Fiction Reviews


The Arrest

(2020) Jonathan Lethem, Atlantic, £8.99, pbk, 307pp, ISBN 978-1-838-95217-4

 

This starts with a fabulous premise that, alas, it doesnít ultimately deliver on as much of what is going on remains unexplained.

The title refers to the inexplicable potentially global breakdown of anything and everything electrical, and for some uncovered reason firearms are also conveniently useless during the interruption of order labeled 'the Arrest'.

The protagonist, referred to as Sandman (as his name is Sanderson) and Journeyman at various points in the narrative, is a failed Hollywood screenwriter, now living in a seemingly utopian bartering farm community in Maine.

On the edges of the community are The Cordon, who serve ambiguously as protectors and ruthless martial law enforcers: they donít do enough to enable readers to decide one way or the other.

The communityís day to day existence is disrupted by the arrival of Taunbaum, in an absurdly powerful, fully functional giant nuclear supercar that operates despite the Arrest. As it becomes apparent that Journeyman knew the man before the breakdown of modern luxuries, the Cordon assigned him to finding out where Taunbaum got the car, how it still works despite the Arrest, and get the man away from the vehicle so it can be taken over by, and for the good of, the community. But the car has more defense mechanisms than a military tankÖ

The car is the real star of the story, given so many descriptions that they overlap and cancel one another out so it is unclear just what the amazing machine actually is. This isnít bad writing, as it actually helps to make the machine more incredible. Lethem actually adds illustrations of the vehicle, one of which is a hybrid of every futuristic vehicle in science fiction, the other of which is a steam powered locomotive train. Journeyman has a scrapbook collection of book illustrations he has torn from various abandoned library books, and several of the pictures appear in the novel. Those that remind him of the supercar are completely different to one another.

Problems lie with the human characters. Only the incredibly arrogant, conceited and often lying Taunbaum seems fleshed out. Journeyman actually achieves very little in the story, and offers only wild speculation on what might be going on. Even in the final titanic conflict between the community and Taunbaum, Journeyman has little direct activity.

Taunbaum is evasive about the origins of his supercar. As a co-writer with Journeyman pre-Arrest, he helped conceive such transports for their fantastic unused screenplays. He directly compares the burrowing, submersible car to the battle truck in Roger Zelaznyís near-classic 1969 novel, Damnation Alley. He also indicates that there are believed to be two identical cars on the roads of the World, though nothing further is made of this. We never learn how a wealthy playboy got his hands on a car right out of the pages of unfilmed and unpublished science fiction movie ideas.

We are also never given true clues to the origins of The Arrest. Taunbaum teases Journeyman with hints that the rest of the World outside the experimental commune might be unaffected by the Arrest, but then says he is just messing with his friendís head. He makes numerous other cruel teases too. The trouble is, the author is playing those with the reader too, and never offers any solution to the riddles. He simply hasnít bothered thinking it all through.

Other characters are barely described or fleshed out at all. Maddy, Journeymanís closest friend in the community, (never a love interest) was briefly a sidekick to Taunbaum on his road-trip, before he dumped her and when she ultimately leads the community to spectacular climatic confrontational action regarding the impossible-car, we donít get to know much about her at all. She might well have been a more interesting protagonist than Journeyman, who seems to have no taste for activity or journeying at all.

Exactly how Journeyman feels about his former friend is also unclear. He gets to be a passenger in the car, he sees Taunbaum get out of the vehicle more than once but it is never explained why he makes no effort to fight him, capture him or prevent him returning to it.

Unanswered questions, badly outlined characters, people drawing theories out of thin air, and a World changing catastrophe that is never explained. This is a collection of great ideas and what ifs that are never fully exploited or developed. The incredibly egotistical, bombastic Taunbaum and his car are amazing but it is impossible to see how the carís pilot / driver either  a) Got his hands on the machine or  b) Isnít easily taken down on several occasions when he gets out of the cabin.

There is similarly no sense of how the World has so easily adapted to the Arrest and the loss of technology. Aside from those we are told died when planes fell out of the sky, most people seem to have adjusted to arable, feudal bartering with astonishing ease. There never seems to have been any panic or social chaos at all. Again, the author has no details to share with us on this.

I felt the book really ought to have contained much of the material left out. Taunbaumís story feels like a footnote entry to a much greater premise that simply isnít examined at all.

Arthur Chappell

 


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