‘The Feral Detective’: How Jonathan Lethem Wrote a Novel to Cope With Donald Trump
After years of free association, Jonathan Lethem’s idea for a new novel was finally coming together. He’d been sitting on themes like feral children, detective novels and the American West his whole career, and now it was time to bring them to a hard boil. The final touch — after much internal debate — was deciding to tell the story from the point of view of a young New York woman, someone who would be “both freaked out and fascinated” by the lost world she encountered in the California desert. “Suddenly I was like, ‘Yes, OK. I’m going to do this,'” Lethem tells Rolling Stone. “It seemed like a really great project to be working on in the first years of the Hillary Clinton administration.”
That was late summer of 2016. In the aftermath of the election, his progress on The Feral Detective stalled. “I just wondered, ‘Why write that novel? Why write any novel?'” Lethem remembers. “I felt so disordered and helpless.”
He spent the next few months penning angry letters to his representatives, watching too much Rachel Maddow and teaching his classes at Pomona College. In January 2017, he got “back on my horse,” setting the book in the weeks around Donald Trump’s inauguration — using fiction, and his protagonist, as a screen through which he could observe the new reality of America. Though he doesn’t mention Trump by name in the novel, the existential discontent of those weeks are palpable on the page. “The thing about the election was that it felt so present, but it also felt so eternal,” he says. “The mast had come off reality and we were looking at things that we hadn’t been looking at. It was like the bill had come due.”
The feeling of that moment was so present that Lethem was able to write his eleventh novel in record time — by that October, he’d finished a full draft. The book, released this month, tells the story of Phoebe Siegler, an unemployed New York journalist who goes on a quest to find a friend’s Leonard Cohen-obsessed daughter in California. She meets a mysterious, handsome detective, Charles Heist, who leads her into the desert to a hippie community that has turned dystopian. The group, which wandered into the desert in the 1960s, has become fractured off between the Rabbits — a group of mostly women who rear children and maintain a certain order — and the Bears, a gang of men whose leader, Solitary Love, is manhood in its most terrifying form, “a zombie figure of masculinity operated as a total pure outcome of the nightmare,” as Lethem describes it. Phoebe and Heist must team up to find Annabelle, her friend’s teenage daughter, who has become wrapped up in this off-the-grid world after adventuring into the barren California desert.
The Feral Detective reads as a comment on utopian societies in general, and specifically on the failed dream of the 1960s. “I’m very invested in what the Aquarian generation tried to make happen, and the degree to which they both succeeded and failed,” he says. “The degree to which I am proud of them and embarrassed by them simultaneously.” Gay marriage is legal, pot is on its way there, and the country did, however long ago it may seem, elect a black president. But the Boomers still have to answer for Trump, the catastrophe of global warming — this entire new reality, Lethem says.
One key to the novel was using Phoebe — a thirty-something who has quit her job as a New York Times opinion editor in disgust after Trump’s visit with the editorial staff — as the narrator. She’s not just a cosmopolitan woman thrust into a desert wilderness; She is someone running away from America’s new political reality. Lethem knew it would be controversial to tell the story from a woman’s first-person point of view, so he approached the book with caution, asking several trusted women he trusts to read the completed manuscript.
“The question of appropriation is so alive in our cultural conversation right now, so this decision was different than it would have been in 1997,” he says. His choice of narrator, he adds, gave him an opportunity to abandon “the ordinary male-gaze prison that I live in. I didn’t have to write that book. I could do something much more polymorphous and draw on the secret bisexual part of myself, and see what I could do with it. That was a much more interesting assignment.”
While his team of readers did convince him to abandon a few giveaways that the author was not a woman — describing herself as “horny,” for example, or explaining that her attraction to an older man was because “his face looked like a penis” — there are still places in the book where the seams of his character show, forcing the reader to wonder if this is actually how middle-aged men assume young women think. After rescuing runaways from a potentially deadly flood in the wilderness, for example, Heist drops Phoebe back at her motel, and she’s overcome with attraction for him.
“Call me naïve or selfish, but I’d never contemplated the erotic potential in altruism until now,” he writes. “It had always seemed like Mother Teresa stuff to me.” Later, Phoebe imagines herself telling friends back home about her trip to Los Angeles. “Did I tell you the one about the porta-potty levee?” he writes. “The trailer park blowjob? Oh, What a Manic Pixie Am I!” Though these off-key moments are few, what betrays Lethem’s voice behind Phoebe’s is that she rarely doubts herself — his confidence as a white man seeps through.
Yet overall, his narrator is complicated and real, pushing the boundaries of a stereotypical New York-media type. She’s built out of elements of himself and of women he’s known, Lethem says, particularly his younger sister. “My sister’s an outspoken, hard-boiled, New York-raised, sardonic, talkative woman who I know very well,” he says. “So she’s probably in there, maybe more than I’ve even ever acknowledged to myself until I just said that.”
In shaping his narrator’s voice, opinions and anecdotes, he mined the relationships he’s had with women throughout his life. “Phoebe reflects a storehouse of stolen moments, odd confessions, insights, things I heard in happy, sad, jealous, gossipy moments of my intimate life,” he says. “I’ve listened to the people I’ve spent time with, and you have to be an idiot not to have learned some things about what men look like to women by this time. In good and bad ways. Even in sexual ways — if you’re not too obtuse to want to hear about it. The things women will tell you about other men – if you don’t refuse that conversation – that’s a fund of really fascinating insights.”
As he worked on The Feral Detective, he found himself thinking about a less expected voice: Leonard Cohen. In the 1990s, Cohen retreated from public life and moved into a Zen monastery atop Mt. Baldy, located on the northern edge of the Inland Empire. Lethem, who moved from New York to Claremont, California, several years ago, could see Baldy from his office window and knew he needed to bring Phoebe there. What better reason for her to follow a teenager who was obsessed with Cohen? But as the novel progressed, Lethem found other ways that the unofficial poet laureate of Canada made sense in the story. For one, Cohen died the day before Trump’s election (though the news didn’t get out until later that week). “He wouldn’t live in that world,” Lethem says. “We have to, but he won’t.”
As he was wrapping up the manuscript, the #MeToo movement sparked, and Lethem found that reality was starting to outpace his work. “There were jokes in the book that I had to take out because they came true,” he says. Though Phoebe reminisces about Tinder dates at the Spotted Pig (Mario Batali’s upscale Manhattan eatery with a private dining area employees called the “Rape Room” where the chef allegedly sexually assaulted women), Lethem took out some more obvious, albeit accidental, nods to the forming movement, such as a detail that Phoebe had worked for Leonard Lopate, the radio host who was fired from WNYC amid allegations of sexual misconduct. “I had much more material about some of her life in New York that I actually whittled back, because it would look like, by the time I published, I was making a special plea,” he says. “Like I was trying to make the book fit what had occurred as Me Too developed. Ironically, reality took away some of my material. That was uncanny.”
Moreover, Lethem says, he realized that the questions he’d been grappling with as he wrote the book were suddenly becoming the focus of a broader cultural conversation. “At the same time it was taking away my material, it was validating the underlying impulse,” he says. “That the election was about Rabbits and Bears.”
As for why he would have the young woman fall for the older man amid the tumultuous cultural landscape? “This gets into the irresponsible, pleasure-center storyteller part of my impulse, which is make people laugh and turn pages,” Lethem says. “To write a hard-boiled detective story is like writing a sonnet. It’s pure form. To put those two characters into play — male-female, east-west, cosmopolitan-feral — and not have them fall into each other’s arms would have been, in a sense, irresponsible of me.”
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