In “Italo for Beginners,” Jonathan Lethem’s brief 2005 essay on Italo Calvino, he described his literary hero’s prose as “ambassadorial,” that Calvino’s writing “encompassed motifs associated with brows both high and low in an internationally lucid style.” He probably knew he was also describing himself. After all, in his Paris Review interview, Lethem stated his youthful ambitions as such: “I’d be the American Calvino, but nourished by scruffy genre roots.” Over the course of five story collections, two decades of nonfiction, and now a dozen novels, Lethem has achieved his ambitions. His writing, particularly in his hot streak since 2013’s Dissident Gardens, is unfailingly bizarre, surprising, and beautifully stylized. Ambassadorial indeed.
In his new novel, The Arrest, Lethem depicts a technological catastrophe, one that calls into question the effect machines have on society and the use of language in a decaying landscape. In a time near our own, a sudden and great arrest in function inexplicably causes all screens and devices to stop working. Many mechanical devices follow suit, to the end that “bullets no longer even blew up if you shattered them with a hammer.” It starkly portrays our inability to distance our present selves from our past and future. It’s also an incredibly weird and experimental novel, thinly disguising itself as a postapocalypse.
The story revolves around Alexander Duplessis, aka Sandy, aka Sandman, aka Journeyman, “an expert in…postapocalyptic and dystopian stories,” a former screenwriter who, since the Arrest, acts as a middleman, “an empathic broker between irreconcilable poles,” or, put more simply, a delivery man. He makes his deliveries of food exchanged between the few homesteads, of “garlic scapes” and “lard-smeared mason jars of new-rendered pig parts,” on foot in East Tinderwick, Maine, to places like his sister Maddy’s Spodosol Farm, and the house of exile Jerome Korementz. One day a man from Journeyman’s and Maddy’s past, silver-tongued Hollywood executive Peter Todbaum, rides into East Tinderwick in a supercar named the Blue Streak. No one can figure out why the supercar works, but Todbaum plans to use it to suck up the community’s resources from the ground and leave the town depleted in his wake as he travels the desolate planet. The community must decide whether to rid themselves of Todbaum and his seductive and plundering technology and language— and whether they even can.
The world of The Arrest is a mystery. No one knows what caused it. “You could debate this shit forever,” the narrator says. Similarly, no one has a precise idea of when the Arrest began, although it seems to have done something to how time works. “The Arrest produced itself as a now already past,” we’re told, a setting linked to Lethem’s astute description of “Time Averaging,” that thing your brain unconsciously does when you see someone who’s aged since you last saw them: “Your mind held a cache of earlier versions, and you’d merge them to make the person continuous with the earlier rendition.” In the same way, the world post-Arrest isn’t how it was, but isn’t quite a haunting future. It’s more a Time-Averaged present, how the world is before or after machines.
The only portion of the world that Journeyman, Maddy, and the other main inhabitants see is that of the few communities of East Tinderwick. A bizarre militia named the Cordon heavily polices the boundaries of these communities, taking charge because of the “authority of their willingness to do violence.” When Peter Todbaum rides into town, part of his appeal is a reminder to Journeyman of a more certain past, a time when the two had written screenplays together in their youth, including “a tale of alternate nightmare earths” called Yet Another World. A key contributor to Yet Another World had been fresh-faced Maddy just moved to Hollywood, who suggests for the female character in the screenplay, “Put her world in motion too.” Maddy’s ambiguously demeaning sexual encounter with the manipulative Todbaum causes her to flee the city, and years later, when Todbaum reenters her and Journeyman’s lives post-Arrest, this seedy episode, including Journeyman’s supposed failure to act valiantly, his original failing as a “middleman,” spurs the trio of conflict between the three characters.
Lethem is a remarkably pliable and agile stylist, and the style of The Arrest is bizarre and multifarious. Gone are the churning, acquisitive sentences of his brilliant political saga Dissident Gardens or the “spiritual autobiography” of Fortress of Solitude. These are replaced by surreal, staccato bursts, like “High noon at midnight, on this inner-island.” Lethem has always been a much stranger writer than many critics want him to be, and many of the genre signifiers of The Arrest–ones he’s been using since early books like Gun, with occasional music or his recent The Gambler’s Anatomy–are deployed in unusual ways. The short chapters do often end in cliffhangers, and the Blue Streak and its functions, along with Time Averaging, are explained in sf-nerd detail and accompanied by comic-book illustrations. But Lethem never inhabits his genres quite like other writers do. In The Arrest, Lethem accomplishes–through let’s call it Style Averaging–a strange fusion of elements that seems less generic and closer to what he’s always secretly aimed for, what Calvino was best at: surrealism.
Peter Todbaum brings Lethem’s surrealism to the forefront, through his voice. Todbaum’s threat to East Tinderwick, despite some stated fears about his using too many resources, comes mostly from his facility with language: “His tongue seemed wired to some invisible current: what his audience needed and feared to have spoken.” Todbaum reminds Journeyman and Maddy of their shared dark past, and spends evenings beside a fire sitting by his supercar seducing the other residents through stories. Todbaum speaks in accidental poetry: “We walk every day in a trench of sorrow.” He muses how “the self’s a howling counterfeit, an arena where no show goes on, a parenthesis with nothing inside.” A character like Todbaum is particularly pleasing to read when powered by Lethem’s chops, which turn him into something like a sleazy B-movie version of Judge Holden in Blood Meridian.
Yet it becomes clear as the novel progresses that Todbaum’s lapidary language doesn’t have much behind it. “Todbaum’s was a gross art,” the narrator tells us, “a recombinant hash of truth and untruth.” And what is this art? The continual literary references that accumulate toward the novel’s end should tell us. A “virtual reality experience” is titled “A Room of One’s Own,” à la Woolf. Todbaum and his sidekick hunched in the supercar are “Mr. Toad in his motorcar, and, bent over his shoulder, the idiot-Gandalf.” Todbaum shouts, like Whitman, in a “barbaric yawp.” The book’s climactic ending, in fact, acts out a pun on T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that I won’t spoil. All this should signal that Lethem is questioning not just Todbaum’s flimsiness, but the flimsiness of literature as a whole in a world of apocalypse.
The Arrest, in all its surreal narrative trappings, supercars, and Hollywood theatrics, wants to know if words can save us in a dystopia. “Where does a person go?” Todbaum asks, during a global meltdown. “To a book?” Todbaum’s own language certainly can’t save him. In his final confrontation, his abilities seem to shudder and collapse like an old machine, spitting out nonsense syllables, “I didn’t done it nohow, I didn’t doo doo.” It brings to mind Lethem’s observation in his famous Harper’s essay, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” that “literature has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time.” When our machines fail us, when our health fails us, when our leaders fail us, how can language possibly help? Yet the novel, paradoxically, demonstrates the opposite. Lethem’s writing, in its warmth and humor and energy, saves its readers how it can. “How did one human undesolate another?” the book asks. “If you’d never seen it done, you wouldn’t believe it possible.”