fall preview 2018

Apocalypse Noir

Jonathan Lethem wrote a mystery novel, The Feral Detective, to beat his Trump blues.

Jonathan Lethem. Photo: Benedict Evans
Jonathan Lethem. Photo: Benedict Evans

Jonathan Lethem has not necessarily written the first great novel of the Trump era, but he’s arguably written the first great novel about the Trump era, disguised as a rollicking detective story. Unlike, say, Boots Riley’s film Sorry to Bother You — which critics have praised for capturing the spirit of the moment even as Riley reminds us he conceived of it years before Trump’s ascendance — The Feral Detective was born of, or at least majorly mutated by, the 2016 election. Trump isn’t an implied or subliminal presence in the book; he is — much as in real life — a constant, aggravating, undeniable, ambient, toxic malevolence. He’s “the Beast-Elect,” the “monster in the tower” that New York created but was unable to conquer, and he’s the reason why, at one point, Phoebe Siegler, our hero, charges into a circle of mud-and-blood-soaked men living far off the grid in California and shouts, “DO YOU EVEN KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON, YOU STUPID FUCKING ASSHOLES? DID YOU FUCKERS EVEN VOTE?”

Lethem had been conjuring The Feral Detective since 2014, letting it percolate in the way that novels often do. “I was assembling the elements I wanted to work with: ferality; a version of a hard-boiled voice; and what’s become a steadily consuming fascination with the place where I happen to be living right now, which is the Inland Empire, where L.A. vents to the desert,” he says. We’re having lunch at a restaurant exactly a block from his childhood home on Dean Street in Brooklyn, which he lionized in 2003’s The Fortress of Solitude. He’s visiting New York for a few days, taking a break from Maine, where he spends his summers, before returning to the West Coast. For most of the past decade, Lethem’s been situated in Claremont, California, serving as the Roy Disney chair in creative writing at Pomona College, a position previously filled by David Foster Wallace.

Lethem’s most recent novelsA Gambler’s Anatomy, Dissident Gardens, and Chronic City — have been less obviously genre-indebted than early works like Gun, With Occasional Music, Girl in Landscape, or his breakthrough 1999 detective novel Motherless Brooklyn. During the pre-Trump percolation of The Feral Detective, Lethem had been conscripted to write an introduction to an annotated edition of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, one of his long-acknowledged lodestars. “It refurbished my sense of how I identify with that voice and how much it’s energized me in the past,” he says. Returning to the detective framework could also help corral his expansive thematic ambitions. “Men and women, the desert, the crazy urge to run out of this present American reality into this free space — it could have been a very crazy giant project, hard to locate the boundaries of,” he says. “So I cut that down to size by imposing this very firm template. To me, the hard-boiled detective story is almost like a sonnet.”

In the fall of 2016, he was “more or less on track” to start writing the novel. “I was teaching, so I thought, I’ll start it at winter break. Cut to: the election. I woke up and thought, The things I think and say and write are all stupid,” he remembers. “My material looked dead to me. I was in a stunned and miserable condition.” He lived with this feeling for six weeks or so, up to the day that President-elect Trump was invited to visit the editorial board of the New York Times. As it happened, he’d had the notion that Phoebe Siegler worked for the Times, and he figured this visit would compel her to quit. Then he revisited his material and had a revelation. “It wasn’t a grandiose feeling. It wasn’t, This will be a vehicle for everything that needs to be said and that everyone needs to hear! It was more: This could be a coping mechanism for me personally.

He reimagined the main action as taking place over ten days around Trump’s swearing-in. “There was no way I would presume the novel could encompass anything about our situation,” he says. “But I thought, Let me try to make a snapshot of the five days before and the five days after the inauguration, and what the fuck that feels like. And that will be enough.”

The Feral Detective was reborn as the story of Siegler, a hardened New Yorker who absconds to California to track down the missing daughter of a friend with the help of a strange and alluring detective named Charles Heist. She ends up discovering — and then becoming enmeshed in — a tribal war between the two remnants of an ill-fated utopian project now living in isolation in the hills of the Mojave Desert. It’s a meditation on the American romance with the frontier and our propensity to torch our utopias as fast as we can build them — as well as a cathartic treatise on this upside-down country. Lethem wrote the book in a frenzy and soon found himself envying musicians who can drop an album an hour after it’s done. “On the day I finished the book, I had this crazy impulse to publish online so it could come out the same year as the subject.”

As a result, The Feral Detective is the rare novel that feels like it’s being typed onto the page as fast as you can read it. Phoebe is just as miserable and messed up and angry and energized by everything going on right now as so many Americans are. “Harvard, Hillary, Trump, the New York Times. Names I hated to say, as if they pinned me to a life that had curdled in its premises,” she recounts at one point. While stranded in a hotel waiting for the detective, she ponders her options. “I was left with Facebook, where my friends had responded to the election by reducing themselves to shrill squabbling cartoons. Or I could opt for CNN, where various so-called surrogates enacted their shrill hectoring cartoons without needing to be reduced, since it was their life’s only accomplishment to have been preformatted for this brave new world. Television had elected itself, I figured. It could watch itself too, for all I cared.”

Reading fiction since 2016 has felt, for the most part, like an exercise in escapism. But The Feral Detective emphatically reasserts the notion that a novel can grapple with a cultural moment, while also showcasing Lethem’s usual demolition derby of literary and genre influences. He says that reading J.R.R. Tolkien and Philip Pullman out loud to his sons reconnected him to “the power of figures moving across space. Basically, the Tolkien books are just a long walk.”

The only downside of finishing the novel, for author and reader, is that you’re robbed of what has turned out to be a fiendishly effective literary salve — a form of non-escapist escape. “In a funny way, I had a better 2017 than a lot of people,” Lethem says, “because I conceived this character who could make these sarcastic riffs. It kept me relatively chipper during the brutal year, because I was pretending it was only happening to Phoebe and not to me. Then, on the day I finished the book, I remember I turned the news back on and realized: Now I have to do this without the armor of the book. Oh, fuck.

The Feral Detective will be published by Ecco on November 6.

*This article appears in the September 3, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Jonathan Lethem Wrote a Mystery to Beat His Trump Blues