I actually do not know how to describe this rather odd book. At first blush, it is a peculiar story about a search for the missing daughter of a friend, which takes the protagonist into an unknown world. However, I do not think that is what this book is about. I think this book is about politics and judgement and about how we have lost our way. But I am not sure.
The book starts with Phoebe driving through Upland, California looking for a detective’s office. Phoebe is from Manhattan and the description of how she feels searching for this office after driving past it twice is wonderful. “It was the feeling, specifically, that it was a place for driving past, so my foot couldn’t find the brake.” There are little gems like this throughout the book.
The detective is Charles Heist, who keeps an opossum in his desk drawer and a runaway in his armoire. Needless to say he is unconventional and of course Phoebe falls for him.
Phoebe is looking for Arabella, the daughter of her friend Roslyn. Roslyn and Phoebe met at work at NPR, where Phoebe was working in the OpEd department and Roslyn, 20 years her senior, was her supervisor. Phoebe quit her job over her perception that NPR had normalized Donald Trump during the election.
Arabella had been a college student and disappeared. Phoebe and Roslyn believe she may have gone to follow in the footsteps of her music idol, Leonard Cohen, as a sort of memorial.
Phoebe’s search with Charles Heist takes her into worlds she never knew existed. First is the Wash, where she meets Sage and the giant, Laird, trying to avoid a flood. Her search takes her to Zendo and the Monks, where she starts to get closer to finding Arabella. Then they climb up a mountain where there is a mysterious compound which is protected by a fence (not a wall), which is surrounded by two “tribes” known as the rabbits (women) and the Bears (men). It is here where the story really gets weird and violent.
The book ends with Phoebe questioning her assumptions about life as she’s known it, as well as her values and the values of the country. “Ordinary people might be the most terrifying thing on earth. Or ordinary Americans, I should say.” She uses as a backdrop to this observation the weirdness she has encountered during her search and ordinary current events. The read was kind of fun, but it is not subtle and by the end I am not sure Lethem accomplished whatever it is he was trying to accomplish. I loved Motherless Brooklyn and was hoping for another great novel, but I was disappointed . You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.