What happens to a work of art when its most deeply felt hidden message is that art is no longer an adequate response to reality?
“So my name had voyaged ahead of me, to taste lives I couldn’t imagine, perhaps to do some work protecting Arabella. I didn’t own it.”
—Jonathan Lethem, The Feral Detective
Take Us from Our Leader
Like all his novels, Jonathan Lethem’s new one, The Feral Detective, is a parable, a reverse ‘Beauty and the Beast‘. Lethem can’t help being deeply superficial, but rarely he is superficially deep. He lets his subconscious seep through the conscious overlay of his culture-soaked imaginary landscapes, like lava through fault lines.
Lethem is working out a specific problem with this new novel: how did Donald Trump become POTUS? And he is working with—and within—a divided psyche that’s unable to reconcile a lifelong Dickian perspective of the-empire-that-never-ended (just migrated ever westward—an empire he now lives inside) with a New York liberal-progressive artiste sensibility. He is an artist who most values the art that undermines his illusions about the world he lives in. Maybe this even includes the illusion that art— culture—is something separate, or at least separable, from the world, and hence progressive and good?
Now, Lethem is faced with a world in which The Donald—surely the most Dickian president since Dick’s nemesis Nixon creeped out—has become his President. As if to deal with the cognitive trauma of November 8th 2016, Lethem has flipped himself sexually, he’s gone “Trans” on the reader and internally inhabited his first female protagonist, Phoebe Siegler. Maybe this is a way for him to distance himself as much as possible from the monstrousness of white masculinity that his leader embodies for so many Americans. White masculinity—already deemed toxic before that fateful day in 2016—has now gone from critical to terminal, and Lethem, obliged to diagnose the condition, has moved back into detective mode for the first time since Motherless Brooklyn. Only now it’s personal.
In some ways, Trump seems customized as a nemesis for Lethem similar to how Nixon was tailor-made for Dick: Trump made his fortune as a New York-based real-estate magnate whose main game was a gentrification program that started in Queens but rapidly spread to Lethem’s own childhood turf, Brooklyn. There is even something called Trump Village, a seven-building apartment complex in Coney Island, Brooklyn, that was built by Trump’s dad Fred in 1963-64, the years Lethem was conceived and born! This “complex” goes all the way back to the inception. (Trump Village was what’s called a “project,” i.e., low-income housing, making it the opposite of gentrification. Things are never simple in ancestral/archetypal psychodramas). Gentrification is one of the named evils in The Feral Detective—signifying as it does the inextricable complicity between neoliberalism and the architectural monstrosities it has spawned.
The problem of The Donald for Lethem is the same problem Trump presents for all thinking Americans still identified with liberal progressiveness. The problem is not that Trump is their President (presidents come and go, and Lethem is too intelligent not to know that geopolitics no more revolve around world leaders than ships are steered by figureheads). The problem is that Trump ever became their President. The problem is that he is currently established in the mirror being held up for the American psyche to gaze into. Because, to Lethem, as to so many (most especially to liberal American women), there is now a bona fide monster staring back.
The creeping shame for Americans is not that Trump might deserve to be President (he might), but that he may be the President that Americans deserve (he is). Because that would mean he’s also the President they need—their karmuppance—just as Lethem’s Trans-alter Phoebe needs her “smokeless Marlboro Man” and feral detective, Charles Heist—a detective with a crime as a last name—to introduce her to the wild.
Either to his credit or his shame (I’m not sure which), Lethem faces the author-reader discomfort implicit in a (white) male writer doing a female character impersonation head-on, with a graphic sex scene in the first few chapters that dares us to recoil in moral (or political) horror. Both amused and appalled, I felt a strong desire to create a buffer between my psyche and the grisly synthesis which Lethem’s id had unleashed and inflicted upon me—something that may more or less match how a New York liberal quasi-feminist feels as she finds herself giving (her) head to a cowboy hick, without ever finding out who he voted for.
For Phoebe, Heist is “The thing I’d seize for myself in this new world. An untamed creature of the middle spaces, a resister stranded from all camps, tending to decline needless battles, infinitely kind towards the weak, yet capable of killing if cornered. I’d be Heist’s other, he’d be mine.”
As with Gambler’s Anatomy, there’s a geographical polarity being mapped here: this time it’s not between Berkeley and Berlin but between East and West coasts. As much a tribute to Chinatown as to Beauty and the Beast, Feral Detective is a dance of opposites; and, as with yin and yang, inside every black hole is a white dwarf, struggling to get out.
Leonard Cohen is the gateway to the mystery here, and Cohen’s “Never Mind” is one of the songs on Lethem’s imaginary soundtrack to the novel (as posted at his website). “Never Mind” was the theme song to 2016’s criminally underrated True Detective season two, a series follow-up that (like Trump?) proved too dark, seedy, and trauma-saturated for American audiences to endure, much less embrace. Reading Feral Detective, I found myself wondering if Lethem was aware of Cohen’s alleged secret life (as alluded to in both the song of that name and “Never Mind,” along with countless others) as a mind control subject (Allan Memorial Institute, Montreal, circa 1951) and undercover operative working for unknown agencies (Bay of Pigs and elsewhere, circa 1962). Cohen’s occult career as a lifetime actor (both crisis and peacetime) was revealed to me in a series of conversations with Cohen’s ex-girlfriend, Ann Diamond (who of course has been dismissed as crazy-paranoid by both Cohen’s lackeys and his fans), conversations which aired on The Liminalist #31, just three short weeks after my first talk with Lethem on the same “show.”
But never mind. My guess is, if Lethem is aware, it is only dimly and peripherally. But he certainly can’t be unaware of the sexual misbehaviors of Cohen’s Buddhist guru Sasaki Roshi on Mount Baldy, where most of the novel’s action takes place (including a ritual sacrifice of teenagers). And at some level, at least, Lethem seems to acknowledge that Cohen is the flip-side of the Trump monster, a debonair devil in disguise, a Dorian Gray, a psycho killer in sage’s clothing. Otherwise, why haunt his novel with Leonard’s ghost? Surely not out of mere fanboy cultural nostalgia? Cohen died the day before Trump’s election, and Lethem implicitly juxtaposes the death of nobility and sagesse with the rise of the Man in the Dark Tower. It was the moment the prince was revealed as a toad.
The indication—intended or not—is that behind every rabbit mask is a bear and, if the monk is really a monster under those robes, the American nightmare may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. If nothing else (and this is not nothing), it’s easier to wake from a nightmare than from a dream. The polarity that is a secret complementarity, the opposing halves that complete when they cease to compete, is even in the novel’s title: a feral detective is the flip side of the noble savage.
“Like other names I censored lately, this was a vote against invoking monsters, against etching their reality into the air,” muses Lethem-Phoebe. The name in question is the King of the Bears, Solitary Love. Narcissus is the name and number of the Beast, the loneliest number there is being one.
What happens to a people or a movement that becomes defined by what it most despises? What happens in a world where virtue is most persuasively signaled by the power of hate? These may or may not be questions Lethem is asking with his novel—or even questions he was asking himself—but they are at the very least questions I had while reading it, and I doubt this is entirely coincidental.
The Feral Detective is a shadow-play. Lethem the author works things out in his psyche by becoming a woman. And this negative identity for the mansplainer is also a no-no for feminists, even while it is now de rigueur for Trans-people like Caitlyn Jenner, the men of the hour who get to define what it means to be a woman. Like a postmodern (post-Pynchon, post-Heller, post-Vonnegut) refugee from a Paul Bowles novel, Lethem-Phoebe gets to find his-her wild side. She is abducted into the dark side of the dream by her very own Sam Hades, himself part Rabbit, part Bear: the fanged rabbit, perhaps, that obsessed Oliver Stone with Natural Born Killers (another Leonard Cohen-soaked ode to the primal).
Trump is the Morlock who gets to define what it is to be a man and who confirms the worst fears of all the New Age neoliberal “feminists” (including the male ones), to see them and raise them. However, he cannot even be described as a bringer of Apocalypse, but only a harbinger, a symptom. Because, if the POTUS is now a plague carrier on a pale horse, the plague he is carrying was seeded long, long ago, in a garden far, far away. He is not the bad guy but something much more depressing. But also much more revealing.
Reversing into Trauma
Phoebe’s, Lethem’s, and the novel’s central insight arrives in chapter 52, on page 240:
In November of the previous year, when the mask had been peeled off, when the worm had reached the bud, I remembered my eyes lighting on a magazine cover at my bedside. It featured a comic illustration, showing the man I now had to call president sawing an elephant in half, like a stage magician. The elephant was the Republican Party. How we wanted him to do it! Our confidence was sickening—it was the disease itself. That morning I’d thrown the magazine in the trash, feeling a savage distaste for the artifact of the old knowingness. Then, for weeks, I’d gone every day onto the Internet in search of a new and better knowingness to fill me up again. The disease still inside me, even if reversed into trauma.
If The Feral Detective is more parable-like than any Lethem novel since And She Crawled Across The Table, it may be because Lethem appears to be wrestling with something inchoate inside him, some deep, dark infant betrayal trauma that recent events have triggered into dim (and dimly apocalyptic) awareness. Lethem’s authorial intellect is too savvy to mistake the pus-oozing finger for the blood Moon, or to confuse reflection with the original image. Something bestial, primal, and life-giving, as well as life-destroying, lurks beneath the liberal-progressive threshold; The Feral Detective may even be Lethem’s attempt to impose some “progressive” (artistic) order onto the affective tremors, to prevent the fault line from shifting irreversibly.
The question (for me) is: Can he go back to enjoying Leonard Cohen and believing in the electoral process? What business a radical author in the 21st century who professes to love the movie They Live ever had believing in such a thing remains a mystery, but it’s a central one (for me at least). Maybe the question is, can anyone go back to that, if the only way to defeat the monster democracy has spawned is to abolish the process and invite—or worse, become—something even more monstrous? As Phoebe and Lethem find themselves wondering, as the split in their gentrified-primal psyche extends: “Maybe I was the one sawed in half.”
These are grave dilemmas. To play into the hands of the good cop/bad cop, rabbit/bear, super-ego/id, problem-reaction-solution game is to ensure, once again, that the Empire of Trauma never ended. I feel sure this is not the game Lethem wants to be playing, even if his Phoebe can’t see her way out of it.
Having made it out one time, Phoebe-Persephone is returned to the underworld, of her own free will, this time to rescue Hades and, if possible, to abduct him back into her old life—also a new world in which the Beast reigns supreme. Going back through the looking glass doesn’t mean arriving back in the world you left behind, however, because, if you are no longer the same, neither is the mirror. (As ever, “reviewing” Lethem leads me into ever more gnomic expressions.)
Confidence, superiority, condescension, narcissism, is the disease, so of course the worst possible wake- up for a class of Dorian Grays is to draw back the veil and gaze upon the portrait which “the people” (America, the State of Mind) have painted for them.
Election-traumatized liberal progressives such as Lethem’s Phoebe are now possessed by a new-old hate-defined negative identity, spawned into full consciousness by the materialization of that Shadow. (It has even been diagnosed: “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”) And what they are most afraid to see— most invested in not seeing—is this: the monster is only monstrous because he represents—embodies— the great white hope that his former throne-dweller—in all his half-baked blackness—could only simulate, or “ape.” The hope Obama offered Americans was a sham from the start, and now the hope The Donald destroys is that same Paper Tiger, set afire (like an empty wicker man) by a single “match.”
It’s this, I’d wager, that makes the trumpet blast of hope of those unwashed, dispossessed incorrect legions of U.S. (or us) relatively real by comparison. And it is the same hope that’s seen as proof—by the defeated wanna-be Hillary elite—of the prime evil of their unworthy successor. A further irony of the hope-defeat see-saw here is that, if the Monster in the Tower fulfills even half of the fear and loathing his enemies hold for him, he’ll be the first president in living memory to live up to his Promise—making him a genuine miracle.
Comedy doesn’t get much blacker than this.
A Zeitgeist of Denial or Denial of Zeitgeist?
It is not just that a detective needs to be feral to navigate the underworld. It requires a detective, a man willing to walk mean streets without himself becoming mean, to root out the feral within us and embrace it. But probe into the feral and the feral also probes into you. Phoebe herself becomes unworlded by the end of the novel. The father-bondage of daddy’s golden girl, pleasantly lost in movie symbiosis, became in adulthood the dissociated sophistry of a gentrified self; both now find themselves at an impasse, a world between worlds. What’s the opposite of a feral detective? A declawed diva?
The back blurb on the advance copy I read describes Phoebe as a hero. This seemed like a bit of a stretch to me. Maybe in the most general sense of protagonist she is; and as a driving perspective, Phoebe’s inner voice does seem to come closer to Lethem’s private self (based on his nonfiction and the exchanges we have had) than previous literary incarnations (not counting the autobiographical fiction of Dissident Gardens). Perhaps switching sex freed up some of his inhibitions? Yet, affectionate as he clearly is towards Phoebe, as with the male protagonists in Gambler’s Anatomy and Chronic City, he doesn’t seem to hold her in particularly high regard. But maybe I am projecting.
Heist, on the other hand, remains something of a vacuum (the name of one of his dogs) at the heart of the book. Maybe he is another of Noteless’ holes (c.f. Chronic City), a sort of unconventional literary convention animated by Phoebe-Lethem’s fantasy of deliverance from an increasingly Dickian reality— as if detective fiction could somehow trump dystopian sci-fi in Lethem’s hierarchy of genre (and it is surely no coincidence that both were pioneered by Edgar Poe). If Heist’s vacuous center cannot hold the novel together, this may be deliberate on Lethem’s part—a declaration of no-faith, perhaps—as his roughly etched beast slouches towards Babylon, Mount Baldy, or Washington, DC. Tricky, if not impossible, to say where Lethem stands in this partially drained swampland.
The Feral Detective may be strictly for Americans and the Americanized (no small portion of the modern world, admittedly); it’s a commentary on a crisis but it holds back from full-blown apocalypse, as if too numbed out, too jaded, too boy-who-cried-wolf, to follow the trauma-tip of the approaching iceberg into the lower depth, where the Narcissus-Leviathan lurks.
The Feral Detective is another invaluable snapshot (and blood sample) of its author’s psyche. But there’s something potentially self-defeating about a work that tries to define a zeitgeist of narcissism and denial.
The confidence that’s a sickness is like a mix of knowingness with naiveté, the presumption (of progressive gentrification) that the wild and the feral is no more than a throwback, a residue of what we once were, rather than the lion’s share of what we will soon be revealed as, as embodied by the ruling crass. This is the confidence that makes us prey to confidence men, men who really should remain nameless, not because it’s a way to keep the monsters at bay but because the naiveté of naming the Shadow presumes our disease has been identified and isolated, located on the outside, and that it can be treated or protected against—or at the very least reviled.
The Feral Detective is another invaluable snapshot (and blood sample) of its author’s psyche. But there’s something potentially self-defeating about a work that tries to define a zeitgeist of narcissism and denial. By definition, the real story is elsewhere. The Feral Detective maps the two sides of an illusion— as embodied by those two presidents of false hope and real dread—and it leaves us stranded in the liminal space between, with no going forward, and no going back. The new world promises at best a violent throwback to the pre-world (the book is also one-part Road Warrior).
Culture creates fantasy art installations, movies, and novels as a means to extend our escape route from Nature. As an established culture maker (Motherless Brooklyn is currently being filmed with Edward Norton and Bruce Willis, and Feral has been optioned by the same company), Lethem may be wrestling with a creeping suspicion that he is polishing brass on the Titanic, in service to a doomed civilization reared on escapism and a culture that’s becoming more and more like a blockbuster movie, with CGI for all its key scenes.
What happens to a work of art when its most deeply felt hidden message is that art is no longer an adequate response to reality? You can gentrify the beast, but that only makes it that much easier for the beast to walk among its prey.