The author of Motherless Brooklyn returns with a near-future world devoid of technology, where a former Los Angeles screenwriter now working as an organic farmer unexpectedly reconnects with his once-famous partner, who has retrofitted a nuclear-powered digger to launch an unknown agenda.
... 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 ... 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 ... 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 ... 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 ... 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.
In his latest novel, The Arrest, Jonathan Lethem explores a world in which technology stops working ... In another book, by another writer, perhaps there would be more in the way of description, causes and mechanisms, the back story that got us to this moment. Exposition begets exposition; down that road lies a more conventional (and most likely longer) dystopian novel. But this is Jonathan Lethem, a master at subverting expectations of form and genre ... He has not written a conventional postapocalyptic cautionary tale. If anything, he seems more interested in unpacking assumptions built into such tales, and why we seem to have an endless appetite for stories that, presumably, should make us feel terrible ... The Arrest may not show Lethem at the height of his powers, but as with so much of his work, it is inventive, entertaining and superbly written.
Lethem is a beguiling and very smart writer. Told in short, breezy chapters, The Arrest vibrates with sharp, satiric observations and layers upon layers of strange, often funny mashups of popular 1970s and ’80s end-of-the-world books and movies. Ultimately, Lethem’s plot resolves itself, but in ways that do not fully satisfy. This is deliberate. As his fans know, Lethem often plays a deeper game. There are some answered and many unanswered questions in The Arrest—so many that Lethem seems to be suggesting that even at the end of days, the familiar shapes of stories are insufficient, and life itself offers fewer resolutions than we hope for.