‘The Arrest’: Jonathan Lethem’s semi-hopeful take on the End of Days
In Jonathan Lethem’s new novel The Arrest, all the usual answers about people finding out who they really are turn out not to be as reassuring as we might like to think. And what we do when everything goes wrong might not be as heroic as our pop culture tells us.
Long before COVID-19 upset our daily lives, the prospect of some earth-shaking event causing worldwide disruption was on the minds of a lot of people. Especially authors and filmmakers: for almost as long as those two mediums have been around, creators have pondered ways in which life as we know it would end, and whether we’d feel fine about it. Lethem’s new novel arrives at the appropriate time.
The Arrest concerns the life of Sandy, also known as “Journeyman,” as he struggles to survive in an uncertain post-apocalyptic world where everything we take for granted in our digital lives has gone dark. There’s no one dramatic moment where this occurs; for Lethem, it’s more unsettling to have it happen gradually, maybe while we’re not even aware of what’s going on. So much dystopian fiction posits a single event as the catalyst for everything that follows that it’s refreshing to see a scenario like this play out, where life changes irrevocably not a bang, but with a whimper.
Journeyman does just what his name implies, journeying around the small part of Maine where he lives as a butcher’s delivery boy and subsisting off the food his sister raises with her local food collective. His life wasn’t always like this; before the uncertain events that caused “the arrest” of modern life, he was a well-paid script doctor, never seeing his name in the credits of anything, but Hollywood trusted him as a good person to bring a script to completion.
Into his tense but relatively calm existence comes his old friend and nemesis Peter Todbaum, who arrives in a nuclear-powered “super car” and brings tales of what’s going outside the “Cordon” behind which Journeyman and his fellow townspeople live. Always the storyteller of the two, Todbaum brings tales of utter desolation and hard, bitter people unsuited to the new way of life.
But how much of what he’s telling is the truth, and how much of it is the natural storyteller in him bullshitting his audience for one last time? Because, as Journeyman recalls, he and Todbaum once worked on a script eerily similar to the events that are taking place now. Indeed, it seems that Todbaum is in town because he wants to work on the “scenario” further with Maddy, Journeyman’s sister and one-time paramour.
In many ways, this is a clever melding of realities as we’re never quite sure if what Todbaum tells the townspeople is true or not. It’s no accident that one of Lethem’s idols is Philip K. Dick, who populated his body of work with similarly weird stories of alternate timelines and realities, where certainty about events is never solid. As the story builds to the climax, Journeyman wonders what his role in the events will be, whether he’ll be a hero or a villain of the final events the super-car’s appearance trigger, and how the paramilitary surrounding the town will respond to it.
With Todbaum’s words about how the authors of such dystopian fiction are really eager to live in those worlds, Journeyman ultimately comes to see that he may have found more of a purpose here than in his previous life. But is he right about that? Or is his role the same as prior to the arrest, when he punched up the story someone else had written? It’s something that readers will have to discern for themselves.
The Arrest is a hopeful dystopian novel, if such a thing could be said to exist; it suggests that the end of the world may not be fine for everyone, but some of us might be able to endure. And it has something to say about our own world, our own timeline in this moment of illness worldwide. Lethem has brought out a novel that helps explain, in some ways, the seemingly alternate timeline that we’re on right now.
Ecco (November 10, 2020)