January 12, 2010

J. Robert Lennon: Castle

Posted in Lennon J. Robert at 12:00 pm by John Self

I loved J. Robert Lennon’s last novel Mailman – though it didn’t get the attention it deserved – and was surprised to see recently that he published a new novel in March 2009 in the US, which hasn’t yet been picked up by a UK publisher. Castle, with its (literally) Kafkaesque title, has much to live up to.

Castle is a first person narrative by Eric Loesch, who has returned to his childhood home of Gerrysburg, upstate New York, after some time away. Lennon goes to great lengths – with classic unreliable narrator techniques – to withhold essential elements of Eric’s past from us, but these are fatally undermined by the blurb, which tells us that “this particular story has much to do with American’s current military misadventures.” So when, by page two, Eric comments on both a “bronze statue of a Second World War warrior” and a ‘Support our Troops’ bumper sticker, we are fine tuned to pick up on such references and what they might hint to us about Eric’s past.

We also get a clear impression of what we are supposed to think about Eric’s personality. His narrative is meticulous, almost autistic, and we get regular comments on Eric’s view of himself. “I am a highly organized and energetic person and accustomed to getting things accomplished quickly and thoroughly.” “I am not of a particularly imaginative cast of mind.” “I believe powerfully in succeeding at something the first time.” These elements of self-awareness tell us as much about the qualities Eric lacks as about those he possesses. (“I am not deeply moved by beauty, and in fact may even be incapable of appreciating or even recognizing it.”) We know too, from his narrative, that he is impatient with others who are over-friendly, or try to tell him how to do things, which is strange, because “I have been trained to do what I am told.”

For the first fifty pages or so, my overriding thought was that the book should really be called Castle, by J. Robert Lennon, as told to Kazuo Ishiguro. It seemed almost a stylistic homage – and a slightly second-rate one at that. Often the narrative tricks and teases become tiresome – in an aside, Eric refers to his “sad, doomed parents” and to his sister’s “life of promiscuity, rootlessness, and substance abuse” – but at the same time there is a real central force to the story. Eric has bought a house with surrounding wooded lands in Gerrysburg (the place, I think, designed to appear to the reader like ‘Gettysburg’ – and Eric was brought up on Jefferson Street – so elements of America’s history are hinted at, perhaps to encourage us to compare the idealized past with the present). However, there is a large boot-shaped rock on the land, which Eric can see from his house but can never quite get to, and on the map with his title deeds, there is a mysterious blacked-out square in the middle of his land.

This is one of those points where the reviewer must withdraw before spoiling the story, but it is appropriate to say that the development of the narrative is intriguing and strange, bringing into question how much is real or representative of Eric’s state of mind, and whether it is willed or coincidental. What is less satisfying is the way when a man’s name – Dr Avery Stiles – enters the story and Eric professes not to know who he is, yet soon after he gives us a very detailed account of Stiles’ role in his life (which the story turns on). Is this supposed to represent repressed, traumatised memories coming to the surface? Or is it a cheap authorial trick, like Andrew Sean Greer’s carefully plotted detonations in The Story of a Marriage?

The details of how Stiles affected Eric’s behaviour and personality – brought him, perhaps literally, to where he is today – are both utterly implausible and completely compelling. It makes Castle a book which both explores an extreme personality type, and brings that into coherent conjunction with contemporary events. (The doubtful element here is whether it will survive as literature, being so entrained to recent history.)

“It is my feeling [says Stiles to Eric's parents] that we have civilized our own humanness out of existence. We are too affluent, and too soft, and many of our natural instincts have atrophied. My research means to explore how the human mind reacts when its comforts have been stripped away. I intend to recover those human skills that we have lost, to create a better soldier, and perhaps more importantly, a better citizen.”

So Castle asks us to question the value of training young men into unquestioning commitment to an authority, and of detaching compassion from the multiplicity of a personality. It also invites us to question accepted forms of maleness. During Eric’s training with Dr Stiles, which estranges him from some of his family, he “felt great pride at my ability to lie to my mother, and a mixture of pity and condescension for her, for having accepted my lies. I felt respected, and strong. I felt like a man.” What this leads to in the jarring last chapters of the book is the discovery by Eric that he and his colleagues “discovered nothing about the enemy, except how to hurt him.”

By the end, the reader is unsure whether Eric’s current return to Gerrybsurg and the extraordinary events which befall him there are part of his ongoing ‘work’. Indeed, the whole unusual turn that the story takes once Eric discovers what occupies the blacked-out square in the centre of his land could be an hallucation, brought on the blow to the head he suffers one-third through the book. This is as it should be. Like Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, Castle is a book difficult to address to anyone who hasn’t read it. Anyone who has, therefore, should feel free to revel in spoilers below.

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21 Comments »

  1. I’ll admit the cover image — the absence in white rather that the blacked out section in the deed in the book — adds to my interest in the novel. This is the first review that I have seen and it does seem to be a very topical book (which, as you note, may not be lasting). I’ll ponder for a bit.

  2. Steerforth said,

    This has nothing to do with J. Robert Lennon, but I’ve just finished L. J. Davis’s “A Meaningful Life”, which I bought on the strength of your recommendation. It’s baffling how something this good could disappear off the radar for the best part of 40 years, but perhaps its gallows humour wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

    Politically, I was left wondering just where the author was coming from and was relieved to read Jonathan Lethem’s introduction afterwards.

    • John Self said,

      Yes Steerforth. But in fact it didn’t disappear off the radar for 40 years so much as never appear on it in the first place: when first published it was mostly ignored and wasn’t even issued in paperback. Some consolation I suppose for those of us who despair of decent books these days getting a fair airing on their first publication.

  3. Colette Jones said,

    I read Castle recently and absolutely loved it. It is quite different to Mailman, which I also loved, and part of me wanted it to be more like Mailman, but overall I think it is better that they are quite diverse. Except for madness. I wonder what Lennon’s childhood was like! He certainly has a good imagination if it was “normal”. Iain Banks claims to have had a very normal childhood, yet came up with The Wasp Factory, so it can be done!

  4. Colette Jones said,

    Reveling in spoilers now:

    What is your take on the end? Was he being picked up to go on some secret mission?

  5. John Self said,

    I don’t know, Colette. If I had any thoughts about this they’re long gone – I read the book, and wrote this review, back in November. I do remember reading an Amazon review which made the point about his ‘mission’ against Dr Stiles possibly being part of his ongoing govt-directed combat operations, otherwise the idea wouldn’t have occurred to me at all. I think my take on the end was pretty uncomplicated.

  6. john h said,

    I read “Mailman” a couple of years ago so Lennon was on my radar. I very much enjoyed that book. I’ve heard that he had a new book out but I haven’t seen it around anywhere. Based on your review, it may be worth checking out.

    I read somewhere that Lennon’s first name is John. Thus, the initial and the second name on his books. Who would want to try to follow in those footsteps?

  7. John Self said,

    No, I hadn’t seen it anywhere either John, and I kept expecting to hear that a UK publisher had picked it up for publication here in 2010. (It came out in March 2009 in the US.) When that didn’t happen, I bought a copy of the US edition and read that instead. I do hope a UK publisher does take it on.

  8. Colette Jones said,

    He used to be published by Granta. I wonder why that changed.

  9. brad said,

    Mr Self, I am so glad you reviewed this book. Just like you I am a big J. Robert Lennon fan and was surprised when his new book suddenly appeared at my library. I agree that it is a fantastic read–very different from Mailman but equally as good. Thanks for giving Mr. Lennon some press!

  10. John Self said,

    I’m glad to have been of service, brad! I’m just sorry the book hasn’t been picked up by UK publishers. Perhaps they thought it too US-centric?

  11. I’ve been thinking about reading Castle but I read somewhere (an Amazon review, I think) that it included gruesome bits with torture scenes. Not much up for gruesome these days, so if anyone sees this:
    Is there much torture and how gruesome is it? A page or two I can largely ignore?

    Thanks

  12. John Self said,

    There is some torture, Guy, but it’s not prolonged and not an aspect of the book which particularly stuck with me. It essentially occurs during the scenes showing how Eric came to be the man he is, with a little help from Dr Avery Stiles. (I also can’t remember if there is any torture of people, or if it is solely of animals.)

  13. Ok, perhaps I can skip these bits. Too much nasty detail and then I start thinking about turning to a children’s book for recovery.

    Thanks, I’ll give it a go then.

  14. Colette Jones said,

    John mentions animal torture and I now remember that there was some, but the specifics of what was done and what animal are gone from my mind. The human torture is more of the mental variety, presented as “challenge” rather than torture (to the deluded).

  15. Thanks Colette for the input. I’ll post back here and let you and John know how ‘bearable’ it was. While I like crime novels I don’t like graphic or gruesome bits.

  16. John Self said,

    It’s certainly not that sort of book, Guy. The difficulty in detailing the ‘torture’ is that to do so would risk giving away a large part of what the book is about, though I’ve kind of already done that in my review above. I am no more a fan of graphic or gruesome violence than you are, Guy, and I wouldn’t have been put off the book by knowing what was to come.

    The animals, for the record, were squirrels, I think.

  17. Well some books are sneaky about the graphic stuff. I read one (well a bit of one) some months back that was touted as a noir. I can’t remember the name of it now (must have blocked it out of my mind), but it involved a man who tortured animals for sexual gratification, then….well enough said. I was so pissed off about that.

  18. Nick said,

    What a great blog, but how maddening — this is the second really good book blog I have found today that is, darn it all, based in the UK. Here’s why that bothers me:

    What brought me here was an odd sort of hobby: promoting my wife’s next book (in an age when publishers are cutting back on publicity and book tours and all the things they used to do, we husbands are doing all we can). Her name is Jane Mendelsohn, the book is American Music, and it’s being published by Knopf in the US on June 1. Incredibly (to me, anyway), as with the Lennon book, no UK publisher has yet snapped it up — maybe it’s the title that’s keeping them away. Anyway, it’s a terrific book, rich and complex, haunting and heartbreaking without being in the least bit depressing. So I hope you’ll want to give it a read.

    Anyway, I read this Lennon post and thought: what do I have to lose?

    Keep up the good work!

    best,

    Nick Davis
    (husband, sometime publicist)

  19. [...] to read Castle by American author J. Robert Lennon for some time after coming across the title on Asylum. I’ve read opposing reviews of it, and was somewhat concerned about a mention of animal [...]

  20. […] gets one up on Lennon’s previous novel, Castle, in that it has found a UK publisher. I had mixed feelings about Castle, but overall I remember it […]


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