Jonathan Lethem’s Characters Just Can’t Deal With Trump
Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel could have easily been as much of a letdown as 2016’s A Gambler’s Anatomy. That book, released a month prior to Donald Trump’s election, left a lot to be desired, and almost ruined me on Lethem. It tried to be an international spy mystery and a story of a man with psychic abilities playing backgammon for high stakes. However good some of the writing was, the overall story seemed to lack any sense of urgency or importance.
In The Feral Detective, Lethem finds that urgency in Trump. Like a lot of members of the literary elite, he considers the Trump Presidency to be a national emergency of the highest order, a virus of the spirit that affects all it touches. That feeling helps propel one of the most interesting voices yet in his body of work. With a snarky narrator, a barely-used titular character, and a Manson Family version of doomsday preppers in his new book, he’s won me back (for now, at least).
Following the trail of Phoebe Siegler, a Manhattanite Clinton supporter and former New York Times employee who’s searching for the lost daughter of a friend, The Feral Detective opens on a sparse California landscape in January of 2017, days before Trump’s inauguration. The press has touted this book as the first to deal with the (ongoing) national nightmare that is the Trump Era. In many ways, it seems to go for obvious, “can you believe this shit?” sort of sloganeering that gets awfully tedious on social media even if you agree that said shit is, well, unbelievable.
Phoebe, like a lot of us on the political left, finds herself adrift in the immediate aftermath of November 2016, unsure of what will come next. She only knows that it will be awful. So when Arabella, the college-age daughter of a former work friend, goes missing out west, Phoebe leaves New York to search for her in the wilds of the desert, where Arabella’s last-known location is a Zen retreat associated with the recently-deceased Leonard Cohen.
Once in Los Angeles, Phoebe meets Charles Heist, a detective who finds people. He’s also a man of few words, with a bit of stunted character development hindering him from really coming alive on the page. Lethem may have titled the book after Heist, but he ain’t the main attraction. Throughout the novel, Phoebe resonates more, as she wanders aimlessly through a mystery that will unravel on its own good time, if at all.
Usually in private-eye fiction, the PI is the most compelling character on the page. Not so in this, but that’s not really a mark against Lethem. The Feral Detective is touted as Lethem’s return to detective fiction almost twenty years after Motherless Brooklyn. It’s a different book, lacking some of the attributes that made Brooklyn so compelling. But like the hapless Phoebe, we’re along for a ride into the “what the fuck” of the Trump Era at its dawning. This book isn’t about Charles Heist or his bizarre post-hippie dystopian inheritance. It’s about Phoebe trying and failing to get her shit together for 45’s triumphant entrance upon the presidential stage.
A Brooklyn native now living in California, Lethem brings his trademark attention to geography that marked his New York-set novels to bear on this one way out west. One of the blurbs on the back is from an author who longs for a shelf of Charles Heist adventures. I’d rather see a shelf of Phoebe Siegler mysteries, even after the Trump Presidency comes to its merciful end.
(Ecco, November 6, 2018)