Lennon J. Robert

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.”

J. Robert Lennon: Castle

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.