Or How We Got Along After The Wifi Went Down. The Arrest is an ambiguous utopia/dystopia in which advanced technology – from the internet to cars and guns – has all stopped working. At its simplest this is Lethem’s entry into the crowded canon of The Road, Station Eleven, Oryx and Crake and so on. As an avowed scifi reader Lethem also gives strong callbacks to post-apocalyptic classics such as Philip K. Dick’s Dr Bloodmoney and Walter M. Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz.
Unlike the irradiated hellholes, biological swamps or fascist regimes of many of these,
Lethem’s post-tech life – seen through the eyes of unreliable narrator Journeyman AKA former Hollywood screenwriter Sandy – is not so bad. Shorn of distractions such as Netflix and international travel, a small community in Maine ekes out a pretty sweet existence in which piles of sausages and hearty soups round the fire are the chief joys of life. Just as he was a journeyman writer Before The Fall – a polisher and fixer-upper of scripts – so he is now the Journeyman, assisting the butcher (bank manager pre-Arrest) and delivering parcels across the peninsula. The farmers – led by Sandy’s sister Maddie, a whiz with the organic mulch – also have a smoothly symbiotic relationship with the local roving biker gangs, The Cordon. They keep what is implied as a threatening wilderness beyond at bay, in exchange for produce from their communal post-Arrest Whole Foods. No cannibalism or rat-eating here. They even have some sort of civic justice sorted, as the one serious criminal is exiled to a Thoreau-esque cabin by the lake. So far, so rural bliss.
Lethem introduces the outsider, always a key plot point in post-apocalypse novels, in the most outrageous fashion – and it’s here that a more explicitly satirical intent surfaces. A gleaming atomic car – complete with espresso bar and single malts – arrives, piloted by Sandy’s old screenwriting buddy Todbaum who has turned his Hollywood millions into this gleaming vehicle. He sets up camp dispensing espressos and stories, as through flashbacks we see how Todbaum seduced Maddie, as his fireside chats now seduce the staid New Englanders. Further complicating the reality of this whole affair is that Todd, his car, and maybe even the whole Arrest, may have come about through an act of storytelling: a manifestation of an alternate-world sci-fi script that Todd and Sandy were working on.
Get past its stop-start plot, and at its best, The Arrest is about the power of storytelling to add sense and meaning to our lives – and the dark power it has in the wrong hands. Journeyman’s chief grumble about the post-Arrest world is that without stories every day is the same – a perpetual today. Exiled criminal Kromenz, writing his new version of The Pillow Book; enigmatic Denka guarding the library; and Todbaum spinning his absurd odyssey of travel across a shattered continent – join Journeyman in trying to find ways to create new stories.
This is a novel that self-consciously sets out to be odd, to jar us the readers out of the fixed lines of the post-apocalyptic tale. Does he succeed in blowing up the genre? Not quite, but he does point out the simplicity that lies behind the binary nature of so much dystopian fiction: it probably won’t be the best of times, but it won’t be the worst either.
Length of Read:Medium
Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
All of the dystopian entries above…
One thing you’ve learned
The dystopian genre is surely played out now we’re living in one…as this is a post-dystopian novel