It seems everyone wants to write post-apocalyptic fiction at the moment. But Jonathan Lethem cannot be accused of just jumping on the bandwagon in his twelfth novel The Arrest. His Amnesia Moon (1995) was a series of short stories based on different catastrophic and post-apocalyptic events. Lethem, probably best known for his detective story Motherless Brooklyn, has been dabbling in speculative fiction throughout his career. Given that, in some ways it is a surprise that The Arrest is a fairly standard post-apocalypse, but Lethem also uses it to comment on our predilection for these narratives.
Sandy Duplessis, also known as Journeyman, fortunately found himself at his sister’s self-sufficient organic farm in Maine when the Arrest happened. The Arrest is the name for some unspecified event in which all electronic gadgets just stopped working, or, as Journeyman observes:
The Gmail, the texts and swipes and FaceTimes, the tweets and likes, 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 labors [sic], whether worker or drone. All at once, the email quit producing honey.
… Air-conditioning units stalled, planes fell from the sky. The honey of emails and texts had been the glue holding the world together, it appeared.
Journeyman lives now in a barter-based, fairly stable agrarian society. The community is located on a peninsula and is protected by the sea and on its land border by a group of violent thugs, who call themselves the Cordon, from whom they buy protection with food. All is generally pretty settled and functioning, until Journeyman’s toxic former friend Peter Todbaum comes spectacularly back into his life. Peter arrives in the community behind the wheel of a giant nuclear-powered self-sustaining vehicle that he claims to have driven across the country from Los Angeles:
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.
Peter quickly ensconces himself in the community, telling stories about his trip, handing out precious cups of coffee and building a small following. But Peter’s existence, and particularly the dangers and opportunities presented by his super-vehicle, have disrupted the delicate balance that the community has established and things start to fall apart.
As with much literary post-apocalyptic fiction, Lethem is not interested in the details of the apocalypse so much as what his scenario says about modern culture and society. There is plenty of backstory that focusses on the movie and television industry and the superficiality of American society. This is juxtaposed with the locavore, self-sufficient, community-focussed world in which Journeyman finds himself. But there are always questions as to how sustainable that world is, and whether it is a new model of the norm or a flukish abnormality.
And behind all of this is a meta exploration of the role of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction more broadly. Before the Arrest, Journeyman was working for Peter as a script doctor. Peter himself was a producer whose grand vision was a story called Yet Another World about parallel worlds – one a dystopia and the other a world suffering an environmental collapse – that come into contact, as Peter observes: ‘Dystopia and post-apocalypse, two great tastes that taste great together.’
This becomes a timely reflection on why we are so enamoured of post-apocalyptic narratives, as Peter tries to school Journeyman on the genre:
He wanted to load Journeyman’s mind with examples to pillage for Yet Another World. Tevis’s book, Earth Abides, Dr. Bloodmoney, Station Eleven, A Canticle for Leibowitz… Vonnegut, Atwood, King …
‘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.’
The irony being that what Lethem has ultimately delivered in The Arrest is exactly that – post-apocalyptic comfort food. Including a fairly utopian society, vaguely menacing bad guys on motorcycles, a bit of a deus-ex-machina ending and a romantic sub-plot complete with meet-cute. The narrative becomes so meta and referential (particularly when Journeyman realises that each of Todbaum’s stories is actually a retelling from old post-apocalyptic or dystopian media from Planet of the Apes to Escape from New York) that it becomes hard to know what point Lethem is actually trying to make.
In a year that has seen another proliferation of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction in print and on the small screen, it may be worth taking a minute to pause and consider why we are drawn to these narratives. Lethem attempts to do this within the framework of a piece of agrarian post-apocalyptic fiction, including the requisite pre-apocalyptic social satire. How engaged readers will be by it will depend not only on their connection to the plot, which is slight, and the characters, some of whom are only just beyond caricature or genre ‘types’, but their interest in the genre as a whole.
This review first appeared in Newtown Review of Books.