Familiar, by J. Robert Lennon

It’s a little late for some spring cleaning, but that’s what I’m sort of doing right now.  This was a review of J. Robert Lennon’s Familiar that I wrote more than a year ago.  It was supposed to go somewhere else, but I blew the deadline and it didn’t make sense for them to post it, so it has basically languished on my hard drive for all this time.  Better late than never!

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Familiar, by J. Robert Lennon

Graywolf Press
205pp

I’m worried about Elisa Macalaster Brown, what she’s doing, where she is.  I’m worried because she’s not where she’s supposed to be, nor is she who she’s supposed to be.  How this happens is as quick and merciless as a car accident, and in a way, it sort of is one, because that’s where it occurs.  Elisa is driving east from Wisconsin, after visiting the gravesite of her dead teenage son.  Her Honda has a crack on its windshield that runs from the lower left hand corner to eye level – which, for reasons unknown, disappears.  Suddenly there’s mint gum in her mouth.  Elisa herself is slightly fatter, wearing stockings when she should be wearing cutoff jeans, and all I’ve described so far takes place in the first fourteen pages of this remarkably compressed, remarkably sad novel.

Part of what makes this speculative fiction work so well is Lennon’s use of the strong authorial voice.  The end of the first chapter ends with this sentence: “Everything’s going to change in a couple of minutes.”  That’s Lennon telling us how it’s going to be right from the beginning, that he is in complete control and everything that happens, no matter how improbable, will also be inevitable.  (Sherlock Holmes would be proud.)

Another narrative technique Lennon employs in service for the suspension of disbelief is the present tense.  I don’t know about you, but when I think of novels written in the present tense, John Updike’s Rabbit books come to mind.  Here’s what Updike had to say about it in an interview (http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/upd0int-5):

 I loved writing in the present tense. It has become a bit of a cliché now among younger writers, but at the time it was a bit of a novelty, and certainly a novelty to me. There’s kind of a level, a speed, you can get going without the past tense[.]

I haven’t written much in the present tense, but every time I do, it startles me to see how much more force there is in the writing.  The present is explosive and immediate, and since Familiar is a novel of discovery, not that different than, say, Jason Bourne’s story (a man waking up and not knowing who he is), the present tense is the right choice here.  Instead of suffering from amnesia, Elisa has “displace-sia,” of being in a world that is not exactly hers.  So as she moves through her not-quite-new life, we are discovering all that has changed with her, and because of the immediacy of the tense, we get very much more caught up in Elisa’s predicament.  Even though this novel is packed with Elisa’s internal thoughts and metaphysical ruminations of her situation, it just feels fast.

One of the highest compliment one writer can pay another is that he wishes he’d written the book he’s reading.  I absolutely felt that at times as I laughed and groaned my way through Familiar.  There’s just so much juicy stuff here in this alternate world of Elisa’s: her son is not dead, an acquaintance is now her best friend, the guy at the frame shop is no longer her illicit lover.  The scenes where Elisa returns to work, to fake her way to her office, pretending to know what she’s doing in her job – these are scenes any writer would love to write.  They are all so full of possibility and drama, the lifeblood of all great novels.

Beware, though – this is not a happy-go-lucky book.  Elisa doesn’t quite end up in Tony-Soprano-limbo-land territory, but there are no easy answers for anything or anyone in this novel, much like life.  For a book that deals in the fantastic, it is terrifyingly ground in reality.  Elisa’s eldest son may have never died in this alternate timeline, but that doesn’t mean her broken family is any less broken.

Lennon, who’s shown brilliance in both longer works (Mailman, an intense character study) and tiny stories (Pieces for the Left Hand, a collection of one hundred short-shorts that are gemlike in both form and content), has written a deeply unsettling book in Familiar.  As always, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

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