J. Robert Lennon’s See You in Paradise

Ilogo don’t write book reviews often — in fact, I’m lucky to write one a year.  But there’s one author I’ve reviewed more than once, and that is J. Robert Lennon.  If you haven’t checked out his latest, please do.  You’ll be thoroughly entertained.

From the always wonderful Fiction Writers Review.

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See You in Paradise: Stories, by J. Robert Lennon

“Lennon not only balances the mundane with the fantastic, but makes the fantastic feel mundane in the context of this world”: Sung J. Woo on Robert J. Lennon’s new collection, See You in Paradise.

Maybe it’s strange for a reviewer of a collection of short stories to say that he is not a fan of short story collections, but I want you to know where I’m coming from. Don’t get me wrong—I love short stories. I love their intense focus, their fleeting brevity, an entire world contained and expressed in a few thousand words. What I don’t like is reading one after another by the same author, because I get tired of hearing the same voice over and over again. Also, reading another short story after having just finished one can feel like climbing a new mountain, because I have to get acquainted with another set of characters, and the setting is different, and so is the situation, and I miss those people from before…can’t they just come back and give me a break, please?

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The Mysteries of Raymond Miller

coldI used to read a lot more genre fiction when I was younger.  In fact, that’s pretty much all I read: my mainstays were Stephen King for horror, Isaac Asimov for scifi, and Robert B. Parker for mysteries.  In college I was introduced to contemporary literary fiction, the likes of Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson, but I still read mysteries every so often.  I always found a great deal of comfort in how the authors wrote book after book using the same characters (Spenser) or a niche (like Dick Francis and horseracing).  If I ever considered writing as a profession, these folks seemed like the ones with steady jobs.

For the last year or so, I’ve been reading more mysteries than usual because that’s what I’m writing now (or, more accurately, attempting to).  And there’s one author I’ve really come to like, Raymond Miller.  His second book recently came out as an eBook , and it’s just as enticing as his first, A Scent of Blood.  Cold Trail Blues is the new one, and it continues the curious cases of Nathaniel Singer, private eye.  The heart of every work of noir is the voice of the narrator, and I can’t help but cheer for this guy.  He’s as tenacious as they come, but funny, too.  He’s got a gal named Kate, an MFA student, working for him as an assistant, and I can listen to their banter all day long.

The first novel dealt with a hit-and-run murder of a prominent doctor; Cold Trail Blues takes place in Waverly College, where a student has been accused of murdering his girlfriend.  The book is full of misdirection and action — even a pretty nifty car chase.  One of my favorite moments is when Kate talks to Singer about Paul Auster.

“I reread Paul Auster’s City of Glass trilogy over the weekend,” she said. “I felt as if I were preparing for a test.”

“I’m not familiar with it.”

“It’s a trilogy of postmodern detective novels.”

She explained the plot of one of them. A detective named Green is hired by a man named Brown to study the movements of a man named Black. Green takes a hotel room across the street from Black’s apartment and observes him through the window all day. But all Black does is write.

“What makes them postmodern?” I said. “Is it the plots? Or is the detective himself postmodern? Or is the bad guy postmodern?”

“I suppose you’d say it’s the plots themselves. They’re never resolved, and they never can be resolved.”

“Just sounds like bad detective work to me.”

I’m a big fan of City of Glass, but Singer’s response here is pitch perfect.  If Singer had been on the case, I bet he could’ve solved it.  By the way, Paul Auster wrote a fine regular mystery himself under the pseudonym of Paul Benjamin, Squeeze Play.  You can find it in his memoir Hand to Mouth.

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.

For further reading:

When Bad Reviews Happen to Good Writers

An essay I wrote this morning, in reaction to a book review in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.

If you’ve never read Alix Ohlin, you should.  She’s one of the good ones out there, and she’s no slouch when it comes to publishing.  Two story collections and two novels in seven years – perhaps not an impressive haul for bionic typewriters like Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates, but plenty impressive to me.  She may not have won a Pulitzer or a National Book Award yet, but Ohlin is someone I look up to, because she’s just a very solid writer.

So I was surprised when I read a review of her new novel (Inside) and collection (Signs and Wonders) on Friday in The New York Times Book Review (in print today).  Surprised because the review was scathingly negative.

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