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November 7, 2018

Jonathan Lethem's Playlist for His Novel "The Feral Detective"

The Feral Detective

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Jonathan Lethem returns to detective fiction with the timely The Feral Detective.

The Washington Post wrote of the book:

"A highbrow mystery. . . . Fans of Motherless Brooklyn take note."


In his own words, here is Jonathan Lethem's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Feral Detective:



1. The song “I Can See Clearly Now” recolonized my life and invaded my book in the most absurd way. My friend Mimi and I were making a joke about “mansplaining” and we shortened the term to ‘splain’, and then Mimi said, “I can’t stand the ‘splain.” That led us to “It’s ‘splainin’ men” and “The ‘splain in Spain falls mainly on the plain” and “How I wish it would ‘splain” and so forth, until we got to “I can see clearly now, the ‘splain is gone”. And then it got stuck in my head, and I think I realized how deeply that song had sunk into my heart when I was a kid and the Johnny Nash hit was constantly on the radio. Subsequently I’d quarantined the song as ‘corny’ in some way, but really I was protecting myself from the surging feeling of optimism and connectedness that I associated with it, and of which I was now wary. I stumbled across the Doyle Bramhall cover of it and that blew the doors off my quarantine. I don’t know anything, particularly, about Doyle Bramhall, but he replenished an anthem for me. And of course, like the book, it has a lot of landscape in it – open sky, and what falls on you out of it.

2. Father John Misty’s “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before The Revolution” does a good job of framing the intricate irony which us non-preppers, non-peak-oil, non-militia, non-off-the-gridders use to manage the increasing certainty that the preppers, peak-oilers, etc. digested the memo about the environment a lot more directly and capably than we did.

3. When the oceans come and reclaim the floodplains, we’ll all be looking for “Higher Ground”, and that fact is a thing for which a lot of the desert people in the book seem to be making themselves ready. This Ellen Mcilwaine cover of the Stevie Wonder song makes me laugh and want to dance every time. It’s so funky and so white at the same time. She’s an absolutely amazing guitarist. It reminds me of what the Rabbits – a tribe in my book of, mostly, women – might sound like when they’re partying. It occurs to me now that this songlist seems to specialize partly in music by people I don’t know anything more about than I – or you – could read about on Wikipedia.

4. Conversely, I know too much about Leonard Cohen, who I’ve been listening to and reading since I was sixteen, probably to my detriment. He was introduced to me by the novelist L.J. Davis, who was the dad of my then-best friend. When in the very first song I heard the couplet “You were Marlon Brando, I was Steve McQueen/You were K-Y jelly, I was Vaseline”, I thought, “You can do that?”, which is always a salutary thought for an aspiring writer. I associate Cohen with notions of “how do we get out of this place?”, the place in question being both the self generally, and conventional versions of masculine romanticism. One of his personal solutions was a long retreat to Mount Baldy, the top of which I can see from my office window now, and which plays a part in the book. Between that, and dying the same week as the traumatic 2016 election, he seemed necessarily to play a part in my novel.

5. Back to people I don’t really know anything about. Doris, who sings “Did You Give the World Some Love Today, Baby?”, is Swedish, I think. More white-lady pop funk, and another anthem which embarrasses me and opens me up. I like being embarrassed.

6. Dave Graney interviewed me on the radio in Australia. Speaking of being embarrassed, I had no idea he was an accomplished musician until he casually handed me his newest CD, Fearful Wiggings, at the end of the show. The strange spaciousness of “I Was There”, which is a duet with Clare Moore, reminds me of the feeling of strange spaciousness I feel in the Mohave, where there is also “nothing to see” and yet you seem compelled to try to see it, the nothing. This song inaugurates the “secretly Australian” theme of this playlist.

7. “I want to change your mind/I want to set it right, this time”: I used this song, “My Mathematical Mind”, by Spoon, to rev myself up to write this book hard and fast and angry. “Planning for the apocalypse is not considered cool”: preppers again. “Quit riding the brakes”: what I want to do in my writing, and in my life.

8. “Are You Looking After Yourself”, Courtney Barnett. Australia again. I guess the reach of this distant land (New Zealand too) and its music into my heart (beginning with my beloved Go-Betweens, and all the Flying Nun bands), is associated in my mind with outlaws and exile, a desperate marginality, the unforgiving blaze of the sun, and the impact of Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach on me when I was ten years old and unready for such dire apocalyptic visions (though it helped make me ready, and hungry, for more). The tenderness of Barnett’s inquiry here is something else, the question I’d want to ask my character Phoebe, or really any of my characters, or my dear friends.

9. “Rattlesnake”, by King Gizzard and the Wizard Lizard. Australia again. The best crazy-ass shit comes over you in the desert, if you let it, and I was driving around in Jeeps listening to this crazy-ass band a whole bunch in the year I wrote the book. Just don’t get bitten.

10. The Mekons’ “Wild and Blue” has been another anthem to open up my heart, one that never has embarrassed me once.

11. “Anti-Aging Global Warming”. This world we’ve wrecked belongs now to the kids, and I probably should spend every day I spend as a college professor trying to remind them not to listen to anything anyone over thirty has to say on any subject. French Vanilla, a very young band who seem right on target to me every time, are as pissed as they ought to be.

12. “My Oh My”. Cohen again. At least he sounds like he’s sorry.

13. I’d be overcomplicating it if I claimed Divine Fits’ “Would That Not Be Nice” is really doing anything here except acting as an energizer for a book that was written in a spirit of rage and velocity. Well, no, there’s something more. If what redeems Leonard Cohen for me is his capacity for mordant ruefulness, I I find this song drenched in another flavor of ruefulness, one I long to find in myself, a thing to temper my rage without damping my velocity. Quit riding the brakes, and laugh at yourself, and dance, and get high, and make out with the person in the passenger seat. It’s only the end of the world.

14. Who needs Doyle Bramhall, it turns out, except as a route back into your youthful wonder, the part of you that doesn’t find Johnny Nash’s song embarrassing in the least. “Look all around you, there’s nothing but blue sky!”


Jonathan Lethem and The Feral Detective links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Booklist review
Kirkus review
Washington Post review

Entertainment Weekly interview with the author
Los Angeles Times profile of the author
Vulture profile of the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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