Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Jonathan Lethem’s The Arrest asks: What happens to a life built around cinema and sushi after society collapses?

Cover image of The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem
Image: Ecco
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Apocalypses in fiction tend to be geographically egalitarian. It doesn’t matter if it’s a zombie uprising, an alien invasion, or good old mutually assured destruction: Mushroom clouds and mass graves sprout up all over the world within conveniently narrow time frames. The Doomsday Clock isn’t beholden to time zones. Societal collapse in reality isn’t so efficient. Cities in dire squalor exist on the same continent as gleaming metropolises. Your neighbors a few state lines down could be drowning under flood waters or beating back hellish wildfires at the same moment that you enjoy a leisurely poolside brunch. There’s lag time when a civilization declines—different parts of the whole fail at their own speeds. This is something that Jonathan Lethem takes into account when he spells out the details of his apocalypse in The Arrest: “The future always already present but distributed unequally like everything else—like bread, talent, sex…”

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Lethem’s 12th novel takes place in a primitivist post-apocalyptic world. The book’s title doubles as the name of the event that took Earth’s tech permanently offline—an Industrial Devolution where bit by bit the world’s technology malfunctions and literally melts down. Evocatively comparing it to the colony collapse disorder that destroys beehives, Lethem’s narrator muses, “The email quit producing honey.” Even gasoline and bullets no longer work—it’s as if some sort of magic has bricked all the tools that made modern life easier (and sometimes more dangerous).

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Sandy “Journeyman” Duplessis, The Arrest’s protagonist, is no hardened survivalist cut from Mad Max cloth. A screenwriter before The Arrest happened, Journeyman works as a butcher’s assistant, running meat deliveries for a town in Maine. “He did pine for sushi restaurants, and for Wong Kar-wai movies, and older Japanese samurai movies, by Kurosawa and Kobayashi,” Lethem writes, rendering Sandy as the kind of figure who normally doesn’t headline a post-apocalypse narrative: He’s instead a high-brow hipster with Criterion-curated tastes and zero useful survival skills. Sandy’s sister, Maddy, who runs the anarchistic farm that keeps their town alive, was made for these times.

The central conflict kicks in early on when Sandy’s old friend and partner, Hollywood producer Peter Todbaum, comes roaring back into Sandy’s life inside a giant functioning “supercar.” Encased inside an impenetrable tunnel-digging vehicle that has somehow escaped The Arrest’s wrath, Todbaum says he’s driven all the way from the West Coast to see Sandy and his sister. Both siblings have very different and conflicting relationships with the fast-talking, self-aggrandizing Todbaum, who quickly puts the rest of the town under his spell with his wild stories about traveling across America.

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Todbaum inhabits an essential role in a post-apocalypse narrative: that of the shit-stirrer, the dark outsider who rises up from civilization’s ashes to cause problems for everyone else. But Lethem isn’t interested in writing a grandiose good versus evil story, and Todbaum—a grandstanding Hollywood big shot with the gift of gab—isn’t really cut out to be a Randall Flagg type. The Arrest is more interested in asking questions about how an egalitarian community can continue to exist when someone won’t play along. How does equality survive in the face of unchecked ego? Lethem doesn’t make any direct allusions to our (current) commander-in-chief, but it’s hard not to see Trumpian qualities in Todbaum—a man whose desire for attention is all-consuming.

This isn’t the first time that Lethem has taken a swig from the post-apocalyptic well. His 1995 novel, Amnesia Moon, takes place in an America that has been ravaged by nuclear war. But whereas Amnesia Moon was more explicitly sci-fi with its detours into splintering realities and psychic powers and dystopian societies, The Arrest takes a more grounded approach. The world-building is fairly minimal: Lethem only describes Tinderwick, the town the Duplessis siblings call home, and a few of their neighboring communities, leaving the rest of the world’s fate a mystery. While some elements of The Arrest’s new world may seem overly familiar to genre fans—like The Cordon, a gang of thugs who take tributes of food from their neighbors as payment for “protecting” them (shades of The Saviors from The Walking Dead)—Lethem doesn’t hide his homages. The Arrest is a post-apocalyptic novel that’s self-aware of its subgenre’s tropes. These are characters who’ve watched The Road, after all.

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In addition to being a post-apocalypse story, The Arrest shares another quality with Amnesia Moon: Both books are indebted to Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Bloodmoney. Whereas Amnesia Moon makes the connections to Dick’s novel blatant with references to names and events from that book, The Arrest taps into Dr. Bloodmoney’s fascination with how much little things matter after the world ends. In Dick’s book, the most powerful people post-doomsday are those who can provide creature comforts and basic necessities like cigarettes and prescription eyeglasses. So it goes in The Arrest: The important people aren’t scientists or gun-nut survivalists or hardened road warriors; it’s the family who makes tamales, the cook who can make sausages so good it keeps the gang of thugs happy, the strange woman hiding in the abandoned library who helps people find books to pass the time.

“The self’s a howling counterfeit, an arena where no show goes on, a parenthesis with nothing inside,” Todbaum says to Sandy as The Arrest winds gracefully toward its climax. “You can decorate it with distinctive stuff. Neurosis. Like a fingerprint or a snowflake, no two alike.” When you’re someone who filled the hole in their life with culture, clout, and convenience like Sandy did, what’s left of you when that goes away? What happens when you live in a world where what you can do is all that matters and you don’t really know how to do anything? In The Arrest, Lethem writes about a world that’s ready to move on from humanity’s bullshit toward something healthier and self-sustaining. The questions he poses to his characters is whether or not they’re ready to move forward with the times, or if they’d rather spend their remaining days on Earth dreaming about sushi.

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Author photo: Amy Maloof

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