TRUMP KILLED LEONARD COHEN. That was the motto on a T-shirt worn by the rock critic Robert Christgau at a 2017 Village Voice reunion. These 4 phrases additionally seize the vibe of the early pages of “The Feral Detective,” Jonathan Lethem’s flaky, trivial, intermittently entertaining 11th novel.
The guide is about not lengthy after Donald Trump’s election. (Cohen died the day earlier than the vote.) It’s a couple of younger girl, a Reed School scholar and Cohen fanatic named Arabella, who has disappeared. It’s attainable she’s gone into California’s San Gabriel Mountains, the place Cohen spent 5 years in a Zen monastery.
On Arabella’s path is Phoebe Siegler, a wisecracking, 30-something Nancy Drew manqué who’s a buddy of Arabella’s mom, an NPR producer, again in New York.
Phoebe is the narrator of “The Feral Detective.” She’s internet-famous, having publicly stop her enhancing job at The New York Instances after the election. The final straw was “the infamous day in November when my boss and all the remainder of them sat deferentially with the Beast-Elect at a protracted desk behind closed doorways, to soak in his castigation and flattery.”
It’s not simply The Instances that has let Phoebe down. “I blamed my metropolis for producing and being unable to defeat the monster within the tower.” All of her verities have been upended, together with the which means of her Ivy League schooling. “Harvard, Hillary, Trump, The New York Instances. Names I hated to say, as in the event that they pinned me to a life that had curdled in its premises.”
The seek for Arabella is an opportunity for Phoebe to flee Gotham, to hit the highway seeking what’s occurred out in America. She could even get an essay out of the expertise (every part is materials), one she would possibly promote, naturally, to The New York Instances Journal.
She thinks to herself, in a journalistic reverie: “Sew a Pepe the Frog medallion onto your backpack, younger girl, and go seduce the unspeakable and bushy, then report again.”
There’s a very good guide lurking on this materials. (Gary Shteyngart, in his new novel, additionally sends a lone pilgrim out into Trump nation.) “The Feral Detective” just isn’t it. This one begins shedding elements out on the interstate virtually instantly.
The plot is shaggy and sophisticated; a lot in order that even the creator loses curiosity in it. (“Anybody thoughts if I skip the chase scene?” Phoebe asks at one level.) However right here’s an try at fishing out some particulars.
Phoebe walks into the Los Angeles workplace of a non-public dick named Charles Heist, the so-called feral detective. He’s a quiet, good-looking, lupine fellow who retains an opossum — it doesn’t matter why — in his desk drawer. Phoebe falls for him virtually instantly, dreaming of getting him alone “in some rustic cabin on a hearth pelt rug.”
Quickly Charles is main her up into the mountains and down into the deserts seeking Arabella. They come upon warring clans of semi-nomads referred to as the Rabbits and the Bears. No, not the homosexual type of bears. These are ex-hippies, quasi-bikers, malcontents, skilled wearers of bandannas.
A few of these off-the-grid people assume airplane contrails are talking to them. The chief Rabbit, Anita, comes off a bit like Tina Turner in “Mad Max Past Thunderdome,” albeit in a Meat Puppets T-shirt.
The Bears have a younger, mad king named Solitary Love. Is Arabella his intercourse slave? Charles, along with his basilisk stoicism, will in the end need to battle Solitary Love in an amphitheater, with an almost bare Arabella rooting in opposition to him.
What else can I inform you? One of many guide’s largest set items takes place on a Ferris wheel out within the desert, one which’s been changed into a jail. Everybody will get his or her personal little birdcage gondola. Everybody’s his or her personal Sir Walter Raleigh, locked in a tin tower.
Lethem is a scholar, and incessantly a grasp, of literary style. This novel is his first detective novel since “Motherless Brooklyn” (1999), arguably his masterpiece.
Lethem has learn his Raymond Chandler, who mentioned of his personal hero: “Down these imply streets a person should go who just isn’t himself imply, who’s neither tarnished nor afraid.” Charles, who howls and bays when in misery, is nonetheless lower from the Philip Marlowe mould.
This novel’s tone is nearer to that of Elmore Leonard. It’s obtained a little bit of boogie in its bones. But it totally lacks the density and sure-footedness of “Motherless Brooklyn.”
A central drawback is that Phoebe is a ditz. Her cultural references (the Flintstones, Yogi the Bear, Nancy Drew, Elmer Fudd) are as cartoonish as she is. Lethem by no means provides her something impudent, pressing or stunning to say or assume or really feel. To borrow a line from Angela Carter, who used it a couple of former husband, Phoebe has a kiddie windmill for a coronary heart.
Her stabs at banter (“It’s a Bears, Bears, Bears world, however it wouldn’t be nothin’ with out a girl or a woman”) are traumatic. She apologizes greater than as soon as for this novel’s dialogue.
Phoebe does to Charles, in mattress, what she desires she’s going to do, along with her this-is-America exposé, to institution journalism. However there’s zero indication she has the psychological gear or tensile soul to jot down such a bit.
About her hirsute new boyfriend, she writes: “Heist was as unmannerly, as dour and self-enclosed, as an emo guitarist packing in after a poorly attended gig at a bar in Greenpoint.” She half-apologizes for this line, too.
Lethem is such a beneficiant and ingenious author that it’s painful to observe him flounder. Is it time to fret that literary novels might be among the many subsequent casualties of Trump Derangement Syndrome?