In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

What the hell’s that creep up to?Thomas Jones
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Vol. 35 No. 22 · 21 November 2013

What the hell’s that creep up to?

Thomas Jones

Familiar 
by J. Robert Lennon.
Serpent’s Tail, 205 pp., £11.99, August 2013, 978 1 84668 947 5
Show More
Show More

Something remarkable happens in the opening pages of J. Robert Lennon’s seventh novel. Elisa Brown is driving home to Reevesport, in upstate New York, from Madison, Wisconsin, where her son is buried. She makes the journey once a year, by herself, in her beaten up old Honda with its smell of dog (her husband’s, from before they were married, now dead) and cracked windscreen. As she drives she thinks about the kinds of thing people think about on long solitary drives: her job, her hobby, her parents, her husband, her lover, her sons, the one who’s alive and the one who’s dead. She stops for gas, to eat, to pee. And then, after ten pages or so of this, Elisa sees a ‘perfect undented aluminium can’ lying by the side of the road, and slips into a parallel universe. But that slippage isn’t what’s remarkable (so far, so Twilight Zone), though it’s described with neat and graceful understatement:

The crack in the windshield disappears. She tries to blink it back into place because at first she thinks that her vision has blurred, but blinking doesn’t bring it back, and now she is noticing other things. The sound inside the car has changed. It’s quiet. The window is closed. The window’s closed and the air-conditioning is on, the dashboard isn’t dusty any more, and the taste of mint gum is in her mouth. In fact the gum is there, she has gum in her mouth right now. She pushes it out with her tongue and it falls into her lap.

What’s remarkable is that in the first ten pages of his novel, Lennon has provided such a full, convincing portrait of his protagonist – the way she thinks; the way she sees the world; the people and events that most matter to her – that throughout the rest of the book, the reader shares her sense of the wrongness of the new world she finds herself in. In most versions of the suddenly-transported-to-a-parallel-universe plot – the Matrix movies are a glaring example the world that the hero leaves behind barely figures once he’s left it behind. All we need to know is that it’s the world as we know it, and it’s a lie. Familiar, however, doesn’t make any claims about which world is the more real: it’s all a question of perspective – on the one hand, Elisa’s; on the other, that of everyone else in the novel. The physical circumstances of her removal from one world to another are (and remain) both mysterious and fantastical; psychologically, her situation is all too recognisable and realistic. Elisa feels radically out of place, isolated; no one else sees the world the way she does.

It isn’t only the world that is no longer recognisably hers, but her body, too: this disturbing metempsychosis, out of her body and into another version of that same body which is still hers and yet no longer hers, or perhaps which wasn’t hers a moment ago but now suddenly, inexplicably, is (‘she’s what, ten pounds heavier? Fifteen? Suddenly she can feel her thighs chafing’), is reflected in the narrative voice. Lennon tells his story (or Elisa’s story) in the third person – a point of view that’s inside her head but not hers in the way a first-person narrative would be – and in the present tense: there is no privilege of hindsight; she has no idea what will happen next.

Familiar has the form of science fiction, but its subject matter is unflinchingly domestic. The new world Elisa finds herself in is still the world as we know it: she drives home in her new car and her new body along familiar roads, and as she approaches Reevesport ‘everything looks the same as when she left.’ She still lives in the same house – except it isn’t the same, because it ‘could be described as landscaped, well cared for’. Her husband, Derek, appears smiling at the door, takes her suitcase from the car, carries it into the house, where dinner is cooking and a bottle of wine is open, and seems to expect her to join him in performing a sinister parody of suburban marital contentment that is nothing like their life together as she remembers it. She goes along with it, though, until she sees a family photograph in the hall, a picture of her husband and sons which she supposes she must have taken, though she doesn’t remember the occasion: Derek, Sam and Silas, who is older in the photo than he was when he died. ‘And so she doesn’t go to Derek, doesn’t go to the bedroom, instead she stumbles into the bathroom, collapses onto the toilet seat, and bunches a bath towel into her hands and covers her face with it and screams and screams.’

There is no guide in this parallel world to lead Elisa through the unfamiliar territory of her own life: no Scarecrow to hold her hand along the Yellow Brick Road, no Morpheus to welcome her to the desert of the real, no one who recognises her as a stranger, lost and in need of help. Derek sees that something is wrong, that she isn’t herself; the best explanation she can give him is: ‘I think I had a stroke.’ Visits to the doctor don’t help. Despite her constant fear of exposure – though exposure as what? – her colleagues don’t seem to notice anything amiss. Treading the line between nightmare and farce, Lennon is an experienced and nimble funambulist. The account of Elisa’s first day at work is very funny, as she goes anxiously about the office, pretending she knows what she’s doing. (Who doesn’t feel like that at work half the time anyway?) ‘The job is both wildly intricate and completely boring.’ Elisa’s lover from the old life doesn’t recognise her at all. At sessions with their marriage therapist she gradually learns of a dreadful pact that she and Derek have made to preserve their relationship, which is unpleasantly unbalanced all the same. Derek reminds her that ‘Rule 2 is “Blame yourself first.”’ She tells him that ‘nothing yesterday was your fault.’ ‘I know it’s not my fault,’ he says. Lennon doesn’t labour the irony. Elisa also discovers the reason their sons are living together, out of contact with them, 3000 miles away in Los Angeles. She stalks Silas online for a while, then resolves to pay the boys a visit.

Seeing new-world Sam is almost more of a shock than seeing undead Silas. Silas was always difficult as a child, and Elisa and Derek’s inadequacies as parents (though who could say they’d do better) only made everything worse. Sam retreated into himself, even for a while wearing a ‘toy spaceman helmet … almost all day long’. He came out of his shell after Silas died. But now he’s unrecognisable: ‘clean-shaven, tan and overweight … he walks with effort, as though sedated … he’s sweaty, he smells sour, she cannot believe this bloated creature is her son.’ In her old life, Elisa and Sam were close. Here, now, they can barely look each other in the eye:

There’s something she wants to ask him. She can’t. Then she does. ‘You … shared. Those girls. In the motel.’

He’s looking at the wall over her head.

‘That girl,’ she says. ‘The red-haired girl. Do you share her?’

He shifts in his seat, drinks. ‘No.’

‘Sam, you don’t like girls.’

He’s very still now. Quietly he says: ‘What do you mean?’

‘You don’t like girls. You’re gay.’

‘I’m not gay.’

‘Yes,’ Elisa says, ‘you are. You came out. A few years after he died. You have a boyfriend. I think. You don’t tell me everything.’

The silence is much longer this time. She is in mourning now, mourning for the Sam she knows. Her friend, her only son.

Elisa recoils from the choices her other self has made, and the reader recoils with her, but she is hardly in a position to pass judgment, since her horror at herself and her life in the world in which Silas has survived amounts to wishing her son dead. She never explicitly asks herself whether it’s worse to be estranged from both of your children or to be close to one with the other dead. But frame the question like that – can Sam’s relative happiness, and Elisa’s relationship with him, be balanced against Silas’s life? – and the Elisa whose son died begins to look like an even worse parent than the Elisa whose son survived. Except that she may be working on a false assumption, confusing correlation with causation. She takes it for granted that Silas’s survival is the reason everything is different, rather than just one of the many things that happen to be different, because his death was the overwhelming event in her old life. But the unknowable moment at which the path forked, separating this version of the world from that, must have been before Silas died (or didn’t), because how else to explain his not being in the van when it crashed? If there’s one thing she learns as she navigates her mysterious, new and all too ordinary life, it’s that her point of view doesn’t determine everything. Or, for that matter, anything. But grief and guilt are not rational.

Bad parenting (what other kind is there?) and fraught sibling relationships (what other kind …) have long been preoccupations of Lennon’s fiction. ‘In the late winter of 2006,’ his previous novel, Castle, begins, ‘I returned to my home town and bought 612 acres of land on the far western edge of the county.’ The town, as in Familiar and almost everything else Lennon has written over the past decade, is in upstate New York (he lives in Ithaca, teaches at Cornell). The deceptively simple opening sentence tells you a surprising amount about the peculiarities of the narrator’s character. As he sets about renovating his house and exploring his woods, Eric Loesch describes his activities, tools, movements, directions with military precision and exact numbers (‘612 acres’), but without providing any of the specific details that would explain who he is, where he’s been, why he’s come back here. His trips to the DIY store and awkward exchanges with the electrician are curiously compelling, and not only for the sense of mystery and threat that hangs over the whole enterprise. Who is he? Where has he been? Why has he come back here? Who’s lurking out there in the woods, killing deer on his doorstep? Why does he dislike his sister so much? Why is he so eager to trek to the mysterious ‘castle’ built in the heart of the – his – woods? And why does he find it so difficult to get there (612 acres is less than one square mile)?

When he at last reaches the castle, and comes face to face with his mysterious antagonist, a welter of suppressed memories comes flooding out, and what appear to be vaguely symbolic archetypes – the forest, the deer, the castle, the shadowy adversary – resolve into concrete details from Eric’s childhood, in all their horrifying particularity. In some ways, at first, the specificity seems disappointing: you wouldn’t catch Kafka, say, or the Coetzee of Waiting for the Barbarians, tethering themselves so literal-mindedly to concrete particulars. But that’s rather the point. Castle, despite first appearances, is resolutely not an allegory. This is unmistakably America, three years into the Iraq war.

Eric turns out to be even weirder than anyone could have suspected. And yet his resolute sense of his own normalness is hard not to go along with, well past the point at which it becomes clear how not normal he is: not only because he’s the narrator and, unreliable or not, we’re inclined to take his side (earlier this year, Lennon wrote on Twitter: ‘When I’m out walking alone and I encounter another man out walking alone I’m like what the hell’s that creep up to’), but also because from a certain – masculinist, patriotic, culturally hegemonic – point of view, he’s not only normal but admirable. He’s a complete fuck-up, but he’s also – rugged, independent, self-reliant, not afraid of self-defensive violence, property-owning – an outstanding example of American manhood.

Castle came out in 2009 from Graywolf, a small, publicly subsidised press in Minneapolis; it has yet to find a British publisher. Graywolf published Familiar, too, last year. They’re Lennon’s fourth American publisher (not counting ebooks) since his first, most conventional novel, The Light of Falling Stars, came out from Riverhead in 1997, when he was 27. Riverhead also published The Funnies in 1999. He went to Holt for On the Night Plain (2001), then signed with Norton for Mailman (2003). All four novels were published in the UK by Granta, as was Pieces for the Left Hand: 100 Anecdotes (2005), a virtuoso, deadpan collection of very short stories, supposedly written by a 47-year-old man who ‘lives in a renovated farmhouse at the edge of a college town somewhere in New York State … He is unemployed, and satisfied to be unemployed.’ They are set in ‘our town’ or ‘our quiet city’ or ‘a small town not far from here’, about ‘a man we know’ or ‘the daughter of old friends’ or ‘a priest of our acquaintance’. Norton didn’t want it; Graywolf put it out at the same time as Castle.*

Both Granta and Norton abruptly dropped Lennon in 2005, apparently because of libel fears over Happyland, a novel ‘about a doll and children’s-book mogul who tries to take over a small town; it was intended as a satire of Rovian politics in the second Bush administration,’ Lennon says, though Karl Rove wasn’t the person the publishers were worried about being sued by. An abridged version was serialised in Harper’s in 2006; the unabridged text is now available as an ebook from a small, subsidised press in Michigan.

His other ebooks unavailable in paper include The Great Zombini (2011, with illustrations by Lou Beach), a collection of macabre dramatic monologues (‘It is not, I am afraid, the job of a schoolteacher to like children’) that display the same gift for condensed characterisation as the opening of Familiar; and Video Game Hints, Tricks and Cheats (2010), a self-published collection of ‘essays, exercises, riffs, gags and other incidental writings’, including such gems as ‘New Sentences for the Testing of Typewriters’: ‘Tipsy Bangkok panjandrums fix elections with quivering zeal’; ‘Twenty-six Excedrin helped give Jocko quite a firm buzz’; ‘What joker put seven dog lice in my Iraqi fez box?’ etc.

Lennon is also a teacher, musician (the Starry Mountain Sweetheart Band, in which he sings and plays guitar, released their first album last month) and judicious critic (including half a dozen times for the LRB). He caused a mild stir earlier this year with a piece for Salon, in which he advised aspiring writers against reading too much ‘contemporary literary fiction’, because most of it is ‘terrible: conservative, mannered and obvious … Why develop an encyclopedic knowledge of the present cultural moment when so much of it, inevitably, is crap?’ On the whole, sound advice, even if you aren’t trying to write a novel yourself. But like most rules it has exceptions, among them the novels of J. Robert Lennon.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.