Book review: The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem

(cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin Australia)

In our pandemic-saturated times, it is all too easy to picture the world ending.

That may sound overly bleak and troublingly dark but the truth is that while we all wish for things to improve and for the world to regain its healthy civilisational glow, the reality is that COVID has reminded us that what we hold most dear, materially and societally at least, hangs by a frail and all too easily cut thread.

In The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem, who writes with such richness, vivacity and palpable love of language used well that you will find yourselves going back to re-read sentences just to luxuriate in their cleverly accessible wordplay, it becomes apparent that what we think is solid and strong may not be so robust, after all.

In this future end of the world landscape, technology has given up its electrified 1s and 0s ghosts and knocked everyone back to a far more agrarian style of living where chickens laying eggs and vegetable aren’t simply the dreamy stuff of idealistic suburbanites and tree change acolytes, but a real and pressing necessity.

For in Lethem’s richly-realised take on a future slow-building apocalypse, we back to basics, dependent on a barter economy through which everything we need to live circulates and in which there is a stark absence of mobile phones, retail outlets and public forms of entertainment such as cinemas and bowling alleys.

“When Madeleine got her mathy hands into the soil, in college, and began to come home Christmases and Thanksgivings talking of loam and silt and hydrostasis, of cryptospores and mollisols, alfisols and spodosols, how could Journeyman have known she was describing her whole future concern, right down to the source of the name of the farm she and her fellow righteous oddballs would make their permanent home? Let along that it would flourish and survive and become instrumental, a pin stuck through a tattered portion of reality when all the rest of it flew away?” P. 38)

In a sense humanity had a while to get used to this new reality with items such as planes and kitchen appliances going down for the count one after the other, unresponsive for all attempts to get them working again.

No one quite knows why it happened, though it is likely the result of us tampering foolishly with the natural world, a thoughtlessness which carries it, quite possibly all kinds of unenvisaged consequences.

Anyway, the why is not so much the point in Lethem’s brilliantly incisively, amusingly absurdist take on the fall of civilisation, or at least it’s more modern, industrialised trappings, where people have just had to get on with it because really there is not much choice.

That is very much where Sandy Duplessis has found himself, back in rural Maine, delivering food, grown on an organic farm by his sister Maddy and her girlfriend Astur, around a small peninsula divided between productive farms, small towns and a more militarised place called The Cordon which controls land access to the people of this small slice of small town America.

Or what’s left of America, anyway.

To be fair, no one is quite sure what has happened to the rest of the United States, with media, postal and social media connections all a thing of a now-defunct digitally linked past, but Sandy, who fled a now dead career as a script doctor in Los Angeles, knows it likely can’t be good.

Jonathan Lethem (image courtesy Lyceum Agency / photo credit Amy Maloof)

In Lethem’s dread-filled bucolic world, Sandy is actually happy for the first time in his life, well, happy enough anyway, that the arrival of his old college friend and onetime Malibu-resident, Hollywood bigwig Peter Todbaum in a retrofitted tunnel digger, complete with nuclear reactor and espresso machine (a rarity in a world where coffee has gone the way off the Dodo and the jet plane) upsets him in ways he can’t fully articulate.

All he knows is that Todbaum’s arrival, awash in the man’s usual gauche, un-self aware bombastic style, could spell the end of his new uncomplicated world built in a time which is neither apocalypse or dystopia, but which is better than the messy, artistically compromised and emotionally bereft world he lived behind in Hollywood and which he very much wants to preserve.

It’s by no means perfect but it is good when, if Todbaum is to be believed and sacks, rather than grains, of salt should be liberally applied to appreciation of any of self-important, verbose storytelling, most of the rest of America lays in fractured ruin.

As much a dissection of dysfunctional, deeply toxic, long-soured friendship, which also roped in Maddy in ways she has worked hard to forget, as it is a tale of the end of time as we know it now, The Arrest is an imaginative piece of speculative fiction that muses on what might happen if the world doesn’t end so much as it sheds the broken apparatus that ails it.

“It wasn’t difficult to hide. Maddy had turned from him again. Not merely flinched from his gaze, though she had done that. This was the deep interior barricade, a thing for which Journeyman felt an ancestral recognition. A thing to which he’d learned to defer. On the beaches at Rehoboth, so long ago, his sister only sometimes beckoned to him to join her in deeper waters. Other times she’d dive beneath, not beckoning at all, and swim where Journeyman couldn’t imagine following.” (P. 198)

Filled with humour but dark foreboding too as it becomes patently clear that someone will need to stop Todbaum before he ruins everything everyone has built, and that someone will likely be Sandy known to his new Maine friends as Journeyman, The Arrest is a richly rewarding dive into a place and time that the current pandemic, climate change and rampant geopolitical instability feels scarily all too possible.

While the idea that technology could just slowly grind to a halt may seem a little, or a lot, fantastical, the brutal reality is that we are heading towards a future in which our current reality may not necessarily find a home.

Many people likely think that the world as it stands can carry on indefinitely, even after the massive disruptions of the pandemic have shown that up to be a farcical self-lie, but The Arrest makes it abundantly and compulsively readably clear that any assumptions that the current normal will remain intact for the duration appears optimistic at best and ruthlessly stupid at worst.

It doesn’t say that the world will end and it argues it will go on; just not as we know it and with quite possibly some of our messy present coming to pay it a visit, whether personally or societally, and when those intrusions we occur we will likely to ask ourselves what it is we value and what we will do to ensure our more peaceful, albeit far from flawless, new world, stays intact and lasts a little longer than its oft-broken industrialised predecessor.

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