A sense of the communal persists in Jonathan Lethem’s fiction, but, within these imagined and would-be idealized communities, anarchy, the threat of violence, and violence itself percolates and sometimes even thrives. In his last novel, The Feral Detective, Lethem conjures communes of desert people called Bears and Rabbits settled out west. The Bears were predominantly men—ex-cons and bikers—and a few female groupies; the Rabbits were usually females with some mostly mild-mannered males. They all began as hippies, and, though they’re generally still hip and indulge in a bit of interbreeding, they don’t get along.
His new novel, The Arrest, portrays communal, hippie-like folk in a not-too-distant futuristic America in the aftermath of a global disaster. The resultant civilization is not dystopia, it’s not post-apocalypse, and it’s not Utopia, according to the publisher. If you heed the hint of the novel’s epigraph, it’s an atopia, which comes from a book of poems called Atopia, by Sandra Simonds. Lethem and everyone in the book calls this atopia “the Arrest.” Like the unexplained cause of the calamity in Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind, no one knows what caused this arrest. Similar to Alam’s apocalyptic world, Lethem’s world consists of isolated communities where most high-technology—cable television, cellular phones, and the Internet—have stopped working: Radios don’t work. Airplanes don’t fly. Computers don’t compute. Restaurants are gone. You could still drive a car in Alam’s world, but in Lethem’s society low-tech and formerly gas-powered engines now run only when they are powered by shit. That might be Lethem punning about a world that has literally and figuratively gone to shit. If Lethem intended this story to be allegorical like The Feral Detective, he doesn’t quite succeed, but has a lot of fun trying. Lethem’s world is quasi-realistic, the people cartoonish; its technological society has reverted to a 19th-century society of agrarianism, farming, and bartering, minus a post office, “regular newspapers from afar and visitors landing by boat.” Communities are isolated in Maine, the rest of New England and the country, and presumably throughout the world. Most of the action takes place in and around Tinderwick, Maine. Told in very short chapters that make it feel like a page-turner, the story moves along at a decently fast pace, with several funny and entertaining scenes and half-scenes along the way, but the plot fizzles out when, after a stranger arrives, the people, a superstitious lot, agree to make a pseudo-Wicker Man-like sacrifice.
The story is told in the third-person, mostly through the eyes of Alexander Duplessis. Duplessis! The name screams pun—a plessis in Old French referred to a fence made of interwoven branches, which sounds much like wicker. Anyway, Duplessis is a former screenwriter who left California to visit his sister Maddy at her farm in Maine. He is stranded in Maine when the Arrest hits, so he makes Tinderwick his home. Alexander is seldom called by that name, instead folks call him Sandy or Sandman, but most often, he’s called Journeyman by the narrator because the character thinks of himself as a journeyman, somewhere between apprentice and a master, a sort of go-between and hired hand. Journeyman now works as a butcher’s assistant and delivers food and other supplies on foot and by bicycle. Before the Arrest, Sandy (before he was Journeyman) had been working in New York as an assistant at FSG and “writing short stories that no one wanted to publish” when his old Yale friend Peter Todbaum, asked him to come out to Hollywood and join him as a co-writer of TV and movie scripts. Todbaum, whose name in German, “death tree,” (foreshadows his fate) is an idea-man and bullshitter. He’s never written anything, but does have a lot of concepts to pitch as possible screen treatments. Todbaum’s plan was that together they would “brainstorm their notions for screenplays and television shows,” with “Todbaum the bullshitter, Journeyman the hands on the keyboard.” They would be Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, and would work together for several years, too, with Todbaum getting rich and powerful in Hollywood, and Journeyman, the intermediary between Todbaum concept and finished film, making a nice living rewriting and polishing other people’s scripts.
Although the publisher says this novel is not a post-apocalyptic or dystopian story, Lethem not only makes Journeyman an expert on post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories, he gives the duo a “pet project, one of Todbaum’s supply of ‘killer pitches,’” a science fiction movie called Yet Another World. “This was a tale of alternate nightmare Earths. One was their own version of reality, the other an Orwellian techno-dystopia, a kind of cyberpunk extrapolation from the Cold War ’50s, when the two worlds had bifurcated.” Journeyman was an expert, too, in stealing riffs from the stories of other writers. So, Todbaum wants Journeyman to pillage scenes for Yet Another World from Walter Tevis’s book Mockingbird, and other books like Earth Abides, Dr. Bloodmoney, Station Eleven, and A Canticle for Leibowitz, and pilfer dystopian scenes from writers like Riddley Walker, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, and Stephen King. Pilfering, modifying, and referencing dystopian scenes is pretty much what Lethem does in his book. Readers might get a literary rush out of Lethem’s dropping the names of long-time acknowledged heavyweight champs like Vonnegut, Atwood, and King. But it was probably even more fun for Lethem, through Todbaum, to take a shot at old Cormac McCarthy and his dystopian, post-apocalyptic novel The Road. McCarthy’s fans probably won’t like reading: “If McCarthy were honest, he’d admit he wrote a campfire story, Sandman. Instead he inserts all this Old Testament horseshit. The world’s reduced and cleansed, the ambiguity scrubbed out.” Lethem’s is no country for old men.
Todbaum, unlike Journeyman, has been in Malibu for the first three years of the Arrest before he sets out for Maine in his nuclear-powered supercar, the Blue Streak. Todbaum paid 14 million dollars to convert a machine used for tunneling under the ocean into a contraption based on the vehicle in the post-apocalyptic Damnation Alley (1977). For some reason that Lethem doesn’t tell us, technology still works for Todbaum, at least in his supercar. Although the Blue Streak can travel almost 70 miles per hour, it has taken Todbaum 10 months to cross the US because of the lack of open highways. When he eventually arrives in Maine, he says he’s looking for Journeyman’s sister Maddy. He wants her to collaborate with him on Yet Another World, but she doesn’t want to see him, much less collaborate. So, in the meantime, he entertains the townies with exciting and sometimes bawdy stories of his journey across the US.
In most of the communities and in Tinderwick where Journeyman lives, everyone seems to have a specialty. Maddy is an organic farmer who founded and runs the “intentional community” Spodosol Ridge Farm. Augustus is a butcher. Victoria is a sausage-maker. And Drenka is the de facto librarian. But in this hippish community not everyone loves and feeds each other. There’s plenty of disagreement and a bit of conflict, even one old man has been ostracized from the town, rather than jailed. Not too far away are the Cordon, “stoical, flinty types,” vigilant about defending their territory and paranoid about possible attacks from the South-like New Hampshire. When guns worked, the Cordon could be violent, but now they just threaten violence and the peaceful townsfolk believe and fear them. Otherwise, the Cordon don’t do much for themselves and rely on the Tinderwickians for food and supplies—or else.
When Todbaum arrives in Maine, the Cordon expect trouble. They eventually make an agreement with the Tinderwickians to neutralize the Blue Streak and to stop, punish, or kill Todbaum. Lethem writes with punnish good humor and real wit as he builds up quite a cordon of tension about what might happen now that Todbaum and his supercar have arrived. But the novel’s tension sizzles away as the peaceful Tinderwickians decide to sacrifice Todbaum. Near the end, Lethem even inserts a still photograph from The Wicker Man (1973) to suggest the Tinderwickians’s decision. I picture Todbaum treed in the Blue Streak teetering at the top of a coffeepot-like tower percolating and finally just bubbling over onto lukewarm grounds.