Jonathan Lethem

What would you do if one day all technology began to fail you? If slowly but surely, cell phones ceased to make calls, airplanes refused to lift off the ground and the Internet was no more? Imagine yourself in this scenario and you’ve transported to the reality of Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, The Arrest.

In Lethem’s speculative universe – not so much a dystopia or utopia but an “atopia” – a vague event (“The Arrest”) has transformed modern society back into an agrarian one, where community members pull their weight foraging for food and tending to crops. Alexander “Sandy” Duplessis, a.k.a. Journeyman, is our point of view character, detailing his days in Tinderwick, Maine, while also reflecting on his pre-Arrest life as a screenwriter in Los Angeles. 

When an old screenwriting partner from Journeyman’s past, Peter Todbaum, arrives from LA thanks to a nuclear-powered, earth-digging “supercar,” things begin to take a turn. Lethem writes:

That was Journeyman’s first impression: that 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 partly inside out. The supercar was a monstrosity, a rupture to Journeyman’s stabilizing premise, his self-situation … The supercar seemed to remember too well the pre-Arrest world, to drag fragments of smashed time in its wake.

Todbaum tales of life beyond Tinderwick, and the disruption posed by his souped-up piece of technology upsets the delicately balanced life there. Meanwhile, Journeyman must also confront issues with his sister Madeline, who runs the farming collective in the community and has unresolved issues with Peter that she refuses to speak about. When the Cordon, a surrounding group, take issue with Todbaum’s presence, everyone in Tinderwick finds themselves under attack.

As it explores a world without the technology that defines our own, The Arrest also goes meta, commenting on the post-Apocalyptic literature it is adding to. In a conversation about the genre, Journeyman asks Peter:

“What’s so great about this shit?’ Journeyman parroted. ‘It’s always better, not worse.”

“What do you mean?”

“You people are supposed to, you know, write it to keep it from happening right? Cautionary tales? … But they just can’t help it, they like it there. They love it there… The world’s reduced and cleansed, the ambiguity scrubbed out.”

“Because – it’s easier?”

“Sure. Post-apocalyptic comfort food.”

In The Arrest, Lethem has once again delivered a story full of humor, suspense and intrigue. As Alex Preston observes in his review for The Guardian“The thing about the best Lethem novels – and I’m thinking back to early in his career, to Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude – is that they were such fun. I’ve read everything he’s written since and rarely has a novel approached the sheer pleasure of The Arrest. This is a dystopian novel in thrall to its own genre, full of knockabout comic-book bravado, with regular knowing nods to literary and cinematic history. It is, in short, a blast.”

Jonathan Lethem’s Top Ten List

1. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1860–61).
2. The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925).
3. The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead (1940).
4. The Red and the Black by Stendhal (1830).
5. A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell (1951–75).
6. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865).
7. The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch (1973).
8. New Grub Street by George Gissing (1891).
9. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1759–67).
10. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866).