When It All Just…Stops

The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem (2020) – When the fundamental forces in our lives stop-electricity, electronics, cars, guns, airplanes, telephones, what happens? There’s no cataclysm, just “The Arrest”, and then life goes on. But the world that Journeyman knew as a writer in Hollywood is gone. Eventually, he makes his way to his sister’s organic farm/coop/commune on the other side of the continent. Life is different but quiet. Until his friend/writing partner Todman arrives in a vehicle beyond belief. Between Todman’s secrets and his manipulation, everything is about to change. Again.

One of the most interesting things about Jonathan Lethem’s premise here is that the world doesn’t end with a bang or a whimper. This isn’t post-apocalyptic because there is no apocalypse. Tinderwick, Maine isn’t a dystopia. It’s a small former fishing village searching for a new way after everything stopped. The Arrest was a cataclysm either. Lethem describes it as a “now already past”. It just was, without warning or explanation. That’s a disturbing concept. Humans have a tendency toward the belief that we can figure it out. The Arrest offers no opening for understanding. It is. So deal with it.

This initial concept allows the story to proceed with less frenetic energy than is the expectation in “end of the world” stories. Journeyman holds a position at the bottom of the social totem pole. But his job delivering meat from the butcher to people throughout his region means he knows everyone and sees the ebb and flow of the wider community. His sister Maddy is the social root for the area, a calm, gentle force. Surrounding Tinderwick is “The Cordon”, a mysterious, armed community that controls the flow in and out of Tinderwick while having minimal contact with the village. When Todbaum arrives in his nuclear power car/tank/boring machine, everything gets tangled.

Lethem unfolds the stories here in quick bursts of storytelling. The book’s three hundred-nine pages become seventy-nine chapters, none longer than six pages. We follow Journeyman as he searches for answers to questions from his past, present, and future. I can’t think of another book that felt the way this one did. It follows its own tempo, with each chapter released into the wind of the story. My advice is to give the book a chance, let it find you a place of comfort, and follow along. The reward is worth the effort.

Rating – *** Worth A Read

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