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‘The Arrest’ a different kind of post-apocalyptic tale

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There are few authors out there who can match Jonathan Lethem when it comes to literary genre-bending. Just a handful are even close – and none are better. He has long been a proponent of embracing the possibilities inherent to genre exploration, leading to work that is insightful, engaging … and wildly entertaining.

His latest effort is “The Arrest” (Ecco, $27.99), a post-apocalyptic tale that offers a glimpse at one possible ending for civilization as we know it. Neither a utopia nor a dystopia, but something in between, Lethem’s landscape is one is thoughtful and laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a story of survival and isolation, a story about what it means to live in a society.

It’s a condemnation of overreliance on technology that also pokes fun at those who view tech as some shadowy all-encompassing bogeyman. By viewing the world through the lens shaped by the titular event, Lethem peels back the layers and gives us a glimpse of what we might try to put together if everything fell apart.

One day, with no warning, technology stopped working. Some things stopped immediately, while others gradually petered out, but the ultimate result is the same. Cars, computers, cell phones, guns – none of it works anymore. Television’s past and present bled together. Internet communication suffered a variation on colony collapse disorder. Planes fell from the sky and smart devices became paperweights. It was an ending with neither an explanation nor the means to derive one.

Journeyman lives in a small coastal Maine town called Tinderwick, situated on a peninsula. Once a reasonably successful screenwriter (well, script doctor, really) named Sandy Duplessis, he was visiting his sister Maddy at her organic farm when the event – called “the Arrest” by these folks – took place. Unable to get back to California or, well … anywhere, really … he winds up working as a sort of deliveryman, bringing supplies to various people across the area. He also assists the local butcher, among other tasks.

Journeyman is one of the few that has regular interactions with people outside the general community. He’s the one tasked with delivering food to the exiled Jerome Kormentz, living alone at the Lake of Tiredness as punishment for his sins. He’s also one of the few community members to engage with riders from the Cordon, the vaguely-organized militia that served as the self-styled protectors of the peninsula (for a modest payment of food, of course).

But then a figure from his old life reappears.

Peter Todman was Journeyman’s Yale classmate and early writing partner, but Todman’s combination of ruthlessness and charisma eventually led him to a steadily-rising spot in the studio system. He became one of the most influential figures in Hollywood, a mover and shaker who got movies made – a status that certainly gave Sandy a leg up in the business. There’s also the small matter of conflict between Todman and Maddy – a conflict that neither has ever seen fit to explain. Journeyman assumed he’d never see Todman again – right up until his old friend shows up looking for him.

Perhaps even more remarkable than Todman’s appearance is how he arrives – behind the wheel of a massive contraption of blinking lights and metal, a Supercar of sorts, heavily armed and armored and powered by a self-contained nuclear reactor. By asking for Journeyman (as well as Maddy), Todman immediately ensures that the Duplessis siblings are inextricably tied to him.

Initially, Todman’s presence is welcome, but it isn’t long before questions begin to arise – on all sides – regarding what it is that he’s after. Todman’s a talker, willing to tell people what they want to hear, whether it is a tale of his harrowing journey across the continent or a wild plan to make an escape south to Brunswick and beyond, so it isn’t easy for Journeyman to discern what it is his old friend really wants. And when Todman’s presence starts to elevate tensions and invite hostilities from both within the town and from those living outside it, no one is at all sure what needs to be done – or what can be done.

“The Arrest” is a sprawling story of the post-apocalypse, an interesting exploration of the idea that rather than some sort of all-encompassing dystopia, people would simply end up wherever they happened to be when the end arrived. There is no overarching command structure, no continent-spanning armies or stronghold strongmen. Just people left where they were, adapting to the new reality and coming together to survive.

Lethem’s considerable talent for adapting and subverting speculative tropes is apparent throughout this book, so it’s no surprise that he’s able to come up with an interesting post-apocalyptic landscape, one that completely blows up the expectations two decades of sci-fi have laid out for us. He’s got a knack for flawed characters, too, people who are smart but solipsistic, capable of much but undermined by their own self-involvement. The Journeyman/Todman juxtaposition is illustrative of that evocation of the flawed – two sides of the same coin. All of this comes together in a narrative that embraces the insularity of its setting while also capturing the scale of the catastrophe.

“The Arrest” is a speculative wonder, a joyfully shaggy and unapologetic page-turner of a tale. It is that rare work that manages to be both optimistic and pessimistic at the same time, somehow evoking all sides of what happens after the end. Simultaneously a celebration and condemnation of human nature, it’s a compelling read from one of his generation’s finest writers.

Last modified on Tuesday, 10 November 2020 07:14

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