’s (quasi) hard-boiled fiction novel and how these are used and subverted in the quest of breaking down the walls between Other and self. I argue that, through his transformation from being an absurd court jester at the margins of society to becoming a potent private eye, narrator and protagonist, and through his narrative in general, the Tourettic Lionel Essrog begins to dismantle the image of him as an uncanny character of Otherness. Instead, he makes us see his inherent humanity, as well as drawing attention to the constructedness of such ostensibly natural structures and ideologies as reality and normality. To this end, we look at how Motherless Brooklyn engages with such themes as the dualistic relationship between body and mind; the deviant body in the matrix of desire and the hierarchy of homosocial relations; and the relations between Lionel’s condition and narration and the characteristics of postmodern storytelling. The second analytical chapter introduces Soviet literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque and attempts to create a dialogue among this concept, disability and Lionel’s narration. Based on a reading of French Renaissance writer Francois Rabelais, the theoretical contemplation which underlies the carnivalesque allows us to conceptualise Motherless Brooklyn as a countercultural narrative that expresses repressed needs and experiences of man—repressed by official culture and its structures of truth, that is. Moreover, I argue that it is possible to see Lionel’s manifestations of Tourette’s syndrome as remnants of the carnivalesque, and that they as such are fundamentally human and not alien such as our culture conventionally views disabilities and disorders. Broadly speaking, then, this master’s thesis concludes that Motherless Brooklyn challenges hegemonic cultural understandings of the concepts of normality and disability through a narrative that shows the humanity of the Other and the Other in humanity.
Publication date2008
Number of pages75
Publishing institutionInstitut for sprog og kultur
ID: 14737907