Critically acclaimed and award-winning author Jonathan Lethem’s newest novel, The Arrest, is a science fiction tale of societal collapse, siblings and a super car. If the speculative work of fiction about the world coming to a screeching halt seems to be a foretelling of present times and quarantine life, it is sheer coincidence, the Pomona College professor of creative writing says.
“It ended up seeming much more prescient, but of course I couldn't have written it with any thought of being specific in that way. But I'm one of a lot of writers and artists, who I think you can see, have centered increasingly on this kind of theme so that we end up looking prescient with this pandemic,” he says.
So, where did the idea for this book come from, we ask?
Instead of a prophecy it was a return to Lethem’s origins as a writer, having read so much dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature by George Orwell, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick and others when he was young. For him, this book’s themes are very innate to his writing and thinking, themes that have been lurking and resurfaced at this time, he says.
Once the finishing touches were applied to his work in January and February, “The world took over and presented me with this sort of feeling that I rhymed with it in some way,” Lethem says. However, “one can't envision the real future, and it's foolish to try. And so those kinds of overtones of prescience, they're chance. They just happen.”
Lethem calls the “stuck-ness” of pandemic life an echo of his imagination and yet points out there is something “ludicrously and crazily wrong” in comparing his yarn to our current reality:
“One of the defining features of my story is the way the internet goes away and virtuality, phone calls, let alone Zoom calls, or Skype or FaceTime evaporate.”
There is also the matter of the nuclear-powered supercar in the book. It may or may not be prescient—in fact, Lethem calls it silly—but it is a symbolic device, he says. “It’s an abomination and it’s a wonder at the same time.”
“It's like a chunk of the technological past that comes rumbling into this pastoral future, where such things have become unheard of and impossible. So, it seems impossible because it represents all of the disastrous elements of modernity, the technology that have been so, in this story anyway, so mercifully relinquished.”
While there are occasions when writing a book includes a time of struggle, where Lethem needs to put it down, circle around the back way, reconsider it and even make radical changes, those were made really joyfully while writing The Arrest, he says.
“There are a couple of the books where I think no one else could have written this. The ingredients are so specific to me, so eccentrically my own that the thing just could never have existed if I hadn't given myself to it. And it is a matter of giving yourself,” Lethem says.
“No one was going to write The Arrest if I didn't do it. And I loved that feeling. That was what animated the project.”
The Arrest has been named to lists of don’t-miss books by The New York Times and USA Today, among others. But whether a book is a smash hit or makes a quieter landing, whether it’s a work of sci-fi or a mystery novel—and Lethem has had it all—one thing remains constant.
“I just have my stories that I want to tell,” he says. “I try to constantly remember how lucky I am that anyone cares about them at all.”