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BOOK REVIEW

It’s a strange new world in ‘The Arrest,’ Jonathan Lethem’s literary sci-fi tale

Jonathan Lethem.
Jonathan Lethem.Willy Sanjuan/Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP

Science fiction is a doubled entity. In this world, over here, it is the intergalactic Jedi emperor of pop culture, ruling world cinema with a fistful of infinity stones and a bushel of mega-explosions. And then, in the same world, but vibrating at a slightly different dimensional frequency, science fiction is a fairly small subculture, whose luminaries (Scalzi, Jemison, Okorafor, Stanley Robinson) are powerful convention draws, but hardly household names like Darth Vader or Iron Man. Occasionally a Neil Gaiman or Philip K. Dick will open a portal between the universes. But for the most part they exist in tension, industrial bombastic mass entertainment alternately drawing power from and ignoring the smaller, carefully crafted fictions, which in turn eye all that money and power with a wary envy.

Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, “The Arrest,” is a work of literary fiction that associates itself with the science fiction subculture by launching a carefully planned assault on the science fiction pop-culture juggernaut. In doing so, the book provides a quietly lyrical alternative to the uberviolence and cliché blustering of Hollywood plots. But it also, somewhat inadvertently, shows the limitations of a science fiction that sees a mass audience as a threat to the future and the present.

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“The Arrest” is a (very self-aware) post apocalyptic novel, set on a near future earth in which most technology has simply stopped working, for reasons that are never explained. Cars, planes, telephones, and the Internet no longer connect human beings one to another, and as a result the United States fragments into small scale, subsistence societies.

When the Arrest comes, Sandy, a.k.a. Journeyman, a Hollywood scriptwriter, is visiting his sister Maddy’s organic farm in rural Maine. He ends up becoming an assistant to the butcher, living a fairly uneventful and peaceful life until his former boss, movie dealmaker Peter Todbaum, suddenly shows up in a converted tunnel-digger, or “supercar.” Not even Todbaum understands the technology of the supercar, but — like Hollywood itself — it appears to run on some fantastical mixture of mystic radiation and human feces.

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With the wider world gone, the Maine community has managed to create a stable, pleasant, and mostly nonviolent niche. They placate their more violent neighbors with their superior food. When one of their own number is convicted of sexual misconduct, they simply exile him to a house nearby.

Todbaum upsets the equilibrium not so much by reintroducing working technology as by reintroducing mass genre storytelling. He emerges from his digger behemoth to describe his trip across the United States in pulp-genre terms as a stimulating Mad Max of slavering antagonists and the crunch of bones under wheels. Community members gather around, fascinated, to gorge on the “recombinant hash of truth and untruth, of exaggeration and invention and translation…. The lie that tells the truth.” Journeyman knows better than to attend these performances of high caloric balderdash, but like a snooty critic binging “The Mandalorian,” he can’t help himself. “Todbaum’s was a gross art. Journeyman craved it.”

Lethem’s frankly elitist portrayal of Todbaum as an opiate-belching danger to the public is (perhaps paradoxically) thoroughly entertaining and invigorating; he’s almost movie-sized enough to be a supervillain. In contrast to this semi-pulp pleasure, the way the organic farmers handle the threat Todbaum represents is remarkably thoughtful, in every sense. Lethem’s low-key invention makes good on the implicit promise of the novel, and of subcultural SF, to get rid of what the novel calls “old stories.” In its small way, it is in fact a new narrative — one Hollywood hasn’t yet colonized.

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The novel can handle Todbaum the character, but Todbaum the symbol isn’t so easily argued down. Within the novel, for example, it’s important that the main resistance to him is led by Journeyman’s sister and her Black Somali-American partner, Astur: queer, marginalized people whose stories are generally excluded from Hollywood’s creative spaces and Hollywood’s screens.

But important as Maddy and Astur are to the plot, they’re still pushed to the sidelines of the novel itself, which places the reader solidly in the consciousness of Journeyman, a typical sad-sack white guy Lethem protagonist. Subcultural SF, and for that matter literary fiction, may pride themselves on their many light years distance from the mainstream. But when it comes to whose stories get told, they often end up cheek-to-cheek in the cockpit of the same TIE-fighter.

Dispensing with Hollywood’s bloated universality also makes it difficult for Lethem to address real-world large-scale problems. A story about technology fizzling out set on an organic farm seems like an ecological critique waiting to happen. But the novel barely mentions global warming or water pollution or any other environmental issue. Big, clanking, dumb Hollywood franchise monstrosities like “Aquaman” or the “Charlie’s Angels” reboot engage with climate change and sustainability far more directly and passionately than “The Arrest,” precisely because the latter insists that any global engagement is simultaneously impossible and gauche.

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In one of his characteristically belligerent exercises in bloviating, Todbaum tells Journeyman that apocalyptic writers are all enamored of their own dystopias. “They just can’t help it, they like it there. They love it there… [in] Whatever [messed up] allegorical hellscape or dire prison block for the human soul they’re working through….” Lethem certainly loves the world of “The Arrest,” in which the audience for Hollywood’s blaring BS is swept away in a gently cleansing coup, leaving only smaller narratives each rooted in its small, welcoming niche. It’s a pleasant and compelling vision. But there’s also something true in those Hollywood monstrosities that insist we’re all trapped in the same universe, and that any salvation has to be big, and come for everyone at once.

The Arrest

Jonathan Lethem

Ecco, 320 pages, $27.99

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer in Chicago.