Jonathan Lethem’s eleventh novel, The Feral Detective, out next Tuesday, is one of the season’s most anticipated works of fiction. A return to the cheeky noir of his early books, it’s narrated by a New York woman who finds herself on the trail of a disappeared friend in the California desert, where she comes across the titular detective and the remnants of an animalistic cult. For Vulture, Lethem mused on the many disparate books that inspired his wildly entertaining new tale.
As I begin to be interviewed about The Feral Detective, I’ve been talking about Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald again. They’re obvious touchstones, above all for my use of a version of hard-boiled first-person narration. That’s been a kind of spirit-animal style for me ever since my first novel, and Motherless Brooklyn, even if I don’t use it “straight.” Those writers are also a big part of my way into the mythic undercurrents of the Southern California landscape, which I’ve lately been studying close-up. But I’m always talking about Chandler and Macdonald, so you don’t need to hear much more about them. Instead, I thought I’d mention some of the book’s more oblique points of reference.
The Feral Detective really belongs to the narrator, Phoebe. If she wasn’t real to me and my readers, I had nothing much at all. Though women are the protagonists in my novels Girl In Landscape and You Don’t Love Me Yet, I’d never done female first-person. I’ll admit I first looked for courage by revisiting two of my favorite examples of male writers doing better than just getting away with it: Philip K. Dick’s The Transmigration of Timothy Archer and Norman Rush’s Mating. Dick’s Angel Archer (from his last-written novel) and Rush’s unnamed narrator (from his first published and still most beloved novel) are two of the “realest” (treacherous word, but I’ll leave it) women-not-written-by-women I know. Both characters are full of irritation, compassion, lust, skepticism, petulance, and, best of all, thinking. The legend around Rush’s book is that he tested every single page on his very brilliant and opinionated wife, to the extent that she became a quasi-collaborator — a good reminder to lean heavily on bullshit-detector readings from the brilliant and opinionated women I know. (You can see how many on my acknowledgements page.) How Dick managed his late-life triumph with a female narrator is a puzzle, since elsewhere his writing shows him loving but also hating his women characters (as well as ogling them a lot).
To nail down Phoebe specifically, I found myself rereading Laurie Colwin (especially Goodbye Without Leaving) and Dawn Powell (Turn, Magic Wheel; The Locusts Have No King; Angels on Toast; but, really, all of them). I wanted to catch some of the timeless insouciance of Colwin’s and Powell’s cosmopolitan protagonists: breezy, cranky, heartbroken — cranky about being heartbroken. And funny — I wanted Phoebe to be funnier than I was. Sometimes I find that if you get yourself jacked up on the prose of someone like Colwin or Powell you can be (briefly) funnier than you actually are.
The “ferality” of the detective (and others) came mostly out of the movies: The Jungle Book and Tarzan, of course, but also Truffaut’s The Wild Child and Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. I was teaching a course called “Animals In Literature” (Kafka, Aesop, Jack London, Woolf’s Flush, et al.) around the time I was gathering my materials, and I should thank my students for their useful ideas. I had a stupendously clever TA for the course, Daniel Lanza Rivers, who was writing a dissertation on “Queer Ecologies” in Western settings — including a chapter on the subject of the real-life Black Bear Ranch (also the subject of the documentary Commune). Daniel’s study reminded me to reread Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar, a novel I’d loved as a teenager — a dystopian fantasia about a rural commune that breaks into two warring tribes. This trail also led to the actor Peter Coyote’s memoir, Sleeping Where I Fall, which includes major episodes at Black Bear. Coyote’s book is remarkable, a real discovery for me.
During the same period, I was reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials aloud to my kids at bedtime, and it sank into my approach. Like Tolkien, Pullman reminds you of how much power can be generated simply by moving figures across landscape, in long sequences in which they’re chasing or be chased. Even though his trilogy is massively complex, this insight simplified my book. I also stole something outright: a fight between two claimants to be “King of the Bears”. Of course, in Pullman’s book that bear-battle provides a superb resolution. In mine, I’m afraid, it solves nothing.
My narrator wasn’t meant only to be “timeless” in her insouciance; she also had to exist in a culturally specific time and space. I’m in my 50s, and a man, and I shouldn’t pretend to know things I don’t. I read novels by younger women, looking for clues and cues: Sally Rooney, Ottessa Moshfegh, Catherine Lacey, Rivka Galchen — all terrific.
But the tumblers really clicked, as it happened, not with a novel but with a book-length essay by Kristin Dombek, The Selfishness of Others — especially a tour de force chapter called “The Bad Boyfriend”. Dombek modeled for me the task of a woman of a certain age being forced to think her way out of the psychosocial certainties of the endless neoliberal present. I don’t remember when I decided that Phoebe would be the child of two Manhattan psychotherapists, but it might have been around the time I read Dombek’s thoughts on Freud, and on Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child. I knew I couldn’t — and shouldn’t — make my narrator as ferociously incisive as Dombek, but I did want Phoebe to be the kind of person who, if she’d happened across Dombek’s book, would have said, “Fuck yes. This.” As did I.