By Jonathan Lethem
How do you piece together a reality that has fractured? How do you make sense of things? One strategy: Don’t.
In his latest novel, “The Arrest,” Jonathan Lethem explores a world in which technology stops working. This includes, but is not limited to, cellphones, computers, guns and most mechanical modes of transportation. The titular event has caused “the collapse and partition and relocalization of everything, the familiar world.” Modernity is on pause, the timeline of progress cleaved in two: Before and After.
Much confusion surrounds the Arrest. Why or how or even precisely when it happened is unclear. This vagueness is intentional. In another book, by another writer, perhaps there would be more in the way of description, causes and mechanisms, the back story that got us to this moment. Exposition begets exposition; down that road lies a more conventional (and most likely longer) dystopian novel.
But this is Jonathan Lethem, a master at subverting expectations of form and genre and the author of some of the most original novels in recent decades, including “Motherless Brooklyn” and “The Fortress of Solitude.” He has not written a conventional postapocalyptic cautionary tale. If anything, he seems more interested in unpacking assumptions built into such tales, and why we seem to have an endless appetite for stories that, presumably, should make us feel terrible.
[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of November. See the full list. ]
When we meet him, Alexander Duplessis, who calls himself Journeyman but is known to everyone else as Sandy, is living in Tinderwick, a town in rural Maine. Pre-Arrest, Sandy was a fairly successful Hollywood screenwriter. These days, he has two jobs, one as a butcher’s assistant and the other delivering food grown by a farming collective, Spodosol Ridge Farm. Spodosol was founded by Sandy’s younger sister, Madeleine Duplessis, and is in the next town over, East Tinderwick, home to a “locavore and natural-growing community” that predates the Arrest.
Tinderwick and East Tinderwick are on a peninsula. The only land route out goes through the Cordon, whose members ride horses or motorcycles that run on a secret, foul-smelling fuel. “The Cordon had guns, when guns still worked,” Lethem writes. “Once guns quit they had the authority of their willingness to do violence.” The farmers of Spodosol and the people of the Cordon coexist in a stable if not exactly friendly equilibrium, bound together by necessity and barter.
Into this pastoral scene rumbles a technological monstrosity. A “supercar” piloted by Sandy’s old friend Peter Todbaum, a former writing partner turned big-time producer. Called the Blue Streak, the vehicle is one of a kind: a massive, nuclear-powered tunnel digger, lead-lined and retrofitted as a personal vehicle, complete with espresso maker. He has driven for 10 months from his Malibu compound to Tinderwick, arriving with news from the world beyond the peninsula. According to Todbaum, between California and Maine there is very little left in terms of highway. He was forced “to go many times deep off-road, across fenced prairie and open desert and into forested mountain passes, all of which the car was equipped to traverse but at minimal speeds.”
Despite initial skepticism of his information and general distrust of his character, Todbaum is accepted largely by virtue of his association with Sandy, who somewhat reluctantly vouches for his old friend. Before long, Todbaum, expert pitchman, begins to win over some of the locals in fireside chats, regaling them with his transcontinental adventures. He even wins over a couple of acolytes from the Cordon.
Someone not happy to see him is Madeleine, who has a short but complicated history with Todbaum during the time Before. Back when Sandy and Todbaum were two fresh Yale graduates living, working and drinking in a Burbank apartment, Maddy had come out to visit her brother. One morning not long into her stay, Sandy woke from a wild night to learn that something had occurred between Todbaum and his sister. An argument? An assault? Maddy tries to reassure her brother: “He didn’t do anything to me that he doesn’t do to you.” And yet, whatever it was, she left Burbank as fast as she could, taking up residence in East Tinderwick. Sandy has never managed to get out of Maddy a clear picture of what happened.
[ Read an excerpt from “The Arrest.” ]
Before long, Todbaum’s charms begin to wear off amid suspicions that he might have brought trouble with him, people he hurt or angered during his ride across America. The residents hold council meetings, argue, hash out plans. How should they deal with this disruption to their existence? What are a bunch of natural farmers supposed to do about a guy who shows up with something out of a sci-fi movie?
If it seems as if parts of this story don’t fit together, that might be the point. Before their mysterious night together, Maddy and Todbaum had been collaborating on a pitch for a movie with the working title “Yet Another World,” “a tale of alternate nightmare Earths. One was their own version of reality, the other an Orwellian techno-dystopia.” Todbaum’s theory, as he explains to Sandy, is that they seem to be living inside of the pitch, that the two conflicting worlds conceived by Todbaum and Maddy had somehow become their reality. Or, rather, two realities that needed to be stitched together.
Stuck in the middle is Sandy. Does it fall to him, once a professional script doctor, to fix things? Take two very incompatible realities and reconcile them, to “bring the halves together again”?
Maybe not. Maybe the point is that we (both storytellers and audience members) have gotten too good at this. Too good at making these stories, too practiced at consuming them. A riff on dystopias offers some insights:
“It’s always better, not worse.”
“What do you mean?”
“You people are supposed to, you know, write it to keep it from happening, right? Cautionary tales? … But they just can’t help it, they like it there. They love it there.”
“Where? Whatever … allegorical hellscape or dire prison block for the human soul they’re working through, the particulars don’t matter. They want to live there, you can feel it.”
Stories of the postapocalypse, meant to shock and disturb, have become comforting, even aspirational. How did this happen? Perhaps, to borrow another concept from the novel, we learned to take the broken fragments of the world and piece them together; we “located their beauty and unspoiledness, and smoothed it up” into one coherent picture.
This is what the sense-making apparatus within us does: makes sense of things. It might be our genius or at least our nature to do this. We can’t help ourselves. Even when we find ourselves in a situation where it’s exactly the wrong thing to do, when smoothing or reconciliation or forced coherence requires the creation of a fantasy, and results in a lie. At times like this, the sense-making apparatus not only fails us, it actively obstructs the truth.
Is this what the novel is pointing at? Or is this the very type of big idea that’s trying too hard, overfitting the data?
Occasionally, the novel’s eclectic furniture clashes with its conceptual architecture, which, even if by design, can make for a slightly jarring reading experience from chapter to chapter. At the sentence level, however, there are all of the expected and welcome pleasures of reading Lethem: his intellect, dialogue and wry humor. The feeling is similar to watching a virtuoso musician noodling, trying things out. There are soft spots, but then there are riffs that find an interesting line and take off into flights of extended brilliance.
As the sides are drawn in East Tinderwick, tension builds to a showdown in a final sequence that offers many satisfactions — like the novel as a whole. “The Arrest” may not show Lethem at the height of his powers, but as with so much of his work, it is inventive, entertaining and superbly written.