In a 2017 interview, while he was working on this book, Lethem said he felt he should be an “honest witness, recording my own reactions” to the coming of President Trump. This he certainly seems to have done, but he has not quite escaped the obvious danger: that in doing so, the writer will turn fiction into a kind of febrile opinion piece. Transformed by the desert, Phoebe eventually finds she no longer empathises with the Angelenos who treat it as a theme park, “conceptual artists and all-terrain-vehicle buffs and suburban preppers” – not to mention Brooklyn novelists who use it as a stage for their own therapeutic diaries.
reading The Feral Detective, I kept noticing how the old novelistic strategies – of playing with genre fiction, of using dystopian tropes as a funhouse mirror of reality – simply can’t compete with the real world. To take just one example: in the US, there is a subculture of people who anonymously harass the grieving parents of children slaughtered in public massacres. When future generations want to understand the hysterical loathing and “deep divisions” of post-Obama America, they won’t need to read a 300-page allegory about Rabbits and Bears in the desert. They’ll just google “sandy hook crisis actor”.
Throughout his career, Lethem has set out to wrong-foot his readers with a tricksy blend of realism, literary pastiche, ruminations on America and narrative elements that are deeply, even recklessly, odd. Now, in The Feral Detective, he’s at it again...The generous view of Lethem’s decision to do the same thing might be that he’s authentically reflecting American liberalism’s bewilderment. The less generous one is that the novel ultimately falls between two stools — with too much of the plot and the characterisation (especially of Heist) sacrificed to an allegory that’s never seen through properly.
Lethem’s first detective novel since the exquisite Motherless Brooklyn 20 years ago confirms him as one of America’s finest living writers — wry, truthful and utterly original. There are echoes of James Ellroy in this story, set against the edges of society in LA and featuring hippy groups who live in the Mojave Desert. It bristles with unusual characters, and bizarre locations.
Jonathan Lethem gives us The Feral Detective, a noir variation on the theme. Like its author, who teaches at Pomona College in California, this novel has gone west, to ‘the bright utopian edge, the western void’. Here the private-eye novel meets the Western... It’s a typically suave and prismatic performance. Lethem’s prose has always walked a fine line between stonerish distractibility and high-realist precision: Saul Bellow in a hash-pipe haze. Here the balance is beautifully sustained with barely a false quantity in sight... The Feral Detective is full of extra space and secret rooms. It also offers, straight-facedly, the satisfactions of a good story well told. In one sense it’s a dutiful example of the Post-Traumatic Trump Novel. But The Feral Detective is distinctively Lethem’s own: rich, immensely readable, and full of pleasant and unpleasant surprises.
s it opens, Donald Trump’s inauguration is only days away, and 33-year-old New Yorker Phoebe Siegler, having already quit the New York Times over their deference to the “Beast-Elect”, is a ball of obsessive anger and anxiety. Even when senior citizens chat her up in coffee shops, she can’t help but react, “Perhaps they, like the Klan, had been lately emboldened.”... For all the considerable effort Lethem puts into Phoebe, firing her up with a righteous fury which is discharged in an edgy attitude and poorly-judged wisecracks, he never manages to pull off the sleight of hand that lets you forget she’s a female protagonist written by a man. Heist, meanwhile, is underwritten, never really coming into focus. All in all, it’s a messy novel (mirroring, in its way, Phoebe’s sense of being lost and unable to understand America any more), but it powers along with a wild energy that goes a long way to disguising its shortcomings. As in the desert, where Phoebe finds that even the trippiest ideas can make a strange kind of sense, Lethem almost makes it work.