It’s tempting to read Jonathan Lethem’s new novel, The Arrest, as a parable of pandemic America, in which the odd things that we have long considered normal—air travel, television, cell phones, social media—have been disrupted owing to a sudden and mysterious sequence of events.
“How even to say when the Arrest began?” muses Lethem’s protagonist, Alexander (Sandy) Duplessis, a screenwriter riding on the coattails of his college buddy Peter Todbaum, now a successful Hollywood producer. “The question was when had it gained your attention. Plenty flew under the radar. Biodiversity halved? That made an impression, barely. Polar ice and Miami drowned?”
He goes on: “Goodbye to gasoline and bullets and to molten flourless cake. Goodbye to coffee. To bananas and Rihanna, to Father John Misty, to the Cloud, to news feeds full of distant core meltdowns, to manatees and flooded cities and other tragedies.”
What’s left for an industry exile to do?
Duplessis, who dubs himself Journeyman in a nod to both his career as a hack—his sole writing credit is for two episodes of a series about a “talking toaster”—and his peripatetic ways, escapes California for rural Maine, where his sister, Maddy, presides over an organic-farming community, to wait out the apocalypse.
But he can’t help crossing paths once more with Todbaum, who’s made his own journey from Malibu to New England in a nuclear-powered “supercar” called the Blue Streak. He wants to reunite with Duplessis and, perhaps, to resolve some unfinished business with Maddy, whom he once mistreated (the details are vague, but sexual misconduct is strongly implied) in an encounter at the Starlet Apartments in beautiful downtown Burbank.
The dynamics among these characters—as well as a conflict involving Todbaum, Maddy’s locavore farmers, and a surrounding community called the Cordon—drive the book forward, if not always at warp speed.
The Arrest functions as a sequel, of sorts, to Lethem’s 2018 faux–genre novel The Feral Detective. There, New Yorker Phoebe Siegler hires private eye Charles Heist to help find her friend’s daughter, Arabella, a Reed College student who has disappeared in the San Gabriel Mountains.
In a tart response to the 2016 election, Phoebe has quit her job at the New York Times to protest its decision to host the “Beast-Elect” at an editorial board meeting. As she tries to rescue Arabella, her adventures with survivalist bikers and warring groups—the Rabbits and the Bears—mirror some of the off-the-grid situations chronicled in this new work.
At the same time, The Arrest represents a return by Lethem to his science-fiction roots. His 1994 debut, Gun, with Occasional Music, featured everything from talking kangaroos to technology-altered children (“babyheads”) who can now function as adults. Amnesia Moon, published the next year—and written under the heavy influence of Philip K. Dick—is built around the aptly named character Chaos, a survivalist living in a movie-projection room after an apparent nuclear attack.
Dystopian dangers haunt Lethem’s work, although he leavens them with antic wit.
His portrayal of Todbaum, the erstwhile villain who brings to mind generations of studio moguls and their crass excesses. His outsize appetites and scorn for conventional pieties is also reminiscent of Keith Stolarsky, the hip capitalist who rescues Alexander Bruno, his boyhood sidekick turned backgammon hustler, in Lethem’s entertaining adventure A Gambler’s Anatomy (2016).
Echoing the fascinations of the current moment, Journeyman describes Todbaum’s late-night monologues to the disoriented country folk who gather around the Blue Streak as “narrational sessions…like a political campaign.”
Still, however coarse, Todbaum resonates with considerably more energy than Journeyman, a classic “writer” character who spends most of The Arrest contemplating his ambivalence.
As Lethem observes, “Journeyman was a middle person, a middleman. Always locatable between things, and therefore special witness in both directions, to extremes remote to each other, an empathic broker between irreconcilable poles—or so he flattered himself.”
Lethem is experienced at navigating such apparently irreconcilable universes. As a child of the counterculture, he’s long been fascinated with life on the fringes, from Brooklyn to Berkeley. The communal adventures of Duplessis, Maddy, Todbaum, and the rest of the novel’s characters recall, even if they don’t quite match, the noir finale of the author’s award-winning Motherless Brooklyn (1999), also set in part in the Maine woods, outside a dysfunctional Zen retreat.
A social satirist at heart, Lethem is also a psychologist of our broken planet. There’s no Hollywood ending, despite some nifty payback, as The Arrest draws to a close. Instead—and as usual—he leaves us the freedom to invent our own.