J. Robert Lennon: Familiar

This is the fourth novel I’ve read this year which appears to be about parallel worlds – or, if you prefer, the multiverse. The others are Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (much praised but it left me entirely cold, and I had no enthusiasm for reviewing it), Christopher Priest’s The Adjacent, and Andrew Crumey’s The Secret Knowledge. Just imagine that in an alternate life, I resisted the temptation in this blog post to open it with a joke about how you wait ages for a parallel world, and then four come along at once.

J. Robert Lennon: Familiar (UK, Serpent's Tail)

Familiar 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 fondly. Like it, Familiar is driven by a central, existential mystery, and what the two books further have in common is that the mystery is mostly a device to explore the central character’s personality, and how she (in this case) ended up where she is.

She is Elisa Brown, a scientist in academia in the US whose defining life event – at least until page 13 (“everything’s going to change in a couple of minutes”) – is that her son Silas died several years ago. (It struck me how odd it is that we have a word for a child whose parents have died, and for a wife whose husband has died and vice versa, but none for a parent whose child has died. In the TV series Six Feet Under, one character made the same observation, and concluded: “I guess that’s just too fucking awful to even have a name.” Yes: don’t normalise it, don’t reduce it to a word.) This has left her marriage in shreds, her other son Sam affected – “they never did find a rhythm, the three of them. A way for them to fit together without Silas” – and Elisa stuck in an affair with a picture framer.

Suddenly, and quietly, while she is driving home from a visit to her son’s grave, Elisa changes. She finds – a blink, a breath, like that – that she is in a different car, wearing different clothes, on a different journey; in a different life. When she arrives home, it becomes clear from her husband’s behaviour that they have a new history, which she doesn’t know about. Also, Silas is alive, but he and Sam are living thousands of miles away in California. Elisa and her husband are in therapy. Her job has changed too, from academic to administrative, one which, like many jobs, is “both wildly intricate and completely boring.”

I began Familiar not entirely expecting to finish it: it seemed a sterile sort of premise, built from the concept up. There were pleasing diversions on the problems of entering a new life without memory: “she wonders how she usually does her hair: probably not this way.” And yet, by a third of the way through – it’s just over 200 pages, and what a relief a short book is these days – it was making thoughts blossom from every page. This was, I think, because soon it became clear that Lennon was less interested in the conceit, and in solving the mystery of what has happened to Elisa, than in exploring what happened to her in the old life. She had, for example, inevitably blamed herself for Silas’s death: for “pushing him away when she was trying to read. Failing to give the second helping of dessert. Letting him cry it out in the crib.”

J. Robert Lennon: Familiar (US, Graywolf Press)

This slow unpeeling of the old life comes entwined with the developing understanding of Elisa’s new life. The two are inseparable. It provokes the reader into thinking about how we take the good in our lives for granted and how little newness we experience, when so much of our day-to-day living is constructed upon the memories and understandings of what has gone before. Plus, as Elisa thinks, “hasn’t everyone wanted this? To just throw it all overboard, the bad decisions of the past, and start over?” It notes, too, how, in Dostoevsky’s phrase, “man is a creature that can get used to anything,” as we move from amazement to acceptance to apathy. Our experiences and memories flatten everything out: the steamroller of life. Elisa is faced with the worst horror of all: having moved to a world where her son is still alive, she finds herself wishing she was back in the old one.

The relationship between brothers Silas and Sam, and their relationship with their parents, is central to both the old and new lives. In the new world, where he didn’t die at the age of eighteen, Silas has become a noted computer games creator, and Elisa finds herself playing one of his games as a way of seeing into his mind. He is also, however, a notorious online troll – a bang-on contemporary subject at the time of writing this review – and Familiar is one of the few novels I’ve read which takes gaming and online life seriously. “There was a time,” Elisa thinks, “when [the internet] seemed like a dream. […] There are people, she knows, who don’t use it, who have no presence on it, who can’t be searched for, who can only be accessed by going to their house and knocking on their door. But those people are the dream now. They’re like ghosts.”

It is at the end of the novel, where the awkwardness of a meeting of online friends is beautifully captured – the unreality of the real world – where the book achieves an intensity of pitch that has previously been muted by Elisa’s everywoman character (she never does anything surprising, perhaps as a balance to the extraordinary situation in which she finds herself). The ending is powerful and hints at an explanation for what has happened to her, if by that stage you still really want to know. But more unusually, the US and UK publications of Familiar have created a sort of parallel existence for the book: the US edition has an author’s afterword, which the UK edition lacks. The significance of this, and perhaps the problem with it, is that Lennon explains his intentions for the book so succinctly and convincingly that my own reading, still at that time freshly-formed and malleable, was smothered by it. The book is, he says, “about the psychological effects of parenthood – the transformation our personalities undergo in response to the utter impossibility of doing the right thing day in and day out for eighteen years and more. To survive being a parent is to fictionalize memory – to constantly re-create and re-contextualize the past, to invent a narrative that makes sense of the bizarre distortions introduced into one’s life under the strain of responsibility, obligation, and love.”

14 comments

  1. It sounds very interesting. I’ve had his story collection Pieces for the Left Hand on my wishlist for years, without ever buying it. I may have to rectify that.

    Unusual to have so explicit an authorial intervention. It reminds me of famous prefaces of years gone by, eg Henry James ruminated on his art or the public reaction to it. It says something about the different reading cultures in the UK and US that the afterword is included in one edition but not the other. *What* it says I can’t be sure of.

  2. “To survive being a parent is to fictionalize memory – to constantly re-create and re-contextualize the past, to invent a narrative that makes sense of the bizarre distortions introduced into one’s life under the strain of responsibility, obligation, and love.”

    That’s it in a nutshell. I catch myself doing it all the time, until I’m reminded that there are other narratives that don’t corroborate mine.

  3. I’m looking forward to reading this. I must admit that if I had the afterword, I would read it, and likewise probably be influenced by it – I have the UK edition, so won’t have that problem.

  4. Great review John – will read it now! I also like your throwaway remark about short books. Not enough of them. So often they are superior to these massive tomes because the authors are wordsmiths and more intense writers. Ger’s Book Review

  5. Sounds like a really interesting book (and as a parent to a teenage girl, sounds directly relevant)… I’m intrigued that despite your finding that the coda “smothered” your reading of the book you nonetheless quote it at length. It IS a very resonant passage on its own.

  6. Sounds great. This seems to be a real ‘theme’ at the moment in contemporary fiction, I also have ‘Life After Life’ and ‘The Shining Girls’ to read, but given your comments, may read Shining Girls first!

  7. I read ‘Familiar’ at your recommendation and was not disappointed. The chapter where Lisa/Elisa goes out and buys and then plays the x-box game her son has created is wonderful – seeing the red-headed girl through Silas’s eyes, seeing the family as he sees them. And the eerie influence of the therapist. Very good. I think what’s powerful is that the novel re-enacts the sensation everyone gets from time to time – of being strangers in our own lives (nearly wrote ‘lies’ – ha ha). Very thought-provoking.

    1. The sensation you describe is so true, and yet I think I’ve been putting it to the back of my mind when it happens. It feels less than sane, which I think J Robert Lennon understands well.

  8. Thanks for this review, which prompted me to buy the book. I’m a fan of his work but missed this one. I don’t think I got the hint at the end that you refer to, and it’s bothering me, but I think it’s an excellent book.

  9. Hi John,

    The review you posted for Familiar by J. Robert Lennon read to me like you demonstrated impartiality and insight. You stated your thought the way you should. I appreciate that you show both fairness and balance in your reviews. I will be following your other reviews with interest.

    Thanks!

  10. Nice review John. The US afterword seems rather blunt. Leaving aside that it’s really our job, not his, to say what the book’s about once it’s out in the world it just seems to make me as reader redundant.

    Odd, Lennon is an author who should interest me but who never quite tempts me, though that may be because I habitually confuse him with an SF author whose work I dislike. I fear Lennon gets antipathy by false-association.

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