Review of The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem

After Lethem’s recent novel The Feral Detective, I didn’t know what to expect. This is an unconventional post-apocalyptic novel. Contrary to the blurb, I would not call it dystopian.

Apart from the metafictional antics of its screenwriter main character, it comes alive with humorous anachronisms, some subtle social commentary, stock characters, witty repartee, and most of all, luscious descriptions of a monolithic “supercar” steampunk vehicle, which actually takes up most of the “screen time” of this cinematic book. Notably it has a desolate, and (for me) surprising ending.

I would call the outlook of most of the characters bleak, but Lethem imbued his parable with enough playful language to enthuse me throughout. Definitely not a complex work like his three big novels, this falls more in line with his shorter, quirkier novels – Girl in Landscape more than As She Climbed Across the Table. He seems like a multi-layered novelist, and I am curious what he has in store for us next time. His retro-futurism works better here than elsewhere, though I think I liked Gambler’s Anatomy more. The quality of the narration was as unpredictable as the world building. Most of the cataclysmic event preceding the novel’s events are merely hinted at, instead of explicated.

I thought the book could have gone on longer, could have turned into an interesting road novel aboard a pynchonian retro-fitted future craft, but the characters mostly sat around and philosophized. A missed opportunity, since this was the perfect set up for a truly epic novel. Why doesn’t Lethem take his time, really pull out the stops and give us a work that can rival Pynchon, Philip K. Dick and other big names? Mostly, he imitates the big boys. And he does it well. Still, he has the ability and popularity to write a monolithic masterpiece – I’m still waiting, Lethem.