Jonathan Lethem’s ‘The Arrest’ imagines a kinder, gentler apocalypse

Ron Charles

THE WASHINGTON POST – “Some say the world will end in fire,” Robert Frost wrote, “Some say in ice.” But in this era of terrifying dystopias, Jonathan Lethem imagines a kinder, gentler apocalypse: no pandemic laying waste to humanity, no asteroid shattering the Earth, no zombies snacking on us.

In Lethem’s new novel, The Arrest, all technology simply grinds to a halt.

Y2K programmed us to fear that such a stoppage would spark worldwide panic. After all, when the power goes out in Don DeLillo’s new novel, The Silence, the guests at a Super Bowl party in Manhattan immediately go stark-raving mad.

But that catastrophe looks different in Lethem’s vision. Expecting the terror of darkness, we find instead the sepia tones of candlelight. “The Gmail, the texts and swipes and FaceTimes, the tweets and likes, these suffered colony collapse disorder,” he wrote. Yes, cars and guns and elevators stop functioning, but if there’s widespread suffering and starving, it must be happening far away, and without electronic communication, who knows?

“Everyone here lost someone,” a survivor said. “We walk every day in a trench of sorrow.” In these pages, though, that’s a surprisingly shallow trench. What sounds at first like Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers plays out with none of that story’s abiding psychological trauma. Separated from family and denied all the conveniences of modern life, Lethem’s characters start riding bikes and raising chickens – not so much a descent into mayhem as macrame. A neighbouring community of thugs poses some slight menace, but without crime or crisis, The Arrest is the sort of cruelty-free dystopia you might pick up at Whole Foods.

The action – or rather inaction – takes place in a small coastal community in Maine. A phenomenon known as the Arrest unfolded several years earlier and remains for these villagers and Lethem’s readers entirely inexplicable. “A solar flare?” the narrator wondered. “Eco-terror? Terror-terror?”

Unable to travel, people are stuck wherever they were when everything shut down. One of those people is Lethem’s hapless hero, Sandy Duplessis. In the time before, he was a screenwriter in Los Angeles, but when the Arrest struck, he was visiting his sister in Maine. So here he has settled, in a kind of “permanent vacation”, working as an assistant to the local butcher. He is more suspended than content, living alone, friendly but friendless, dropping in now and then on his sister, an organic farmer whose close-to-the-Earth livelihood anticipated the Arrest.

As a protagonist, Sandy is the blandest of heroes, “a middle person, a middleman,” Lethem wrote. “He might only be a muddle.” We have every reason to expect him to rise from such an indeterminate position to attain, ultimately, the definition and purpose that has always eluded him. (Don’t get your hopes up.)

Sandy’s pallid life may have continued undisturbed indefinitely, but as The Arrest begins, a figure from his past drives into the village. He’s Peter Todbaum, a wildly charismatic, possibly mad, fantastically wealthy Hollywood producer. What’s most arresting, though, is the vehicle Todbaum is driving: the Blue Streak, a retro sci-fi contraption that Flash Gordon might pilot. It looks, Sandy thinks, like “a jet engine or hydrogen bomb had been mounted on a fantastic chassis, then been mated with an animal or insect. And then been turned at least partly inside out.”

Such a vehicle would turn heads anywhere – its chrome exterior dazzles so brightly that admirers get sunburned – but the folks in this primitive village are not particularly alarmed. Perhaps they’ve already endured too much strangeness, or maybe they’ve read Lethem’s earlier novels so they knew meteors of genre fiction were bound to start falling on them soon. In any case, Todbaum parks his supercar in the town square, serves coffee from his special stash and holds forth every day with an endless stream of thrilling stories about his trek across America. Sandy notes with envy and revulsion: “His tongue seemed wired to some invisible current: what his audience needed and feared to have spoken.”

From this eccentric premise, the plot of The Arrest settles quickly into an odd stasis, sustained only by the cerebral wit of Lethem’s voice. We learn that Todbaum and Sandy were once writing partners who toiled for years on an epic called Yet Another World. Todbaum imagined it would be “the Game of Thrones of science fiction” and encouraged Sandy to endlessly revise their script. But Todbaum was the kind of con man whom Hollywood richly rewards, while Sandy plateaued as a competent rewrite man who never got his name on anything. As his old friend rose into the star-studded stratosphere, Sandy grew more sceptical but no less obsessed with Todbaum. Now, years later, his old frenemy has blasted back into his settled life and wants … what?

The Arrest is written with Lethem’s usual stylistic panache, but it’s far lighter than such tomes as Chronic City and far less emotionally involving than his classic Motherless Brooklyn.