Back to Books! Jonathan Lethem’s Dystopian Comedy, “The Arrest”

We have elected a new President of the United States, who wears a mask, which I approve.

And more good news: I’ve been reading again. So many good books, but I’m doing you a favor by BARELY MENTIONING a 1960s Gothic suspense novel, Black Amber, which features a romance between the heroine and her sister’s late husband, and they must unmask a drug-smuggling ring in Istanbul. Stick to Mary Stewart if you want a good Gothic: she writes so well.

AND NOW FOR A REAL BOOK, Jonathan Lethem’s new novel, The Arrest.

Let me begin by noting that Jonathan Lethem is one of my favorite living American writers. (I have a lot of favorite dead American writers.) Lethem’s stylistic flexibility and off-kilter imagination always astonish me. He has written genre novels and literary novels, has edited Philip K. Dick for the Library of America, penned essays, criticism, and short stories: he does it all. My favorite American novel is Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, based on his experiences at a utopian communal farm. Lethem is getting closer to my Blithedale ideal with a post-apocalyptic farming collective in his new novel, The Arrest.

The Arrest is a very odd book, a kind of dystopian comedy that unfolds after technology dies.

Certainly things are very bleak on Earth; I don’t mean to imply the future is actually funny. One day, without warning, everything stops working. No TV, no internet, no phones: “the death of screens.” No cars, no planes, no trains, just horses and bicycles for transportation. A lot of attention is paid to the growing of food and cooking.

The hero, Journeyman, a former Hollywood writer and script-doctor named Sandy Duplessis, has no special skills in this new world. When the Arrest happened, he was lucky to be visiting his sister Maddie, the lesbian founder of a farming collective. She tried to teach him how to find mushrooms, but he flunks that course. He is an unskilled worker who now helps the butcher kill ducks, and he also delivers food on a bicycle.

Musing about the Arrest, Journeyman gets nowhere.

How even to say when the Arrest began? The question was when had it gained your attention. Plenty flew under the radar. Biodiversity halved? That made an impression, barely. Polar ice and Miami drowned? Terrible, yet also too big to take personally. One day Journeyman noticed reports of a new tick-borne disease. Once you’d been bitten, cow meat made your throat close up. No more American Wagyu tomahawk steak for two, black on the outside, red within. People joked uneasily. Were the new ticks an eco-terrorist hack? On television, someone said that the turning point had been when in 1986 the president had removed the solar panels from the White House. Then again someone else said the turning point had been when St. Paul’s epistle had been delivered to the Romans and ignored. You could debate this shit forever.

We know that something will happen in this relatively peaceful post-apocalyptic community. And so one day, when an armored supercar appears, powered by nuclear energy and driven by Journeyman’s former business partner, Todbaum (tod means “death” in German), everyone is wary. Todbaum and Sandy worked for years on a movie script about an apocalypse, and, at Maddie’s suggestion, added scenes in the pre-apocalyptic world. Maddie and Todbaum are natural enemies: Maddie e is productive, Todbaum destructive.

Everyone comes to see Todbaum’s vehicle, and he begins to tell nightly stories around the campfire of his adventures traveling across country in the Blue Streak (his car). Some tales are gory, some are simply absurd. He also gives them espresso (yes, he actually has a never-ending supply of espresso in the super-car).

His presence shakes up the community. There is some resentment. There are threats of violence. How can the peace be kept? The solution is so bizarre and just plain weird that I was awed–but not entirely in a good way!

Very enjoyable and eerie. My only complaint: the chapters are too short. They do seem to reflect the monotony of the days, though. Not much happens in a single episode.

Anyway, in our present state of apocalypse, I was happy to read a not-too-threatening dystopian novel. Not Lethem’s best, but a good light read for lockdown (if it comes to that). An entertainment that won’t scare you out of your mind like John Christopher’s The Death of Grass.

2 thoughts on “Back to Books! Jonathan Lethem’s Dystopian Comedy, “The Arrest””

  1. I, too, am relieved that things have calmed down! And I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed The Arrest — I also enjoy Lethem and Motherless Brooklyn is one of my all-time favorites. Plus The Arrest is set (partially, I gather?) in Maine. Lethem really does do it all! He’s also a fantastic writing teacher; I learned a lot from him at a writers’ conference around, ha, the turn of the century. A lot of his advice has really stuck with me.

    1. Yes, Lethem is a great writer. I’m a little behind on his books–I lost my copy of The Feral Detective, which will doubtless turn up–and, yes, you’re safe from the apocalypse in Maine. I’m sure he’s a great teacher.

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