I Am Trying to Describe Things I Don’t Understand

This short story from Jonathan Lethem about ecological, technical, and social collapse explores the always-already-present future, a future that isn’t—until it is.

illustration reproduced courtesy of bonestell llc

Author’s note: This piece is an anomaly, for me. It’s a substantial outtake, a chapter that needed to be left behind when my present novel-in-progress, The Arrest, took a stylistic and narrational left turn. An absurdist pastoral set in Maine during a near-future technological collapse, The Arrest represents a kind of “return” to science fiction for me (if you ask me, I never left). The first draft was written in a frothy first-person voice from the point of view of the main character. Then, at the wizardly editorial suggestion of my friend Steve Erickson, I converted the book from first-person to third-, losing a lot of the froth in the process. In the meantime, I’d been reading “I Am Trying to Describe Things I Don’t Understand” aloud and getting a great response; I myself was infatuated with the piece on its own terms. But it no longer worked in the book. Now only a shadow of it remains there. So, herewith, one of the dearest darlings I ever killed.

Without warning except every warning possible it had come, The Arrest. Suddenly and in increments, parcels, microdoses to which we’d been too delirious to attend. The collapse and partition and relocalization of everything. The future, that is, announced itself. The future always already present only distributed unequally, like everything else, like bread, talent, sex, like peepul, neem, aloe, gerbera, and those other plants that give off oxygen at night, like the rare spodosol-fervent soil for which my sister’s farming collective was named. We stranded at last on the shore of the always-arriving wave, let be be finale of seem. The Arrest produced itself as a now already past, like a time capsule unearthed, one bigger on the inside than the outside, a time capsule into which we’d all climbed.

Be patient with me. I am trying to describe things I don’t understand.

Who’d say where it started? The question was when it gained your attention. Plenty flew under the radar. Biodiversity halved? That hadn’t made a huge impression. Polar ice and refugees? Too big to take personally. One day we—you and I, anyway—noticed reports of a new tick-borne disease. This one a novelty, like that asparagus ice cream you’d long ago sampled at the fair. Once bitten, your new superpower was that cow meat made your throat close up. No more American Wagyu Tomahawk steak for two, black on the outside, red within. (It made a fine thing to reminisce over, over mung bean sprouts or roadkill.) You joked: Were the new ticks an eco-terrorist hack? Had those bent on saving us no more regard for our privacy, autonomy, comfort in worn personal routine or hot internet dates than the ones bent on destroying us? Had they ever?

Someone went on television and told us that the turning point had been when in 1975 the president had worn a sweater on television and proposed solar panels on the White House and been ignored. For counterpoint another someone then told us the turning point had been when Saint Paul’s Epistle had been delivered to the Romans and ignored.

We weren’t subject to many further such debates. Such debates were to suffer a mercy killing. It was at this moment that The Arrest drew your attention, wasn’t it, darling? Be honest. You, your friends, like mine, sat up and noticed the death of screens. The screens, they died not all at once, but in droves, like the 6,000 avian flu victims in Irkutsk and Ghana, like the hundreds of manatees washing ashore the same day in Boca Grande, which you found somehow uncompelling, deleted from your feed. You unfriended the manatees. No hard feelings. I did too.

Television died first. Television contracted a hemorrhagic ailment, ebola or some other flesh-melting thing. The channels bled into one another, signals fused, across time as well as virtual space, a live Rod Serling Playhouse 90 teleplay broadcast from 1956 sputtering into last agonized life and expiring in the middle of episodes of season 2 of Big Little Lies. We had to deal with the Vietnam War coming back, and Green Acres, and Charlie Rose too. Until these boiled and seethed and melted along with the rest.

Our Gmail, our texts and swipes and FaceTimes, our tweets and posts, these suffered colony collapse disorder. Each messenger could no longer chart its route to the hive, or returned only to languish in the hive, there to lose interest in its typical labors, whether worker or drone. All at once, our email quit producing honey. No honey! Oh, honey, where are you? Honey, I am here looking for you! (This was, needless to say, a little problematic for those of us whose erotic lives, like mine with the married woman, depended on the stuff. Problematic? These lives all evaporated overnight!)

Worse, it turned out so many other ecosystems depended on the pollinations, the goings-between of the now-fatigued drones and workers. Without them, nothing worked, air-conditioning units stalled, planes fell from the skies, the committee to solve the problem (you know which problem I mean: all of them) was unable to confer in its virtual location and, further, found itself summarily dissolved into a series of isolates possibly unable to recognize one another in broad daylight, possibly unable even to recall their own individual names. The honey our emails and texts had made had been the glue that held the world together, it now appeared. The computers all evidenced chronic traumatic encephalopathy, wasting disease; we sought to find the computers a level pasture and let them graze the last part of their lives and were heartbroken to see them crumpling to their knees or starving for the incapacity of grazing.

Then the zombies arrived. The zombies were those who kept poking at the phones and punching at the keyboards and trying to give the voice-activated devices mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, the zombies were those who whether they’d fancied themselves programmers or hackers or techies before The Arrest now proposed “fixes” or “work-arounds,” the zombies were those who placed their phones or Roku remotes beneath their pillows each night or built little healing shrines in which they surrounded their devices with crystals, hoping to spark them from their silent exhaustion, the zombies were those who merely kept glancing at the screens everywhere that had gone dark, and also sat periodically weeping. Of course, these were zombies who ate only their own brains, zombies requiring nothing beyond our pity, zombies who needed eventually each to be helped to a deck chair overlooking a sunset and given a mug of herbal tea while someone else hid their collapsed former electronic playthings. Actually, I was one of those. Call us the late adopters of The Arrest.

A solar flare?

Eco-terror? Terror-terror?

Species revenge? A revolution? The Revolution?

A judgment or a goof? Sell-by date on the Anthropocene? Had we simply jumped the shark?

The stars didn’t go out, one by one.


America wasn’t replaced with a next thing, except insofar as it was replaced by where you were. The vicinity where you happened to dwell at the moment of The Arrest, which had happened gradually until it happened suddenly, and which might only have occurred in the vicinity at which you happened to be—did they even call it The Arrest elsewhere?—but, be done with such speculation. Be Here Now! Wherever You Go, There You Are! All Politics Are Local! Every bumper sticker came true at once. We were even finally able to Visualize Whirled Peas. I Brake for Roadkill, increasingly often. The bumper stickers came true, even as the cars slumped sidelong from the roads to make way for other means of transit, every gas tank somehow sugared by the same prankster, the gasoline turned to inedible syrup, like Bosco from a back pantry shelf, a thing that chocolated our engines, that inched from the pump nozzles like molten flourless cake.

Goodbye to all that, to gasoline and to molten flourless cake. Goodbye to coffee. Coffee! To bananas and Rihanna, to Father John Misty, to Spotify and solicitations from the American Association of Retired Persons (how old do they think I am?), goodbye to news feeds full of distant core meltdowns, buried trapped children, refugees falling into volcanoes, refugee children falling into sinkholes or core meltdowns, to Marlene Dietrich retrospectives at Lincoln Center—Lincoln Center, which might, for all we knew here, have been flooded with refugees or fallen into a sinkhole or suffered core meltdown, and anyhow the entirety of which I’d trade for one good cup of hot black Bolivia-Ethiopia blend. Hello instead to solar dehydrators, rooftop rain collectors, to corn, beans, kale, and winter squash. Say hello to winter squash jerky. Say hello to composting toilets and humanure, say hello to a killing cone, feather plucker, and evisceration knife, hello to chasing a screaming duck into a pond to drag it back to the killing cone. Hello to being the butcher’s sluice-boy! Did you know barns were traditionally painted red to disguise the bloodstains? I sure didn’t! I sure do now!

(Perhaps elsewhere, I sometimes thought, in someone else’s version of The Arrest, there might be nothing but coffee, bananas, and Rihanna, and they’d be starving instead for what we had. New bumper sticker: All Arrest Is Local.)

How obvious that I’d been playing catch-up, since The Arrest, cribbing from field guides, farmer’s almanacs, seed catalogs, old Michael Pollan paperbacks? You’ve been onto me from the start. The cosmopolitanist-jackass giveaways, comparing a ruined road surface to crème brûlée, corrupted gasoline to flourless cake? (I can’t help it, I miss restaurant desserts.) Could a man become a man of the soil at 54? My sister: I hear the whisper of her eyebrow’s arching. I was too old a dog for these tricks. Our peninsula here was choked with expert organic farmers, lured here by the locavore movement, with decades of experience by now in growing in Zone Five for hardiness (though climate rot had obliterated the old zone scheme).

That’s why I had to go work with Drew the Slaughterer, sluicing off his bloody steel tables, retrieving offal and caul for Veronica’s sausage-making. Veronica’s creations—her smoked summer sausage, her hard saucisson, her black pudding—were prized by all of us here but also featured preeminently as barter and peace offering with the all-important militia to the south. As it turns out, therefore, I’d have reason to wish to have a nice packet of them in my Telluride Film Festival backpack five minutes after returning, up the overgrown driveway to the Lake of Tiredness, onto the main road.

Jonathan Lethem is the bestselling author of 11 novels, including The Feral Detective, The Fortress of Solitude, and Motherless Brooklyn, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. He currently teaches creative writing at Pomona College in California.

Explore the complete Science Fiction Special Section in Alta’s Summer 2020 issue.

Jonathan Lethem is the author of eleven novels.
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