What the hell’s that creep up to?
- 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.
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.
[†] Dzanc, 325 pp., £5.56, October, B00EP6PBLI.