What the hell’s that creep up to?

Thomas Jones

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

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.

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[*] Mailman was reviewed by Theo Tait in the LRB of 4 December 2003; Pieces for the Left Hand by Wyatt Mason in the LRB of 17 March 2005.

[†] Dzanc, 325 pp., £5.56, October, B00EP6PBLI.