What do a missing-persons case, a disgruntled ex-reporter and Leonard Cohen all have in common? Lethem's new novel, "The Feral Detective." It has more in common with Thomas Pynchon than the potboilers the author loves — and owes a debt to Philip K. Dick.
Leonard Cohen died on Nov. 7, 2016, the day before Donald Trump was elected president. Cohen had been suffering from leukemia for more than a year and died after falling in the night. Like David Bowie, Cohen had anticipated his death and completed a final album, “You Want It Darker,” about mortality, faith and ascension.
Jonathan Lethem makes the Cohen-Trump connection explicit in his new novel, “The Feral Detective.” His narrator, Phoebe Siegler, goes on a journey to California’s Inland Empire to find her friend’s missing daughter, a teenage girl with a Cohen obsession who dropped out of Reed College in Portland and traveled to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center, where Cohen spent a decade in spiritual retreat. Phoebe was a reporter for The New York Times who “bugged out” after she saw the “Beast-Elect” meet with the editorial board and “soak in his castigation and flattery.”
The missing-person case is an excuse for Phoebe to get out of New York and away from “the monster in the tower.” She does a little sleuthing and stumbles on the obvious: “Leonard Cohen, it didn’t take much to learn, had been recently living not on Mount Baldy, but in Los Angeles proper, among the Jews and pop stars, as would anyone with a brain.”
Lethem sends Phoebe and Charles Heist, a detective with a opossum in his desk drawer, up the mountain and into the desert on a shaggy-dog quest that plays more like Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice” than the hard-boiled novels of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald that Lethem loves so much.
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Lethem also put out a playlist of the music that inspired him while writing “The Feral Detective,” a thoughtful gesture that will save time when putting together the movie soundtrack. (“Motherless Brooklyn,” Lethem’s 1999 novel, has been made into a movie written and directed by and starring Edward Norton. Rights to “The Feral Detective” have been optioned by one of “Motherless Brooklyn’s” producers.) Lethem’s playlist includes two songs by Cohen, “Nevermind” and “My Oh My.” Both have lyrics that could be interpreted by those with conspiratorial tendencies as being about the rise of Trump.
Lethem, ever helpful, provides another source: Philip K. Dick’s 1964 novel “The Penultimate Truth.” In a short post as part of a series on resistance literature for Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle’s board of directors, Lethem described the plot as being about how “the vast majority of the population are driven into underground shelters in fear of a faked World War Three being fought on the surface — which is meanwhile the exclusive domain of rich men who enact a fake president, known as “Yancy,” to keep the population terrified and inspired. Then a handful of rebels breaks to the surface and discovers the truth — a typically psychedelic Dickian metaphor for the relation — then, in the Cold War era, and perhaps again — for our immersive relation to the simulated ‘necessity’ of the inequities we both suffer and perpetrate.”
Cohen, briefer and more cryptic, put it this way in “Treaty”:
I heard the snake was baffled by his sin
He shed his scales to find the snake within
But born again is born without a skin
The poison enters into everything
“The Feral Detective” by Jonathan Lethem, Ecco, 226 pp., $26.99
The author reads from “The Feral Detective” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 29, at Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave., Seattle, and at 1 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30, at Third Place Books, 6504 20th Ave. N.E., Seattle; elliottbaybook.com, thirdplacebooks.com