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Autobodies: Detectives, Disorders, and Getting out of the Neighborhood




This article explores two detective stories featuring protagonists with neurological conditions. Lionel Essrog, the narrator of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn (1999), suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome, and Mark Genevich, hero of Paul Tremblay’s The Little Sleep (2009), has narcolepsy. Each character is unusually attached to his home neighborhood: Essrog to Court Street in Brooklyn and Genevich to South Boston. Indeed, Genevich still lives in his grandparents’ brownstone. What is striking in both novels is how closely their conditions are also connected to these neighborhoods. Essrog’s tics and outbursts mirror the chaos of his Brooklyn, but his obsessive, smoothing-over tendencies reflect his guilt over his orphan status, his desire to reach back into and repair the past. Genevich’s narcolepsy keeps him in “Southie” partly because of his reliance on his mother and partly, in practical terms, because it is dangerous for him to drive. Most importantly, his unpredictable sleep puts “more unconscious space between [him]self and the events [he] experienced”—traumatically induced, his “little sleeps” are “fraudulent extra days, weeks, years,” disruptions in time, when the past invades his dreams. It is significant that Genevich’s condition arises after a car accident in which his friend was killed. In fact, cars are important in both novels. I argue that, as symbols of modernity and American mobility, cars signify in complex relation with the protagonists’ homes and neurological conditions. The “auto body,” to quote one of Motherless Brooklyn’s chapter titles, puns on the involuntary, automatic behaviours of the tourettic and narcoleptic body, but also offers the possiblity of mobility both physical and metaphorical: an escape from the neighborhood and associated obsessions, a way for the detective to connect a wider set of locations and relations, to remap himself beyond the confines of a narrowly imagined community and the restrictions of his condition.

Acceptance Date Nov 30, 2021
Publication Date Nov 30, 2021
Journal European Journal of American Studies
Pages 1-22
Keywords contemporary fiction; neuronovels; Tourette's syndrome; narcolepsy; automobility trauma; neighborhood
Publisher URL