A Noir Novel For The Trump Era, From Jonathan Lethem

Nov 9, 2018
Originally published on November 9, 2018 8:02 pm

Of all the writers wrestling with the Trump presidency, it's probably safe to say that Jonathan Lethem is the only one who has managed to produce a book featuring a shootout on a decrepit Ferris wheel, hippies living off the grid in California and a detective who keeps a live possum in his desk drawer.

Lethem's new book is titled The Feral Detective. It's in some ways his response to the Trump era. It's also a detective novel.

"It's basically just a long chase scene interrupted by spasms of sex and violence," he says in an interview. "I've never written a book as quickly, because the velocity of the story and the antic nature of the characters swept me along. I was also, along with thinking about the election, I was hiding from all of that. I was just using this as a place to go and make up a world that was briefly one I could be amused and kind of consoled by."

The Feral Detective is narrated by Phoebe, a former journalist from The New York Times who quits her job after the 2016 election and goes off to track a missing young woman out West. It's there where she encounters the private detective of the title.


Interview Highlights

On beginning to write the book in January 2017

Well, you know, I'd been planning a book before that. I had a notion about the desert and this feral child who grows up to be a detective who finds missing people in the desert. And I was, you know, very complacently thinking that this would be a nice project to write during the Hillary Clinton administration. And then the fall of 2016 came, and I was sort of undone. I looked at what was on my desk and it looked about as useless as could be. I didn't think I had a book ...

I probably, in some ways, was better prepared than some people because I used to be a science fiction writer. But I felt like I was living in a really different universe, and I wasn't sure that this book meant anything, or that being a novelist meant all that much. But I sort of got back on my horse like we all had to do, and then I looked at the materials, and I realized — I conceived Phoebe, who was a first-person female narrator, and that she could be, you know, the mouthpiece for my confusion. ...

And the question that was really important to me was: Do they look different because they changed or because they were unmasked — because our reality had a kind of disguise torn off of it? And if I believe the second, which in many ways is what I came to feel, then my book did make sense. My book was about kind-of ancient archetypal fissures in individuals and societies, and between men and women. And I thought, "Well, OK, you know, I can try." ...

In a lot of ways, this is a book about trying not to think about the election. It's about running off into a free space where maybe you can conceive that there isn't just a right and a left, a red and a blue, a man and a woman; but that there's some kind of possible reinvention. In that sense, it's, you know, it's chasing the old American fantasy of the frontier which is a ... utopian space where something can be — a new kind of world can be set up.

On Phoebe being a rabidly anti-Trump character

It really has mostly to do with her being a New Yorker, and feeling like the weird guy from Queens who we'd all been taking for granted as kind of a medium foreground peculiarity in our environment was suddenly thrust upon the entire world. That had really snuck up on us. Because it was a different thing for New Yorkers who were familiar with Donald Trump. He wasn't that — he wasn't a new story.

On the unsettled ending

Yeah, the book is a snapshot. And it's a snapshot of, you know, Phoebe and myself in the five days before and the five days after the inauguration. And they've survived some things, and they sort of are together, but they're also in a car in motion, you know. Which I guess describes how I feel just about every day.

Justine Kenin and Jolie Myers produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Of the oceans of ink spilled by writers wrestling with the Trump presidency, it's probably safe to say that Jonathan Lethem is the only one who has managed to produce a book featuring the following - one, a shootout on a decrepit Ferris wheel; two, hippies living off the grid - like, really off the grid in California; and, three, a detective who keeps a live possum in his desk drawer. Lethem's new novel is titled "The Feral Detective." And he - Lethem, that is, not the feral detective, alas - joins me now. Jonathan Lethem, welcome.

JONATHAN LETHEM: (Laughter) Thanks. Nice to be with you.

KELLY: Good to have you with us. So I want to ask how you came to write this book. You sat down and started writing it January 2017. How come?

LETHEM: Yeah. Well, you know, I'd been planning a book before that. I had a notion about the desert and this feral child who grows up to be a detective who finds missing people in the desert. And I was, you know, very complacently thinking it was - this would be a nice project to write during the Hillary Clinton administration. And then the fall of 2016 came, and I was sort of undone. I looked at what was on my desk, and it looked about as useless as could be. I didn't think I had a book or...

KELLY: Why, it just felt suddenly frivolous or what?

LETHEM: I probably in some ways was better prepared than some people because I used to be a science fiction writer. But I felt like I was living in a really different universe. And I wasn't sure that this book meant anything or that being a novelist meant all that much. But I sort of got back on my horse, like we all had to do. And then I looked at the materials and I realized I'd conceived Phoebe, who was a first-person female narrator, and that she could be, you know, the mouthpiece for my confusion, that actually...

KELLY: Phoebe - I should mention she's a reporter. She's a journalist. And she shares your sense of disorientation after the 2016 election. She actually quits her job as a reporter at The New York Times.

LETHEM: And the question that was really important to me was, do they look different because they changed or because they were unmasked, because our reality had a kind of disguise torn off of it? And if I believed the second, which in many ways is what I came to feel, then my book did make sense. My book was about kind of ancient archetypal fissures in individuals and societies and between men and women. And I thought, well, OK, you know, I can try.

KELLY: And you end up using Phoebe as your envoy into this world. You talked about you couldn't make sense of what was happening in the country; maybe Phoebe can make sense of it. Let's send her and see where she goes.

LETHEM: Yeah. Even make sense of it is probably overstating it. In a lot of ways, this is a book about trying not to think about the election. It's about running off into a free space where maybe you can conceive that there isn't just a right and a left, a red and a blue, a man and a woman, but that there's some kind of possible reinvention. In that sense, it's a - you know, it's chasing the old American fantasy of the frontier, which is a kind of, you know, utopian space where something can be - a new kind of world can be set up.

KELLY: You do set up Phoebe as a rabidly anti-Trump character. She refers to him as the beast. She refers to him as the idiot. And I wonder. Do you worry that you're going to turn off half your potential readers?

LETHEM: I don't know. I - it really has mostly to do with her being a New Yorker and feeling like the weird guy from Queens who we'd all been taking for granted as kind of a medium-foreground peculiarity in our environment was suddenly thrust upon the entire world, that that had really snuck up on us because it was a different thing for New Yorkers who were familiar with Donald Trump. He wasn't a new story.

KELLY: I mean, not to give people listening the wrong idea because we're talking a lot about politics and what was going on in America in real life as you're writing this book, the book actually is your characters living through this moment in January 2017 but not paying great attention to daily developments in Washington. They're, as I mentioned, involved in shootouts in a Ferris wheel in the desert in California.

LETHEM: I agree. We're being totally misleading. It's basically just a long chase scene interrupted by spasms of sex and violence.

KELLY: (Laughter).

LETHEM: There's really - it's..

KELLY: I think you just sold a million copies right there.

LETHEM: I've never written a book as quickly because the velocity of the story and the antic nature of the characters swept me along. I was also - along with thinking about the election, I was hiding from all of that. I was just using this as a place to go and make up a world that was briefly - one I could be amused and kind of consoled by.

KELLY: Without giving away plot twists or the ending, I think I can say that you leave things a little unsettled at the end. We don't quite know where your characters are headed next or who might be by their side. Was that deliberate?

LETHEM: Yeah, the book is a snapshot. And it's a snapshot of, you know, Phoebe and myself in, you know, the five days before and the five days after the inauguration. And they've survived some things. And they sort of are together. But they're also in a car in motion - you know? - which I guess describes how I feel just about every day.

KELLY: Jonathan Lethem - his new novel is "The Feral Detective." It's out this week. Thank you so much.

LETHEM: Thank you so much - treat to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUNGBLOOD BRASS BAND'S "BROOKLYN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.