Monday, January 11, 2021

Review of The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem

Despite growing up in one of the most populated cities on Earth, Jonathan Lethem has largely been a literary fringe walker. From his criticism of mainstream science fiction to the stories which, regardless of quality, back up that criticism and are at least original, the writer has consciously kept himself a degree apart. It's the presence of this degree in Lethem's 2020 offering, The Arrest, which will have readers once again putting the book down with disappointment, or turning the pages with interest.

Roger Zelazny meets Rudy Rucker, The Arrest is their suitably odd offspring. Set largely in pastoral, post-apocalyptic Maine, all technology has ceased functioning after the unexplained, titular event. The event forcing people back to the land, readers are introduced to the main character Journeyman as he sets off on a walk to talk with a distant neighbor—their version of a phone call or SMS. Journeyman's agrarian community brought to the forefront in the pages that follow, Lethem also takes readers back to the man's pre-Arrest days in LA, writing film scripts with his loquacious partner, Peter Todbaum. Todbaum soon enough makes an appearance in Maine, driving, of all things, a burrowing, nuclear-powered, coffee-brewing, super machine he calls the Blue Streak. Journeyman's organic community shaken by Todbaum's “nuclear” arrival, things (proverbially) are never the same.

Anything but cut and dry, post-ap adventure/drama, instead The Arrest ties itself to a handful of other, less typical themes, including Hollywood, hippy life, and the different types of writers of science fiction. Tone and pace subdued and quirky (nothing far outside Lethem's wheelhouse for those familiar), readers may wonder where the novel is going as the narrative wanders around without an obvious leash pulling it forward. But as the pages turn and the stories (plural) unravel, things coalesce into a climax that is certainly subtle, certainly symbolic, but wholly fitting of the tales that have come before.

Lethem ever the measured voice of absurdist reason, The Arrest encapsulates this idea through the peculiar examination of science fiction as writing, and science fiction as reality. Unlike Roger Zelazny's Damnation Alley, this is not radioactive action, blowing up mutant bugs. Lethem (seemingly happily) the odd man out, The Arrest is an oddball novel that will definitely appeal to readers who appreciate an oddball approach to sf. At the risk of sounding pretentious, this is fringe sf.

No comments:

Post a Comment