FEBRUARY 4, 2019
THEY SAY literary novelists can’t do genre. This is perhaps most acutely felt with mystery and noir, which has fascinated and occasionally defied postmodern eminences from Pynchon to Auster and beyond. Antony Lamont, antihero of Gilbert Sorrentino’s incredible Mulligan Stew, stands out as the funniest case study, albeit fictional. A fading, minor experimental writer immersed in an awful fusion of the new novel and a noir potboiler (the same sort of novel it seems Paul Giamatti’s character is working on in Sideways — his “Robbe-Grillet mystery”), the pompous Lamont’s tilt is equal parts cynicism and desperation — his radical approach really just a bald-faced cash grab, so smugly assured is he that the dark ambience, gratuitous sex, and abrupt violence of his meandering and largely content-free novel will finally nab him the hit he deserves. This is not, thankfully, the sort of novel that Jonathan Lethem gives us in The Feral Detective. Though you can be forgiven for imagining otherwise if you’re not familiar with his work, Lethem is no stranger to noir, or genre fiction in general — he came from genre, and is, in fact, a genre writer, especially when he promiscuously blends genres together as he’s been doing since his fantastic Philip K. Dick-meets-Raymond Chandler debut, Gun, with Occasional Music. In short, Lethem is a master, the sort of master for whom narratives about genres, as opposed to genres themselves, are the quarry. That he’s reached a high degree of mainstream success within the genre of literary fiction only burnishes his bona fides as a master of form.
The Feral Detective follows Phoebe Siegler, a thirtysomething New Yorker and former Times staffer who has traveled to the West Coast to track down Arabella, the missing daughter of her friend Roslyn. Arabella, a freshman at Reed College, stopped answering Roslyn’s attempts to contact her a few weeks into her first semester, and Phoebe — newly liberated from her job — decides a trip to Portland to pay the girl a wellness call is just what she and Arabella need. Arriving to find her gone and school officials oblivious, Phoebe digs in and discovers a slim trail of several-weeks-old credit card transactions leading down the coast to Los Angeles’s Union Station and finally, cryptically, to a travel plaza purchase in an unfamiliar corner of San Bernardino County, where the lead goes cold. Because she is worried about Arabella, and because she loves her friend — Roslyn is herself a mother figure to Phoebe — and because she is not ready to go back home, Phoebe decides to extend her vacation. The reason she is not ready to face New York — the reason she quit her job — haunts the novel from its first pages:
Blame the election. I’d been working for the Great Gray News organization, in a hard-won, lowly position meant to guarantee me a life spent rising securely through the ranks. This was the way it was supposed to go, before I’d bugged out. I’d done everything right, like a certain first female nominee we’d all relied upon, even my male friends who hated her, as a cap on the barking madness of the world. Now she took walks in the hills around Chappaqua and I’d checked into the Doubletree a mile west of Upland, California.
The Feral Detective is not only a novel of the Trump era, it is a novel largely about it — specifically, how the Trump era has felt for a certain set of us who woke up on November 9, 2016, with a newfound appreciation for the arguments of reality simulation theorists. If noir is at its core fundamentally the cruel stripping away of illusion, there could hardly be a better subject than a liberal coping with the Trump era. So thoroughly and suddenly was the narrative of Hillary Clinton’s inevitable victory evacuated, so traumatic was the puncturing of the optimistic Obama-era bubble, and so bizarre and even nightmarish have been the subsequent years that it’s easy to think of the whole world as having taken a noir-ish turn: worst timeline confirmed, doomsday clock ticking ever closer to midnight. For Phoebe, it is all too much to take:
My room reminded me of a gun moll’s wisecrack, in some old film I’d seen, on entering an apartment: “Early Nothing.” 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. I read my book.
There is, in her quest to find Arabella, more than a little self-interest — it is also a quest to find, if not the fictional world she thought she inhabited, a way to understand the one she never knew she lived in all along.
Her guide in this is Charles Heist, the eponymous feral detective, so called because of his penchant for tracking down lost, troubled, cult-brainwashed, and otherwise disappeared or off-the-grid kids. Working out of a nondescript strip-mall office in Upland, Charles Heist takes Phoebe’s case with a typically non-committal “no-promises” sort of attitude, but also with a decidedly nontypical disinterest in any sort of upfront payment. Other unusual details include the presence in Heist’s office of a wounded possum, which Heist is doggedly though unsentimentally nursing back to health, and a ragged, mute young girl named Melinda, apparently recently and quite literally feral herself. Phoebe is nonplussed but also, she must admit, intrigued — and Charles is a looker in a flinty, sunburnt sort of way:
He resembled one of those pottery leaf-faces you find hanging on the sheds of wannabe-English gardens. His big nose and lips, his deep-cleft chin and philtrum, looked like ceramic or wood. Somehow, despite or because of all of this, I registered him as attractive, with an undertow of disgust. The disgust was perhaps at myself, for noticing.
His services are retained. With nothing to go on except the travel plaza purchase, and a hunch that Arabella — a devoted fan of Leonard Cohen — might have ascended nearby Mount Baldy where the late, great songwriter frequented an isolated Zen retreat, Charles sets out and Phoebe returns to her hotel to brood on the case and the mysterious dashing man onto whose broad shoulders she’s laid her last, best hope.
These introductory chapters are incredible — it truly is a lot of fun to see Phoebe fall so quickly and so hard for Heist. Making Heist the honest and unapologetic object of Phoebe’s post-Obama rebound fantasy is a delicious complication of the femme-fatale tradition, and it’s great to see her unapologetic voraciousness respectfully, even somewhat meekly, received by the terse but game Heist. Lethem wrings plenty of comedy out of the improbable culture-clash romance that rapidly develops between the two, but there is something troubling that develops, too. For a writer who is normally so good with voice and so adept at playing off types while still imbuing his characters with enough specificity and depth to keep them from becoming cartoons, Phoebe begins, as the novel progresses, to feel at times much too broad — a weird gestalt of awkward comedienne, working girl, and other tropes whose presence isn’t entirely exorcised by cheeky self-consciousness:
I’d go home with a California story or two in my back pocket. No, sorry, I didn’t ever set eyes on the ocean or the Hollywood sign, but did I tell you the one about the porta-potty levee? The trailer park blowjob? Oh, what a Manic Pixie Am I! I pictured telling this over late lunch at Elephant & Castle.
Through Phoebe, Lethem means to implicate himself and by extension the whole cohort of urbane, liberal, upwardly mobile folks too assured of victory and too preoccupied with themselves to imagine the failure of their certainties in 2016. But although Phoebe’s preoccupation with what Heist thinks of her, for example, is funny, it began to worry me. On the one hand, it is great that Lethem allows Phoebe to be shallow — as he does — and to seem at times to forget about the search for Arabella while daydreaming about her new gumshoe boytoy — as she does — but is this an unvarnished caricature of complacent white feminism of the sort that both the left and the right now routinely flog for predictable results?
The plot, depending on how well the conceit works for you, congeals, or thickens — it is discovered that Arabella is caught between two warring cultish groups of desert dwellers, the feminist “Rabbits” and the boorish “Bears” and some genuinely funny moments, striking passages, and typically excellent walk-on characters follow. Each band is a primal caricature of the current partisan divide and not much more nuanced than what you’d get from reading Daily Kos or The Daily Caller. It’s mostly burlesque, but there are hints at a deeper reckoning. Phoebe, who spends much of the book in sidekick mode, gets a memorable “flower-pot” moment. The gesture — which Phoebe names after the belated contribution of a corseted heroine in a half-remembered Western she used to watch with her dad, which involved the woman throwing a flower-pot down on the head of a villain from a second-story window — kicks off an extended denouement that pleasurably complicates the existing dynamic between Phoebe and Heist. By the novel’s end, most of my doubts were, if not totally expunged, at least leavened by the complex affection I’d begun to feel for Phoebe.
Heist, a kind of subterranean Trump foil — a paragon of non-toxic masculinity — is the more lovable character, but Phoebe is ultimately more interesting. The feral detective, true to form, spirits Phoebe away from the old assurances and dead narratives to which she reflexively, repeatedly, retreats, even, in the end, the old one about the guy getting the girl, and she realizes ultimately that learning to live in the new world means letting go of the old.
Perhaps the ultimate truth of noir is that no matter where you’re standing, there is always another floor to fall through. If there is a central lesson of The Feral Detective, it might be simply to embrace this fact; as the Cohen-head Arabella might quote: “You want it darker.” Yes, and for a reason. Darkness can be a renewal, death and inversion driving out the old to make space for the new.