There's a moment fairly early in Jonathan Lethem's new novel The Feral Detective when our narrator, Phoebe Siegler, leans in for a passionate kiss. She rubs the man's hair and runs her hands across his "strong-cabled neck." Then she leans in and, surprising herself, whispers, "Who did you vote for?"
He responds, "Sorry?"
She realizes she blew the moment: "Don't answer, never mind, forget I asked." It's a jarring distraction from a sensual moment, the insertion of politics to a moment where politics doesn't belong.
That's kind of what reading The Feral Detective is like. It's a crime novel — the kind of detective tropes that Lethem has been playing with his whole career, from Gun, with Occasional Music to *Motherless Brooklyn — but it's one that is still reeling from the election of Donald Trump.
Siegler herself is still trying to understand what it means to live in a country with Trump as president. As soon as she starts to feel normal, reality rears its head and her narration gets scrambled again. Her story starts when she blows up her job: "I'd done everything right," she explains, "like a certain first female nominee we'd all relied upon, even my male friends who hated her, as a cap on the barking madness of the world."
Soon after the election, Siegler's friend's daughter goes missing. She sets out to find Arabella and she enlists the help of a detective with the brilliant name Charles Heist. The trail leads them to a cult and things go very wrong. Meanwhile, the world around Siegler and Heist falls apart after the election of Trump.
Feral Detective feels like a direct descendent of Pynchon's first detective novel, The Crying of Lot 49. But it also works as a metaphor for how impossible it is to fall prey to suspension of disbelief in the age of Donald Trump. No fictional situation is too ludicrous anymore, now that the real world has tipped over into a bad novel.
It's not really fair to accuse Feral Detective of lacking focus, as that's kind of the point of the book. But it's still not as fun as it could be, nor as compulsively readable as it should be. At certain points in the narrative when Siegler seems to give up hope, some readers might want to follow suit and set the book down.
Feral Detective ultimately reads like minor-key Lethem; unlike, say, the all-consuming sprawl of his underrated Chronic City, Feral Detective feels myopic and small. But even a lesser Lethem book is still worth your time and attention, and at certain points the book erupts into an orgasmic display of imagination and writing bravura. There are enough of those moments to make you almost forget what a shitshow the rest of the world is right now. Almost.
This Thursday, Lethem reads from The Feral Detective at Elliott Bay Book Company. He will undoubtedly have some things to say about the president and fiction and what purpose fiction serves in a time when Trump is president.
Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.