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The Feral Detective

  • The Feral Detective
  • By Jonathan Lethem
  • Ecco
  • 336 pages

Jonathan Lethem’s new novel, The Feral Detective, is being marketed as his first detective novel since Motherless Brooklyn. This is both an indisputable fact and a promise – one that turns out to be almost heartbreakingly disappointing.

Phoebe Sielger, the novel’s narrator, hires Charles Heist, the titular feral detective, a few days before the inauguration of Donald Trump to help find a friend’s daughter who has gone missing in California.

Throughout the book she never ceases wisecracking and venting her frustrations with the country and the man it just elected President. She calls Trump the “Beast-Elect” and “the monster in the tower.”

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Her banter is always bitter and guarded.

Heist is so thinly drawn as to be almost blank. He has an opossum living in a drawer in his office, wears a red leather jacket, has shaggy sideburns and offers the occasional gnomic utterance.

“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,” Phoebe says of him.

Together they venture into the California dessert in search of the missing girl, who may be living among two off-the-grid communes living there: the Rabbits, who are hippieish women, and the Bears, who are mostly bikers and ex-cons and represent the worst of masculinity.

The book has so much of the dark, loopy elements we’ve come to expect of a Lethem novel, but something essential is missing.

In his early fiction, Lethem nerded out in thrillingly entertaining ways. He was able to take all of his obsessions – film noir, Philip K. Dick, Marvel comics, 1960s counterculture – and filter them through his Galactus-sized imagination.

A menacing kangaroo wielding a gun turned up in his first novel, a blend of science fiction and a hardboiled detective story. There were meditations on what quantum mechanics and artificial intelligence can tell us about love. And always, always, some of the greatest names for characters in fiction: Maynard Stanhunt, Joey Castle (the aforementioned kangaroo), Doctor Soft, Georges De Tooth, Pella Marsh, Efram Nugent. The Pynchonesque list goes on.

But it wasn’t until Motherless Brooklyn that Lethem was able to create a character who lived on the page as a human being, not just a vehicle for the author’s freewheeling genre experiments.

Lionel Essrog, the Tourettic detective at the novel’s centre, represented a brilliant idea – that the involuntary linguistic explorations and associations prompted by Tourette syndrome is closely related to if not ideal for detective work – but he also had an undeniable emotional pull, the same way every real, living person does. He was sad and funny. His yearning for family as he sought whoever killed his boss and pseudo-adoptive father made you ache for him.

It was a major step forward for Lethem as a writer, one that critics readily acknowledged. Motherless Brooklyn won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1999.

His follow-up, The Fortress of Solitude, about two teenage friends growing up in 1970s Brooklyn, proved that Lethem could continue to explore his pop culture fascinations – in this case comic books and music – without sacrificing any emotional gravity.

Most of the novels since – You Don’t Love Me Yet, Chronic City, Dissident Gardens, A Gambler’s Anatomy – have failed to live up to what Lethem achieved in these two books for many different reasons: hazy, meandering plots, a preoccupation with ideas over characters, stylistic self-consciousness.

Lethem has always been a very good writer capable of filling pages with memorable turns of phrase and engaging ideas. But has he grabbed any of us with the poignancy and rich humanity of Motherless Brooklyn or The Fortress of Solitude?

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Maybe it’s an unfair question. Perhaps I’m just admitting what I’m looking for in fiction these days, however packed it may be with ideas and genre-bending.

It’s why I loved Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, Lake Success. He was still able to be a hilarious satirist and at the same time create a character who, however loathsome, was fleshed out enough to make you empathize with him.

It’s why it was so stirring to see George Saunders put aside his dark comic attacks on late capitalism and offer such a beautifully moving mediation on familial love and death and what we as humans owe to one another in Lincoln in the Bardo.

And it’s why the marketing line for The Feral Detective held such promise. “Jonathan Lethem’s first detective novel since Motherless Brooklyn” grabbed me not because I really need to see another imaginative riff on a Philip Marlowe-esque private eye but because it held out the possibility that Lethem, who is now 54, could recapture the magic of writing a detective story that was filled with brilliant ideas and characters with wonderful names and all his other tics and gifts, all of it though once again with characters who hope and dream and suffer in ways that we can identify with and learn from.

There are some fantastic scenes in The Feral Detective, and more than a few crackling sentences. But Lethem isn’t making the effort of empathy required for us to ever really care about his characters or to better understand the political climate they are lost in.

This is why The Feral Detective was such a cold case for me: It was never the detective story I was really looking for.

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