Genre-smashing with Jonathan Lethem

The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem

Lethem may be best-known for his 1999 bestseller Motherless Brooklyn, which I loved and would like to re-read, it’s essentially a detective novel with a young protagonist who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome. However the majority of his output before and since have been less categorisable novels – genre-mash-ups, like his debut Gun With Occasional Music – a SF-noir. I loved that one too, and can’t believe I haven’t read another book by him since I started blogging, until now.

His latest book is a speculative, post-apocalyptic dystopia featuring a pair of siblings and a nuclear-powered supercar. Sandy Duplessis is a Hollywood scriptwriter and scriptdoctor, working hard behind the scenes while his old friend and writing partner Peter Todbaum does the schmoozing and selling, becoming powerful in LA.

One day, Sandy has travelled to Maine to visit his sister who now runs an organic farm, when the Arrest happens. Powered things just stop working–not all at once though–gradually. The world has to learn to live differently again. Sandy, stranded in New England becomes ‘Journeyman’, a bicycle delivery rider for his sister’s produce, he also helps out the butcher.

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 Journeyman had guiltily failed to mourn. Hello instead to solar dehydrators, rooftop rain collectors, beans, kale, and winter squash. To composting toilets and humanure, to a killing cone, feather plucker, and evisceration knife… To being the butcher’s sluice boy. …
Had Journeyman known that barns were traditionally painted red to disguise the bloodstains? He hadn’t.

They also have to give tribute to the neighbouring group, known as the Cordon, who keep the peace by rule of fear and a few years go by. But one day, the Cordon contacts Sandy, saying a man has arrived in a huge vehicle asking after him, Sandy gains respect, but realises this could be the end of their easy life too.

When Peter Todbaum appeared in his supercar, the Blue Streak–its studded tires and tank treads almost entirely stradlling the weed-riven, frost-heave-crumbled breadth of the road’s old asphalt, its high-whirring engines and fans sounding nearly like a jet engine up close, escorted by Cordon cavalry horses and sputtering barely functional shit-bikes–Todbaum’s wonderful horrible Chitty Chitty Bang Bang colonized Journeyman’s brain as a vision from the past’s future. It was as though Todbaum’s and Journeyman’s long-unproduced masterpiece Yet Another World had at last been realized, not in the form of a feature film or television series but instead as a fact for which Journeyman might be liable. One world had broken through to another.

In a case of life imitating ‘art’, Todbaum has travelled across America to find Sandy, or is he after Sandy’s sister Maddy, who’d told Todbaum that his script wouldn’t work, back when they were all in Hollywood.

Occasional chapters set back before the Arrest build up Sandy and Todbaum’s back-stories, and seed Todbaum’s growing obsession with writing the perfect script for Yet Another World. Maddy had thrown a spanner in the works when she criticised it, but unusually for Todbaum, he did think her suggestion would make it a far better film, but she refused to play the game.

She’s still refusing, but Todbaum is used to getting what he wants. Is it a case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object? Meanwhile, Sandy is scared of what the Cordon might do if he doesn’t deal with Todbaum’s car which they would love to get their hands on. A secondary worry is Todbaum’s tall tales which are getting a bit of an audience.

I so enjoyed this novel. Don’t you just love the cover? It reads like a comic version of Emily St John Mandel’s wonderful Station Eleven, with Shakespeare swapped for Hollywood. It was surprisingly funny and even optimistic with a sense of community-building, while maintaining that dystopian feel and also having a slight undercurrent of potential Wicker Man style horror lurking. That said, the resolution of the novel is rather low-key, but it worked for me. Above all, The Arrest is about our need for stories, that they don’t have to be perfect, and that we need to make new stories too.

I must read more of Lethem’s books – I have a couple of his early ones on the shelves, Amnesia Moon and As She Climbed Across the Table, which might find their way into my bedside bookcase for my 20 Books of Summer reading!

Source: Own copy. Jonathan Lethem, The Arrest, 2020 – flapped paperback, 304 pages.

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