By Carolyn Kellogg
1:49 PM EST, February 26, 2014
A film version of Jonathan Lethem's novel "Motherless Brooklyn" has been in the hands of Edward Norton for more than 15 years. Last week, funding finally came through for the project, which is scheduled to begin filming in New York later this year.
Published in 1999, "Motherless Brooklyn" is a novel about a small-time detective agency and a mobster's murder. What made it special -- it won that year's National Book Critics Circle award for fiction -- is its narrator, Lionel Essrog, and his unique voice. Here's how it begins:
"Context is everything. Dress me up and see. I'm a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster. I've got Tourette's. My mouth won't quit, though I mostly whisper or subvocalize like I'm reading aloud, my Adam's apple bobbing, jaw muscle beating like a miniature heart under my cheek, the noise suppressed, the words escaping silently, mere ghosts of themselves, husks empty of breath and tone."
From this quiet beginning there is usually a pressure building, a pileup of words that erupts in something like "'Stickmebailey!" Essrog's exclamations -- often profane -- are taken in stride by his colleagues but seem half mad to everyone else. The word-drunkenness is funny in the narrative flow of the story -- but in the larger context, it's a dynamic commentary on words and reading and writing.
That part might be hard to translate to film.
Norton, who wrote the script, has streamlined the story in another way -- the book is set in pre-gentrified Brooklyn, full of old sandwich shops and dry cleaners and small-time hoods. The film will reach back to an even earlier Brooklyn, the 1950s. That's closer to the noir era that the novel was riffing on in the first place.
In addition to writing and directing, Norton will play Essrog, the detective with Tourette's.
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