Looking at them collectively, the premises of J. Robert Lennon’s novels may at times seem like particular creative writing assignments that he has given to himself. On the Night Plain, his third, and arguably finest, was an American West noir in a post-WWII setting. Mailman tackled everyday tedium on a ‘Great Novel’ scale. Pieces for the Left Hand built one story out of 100 similarly atmospheric micro-stories. Intentional variation could be one reason why his impressive body of work has so far widely defied the kind of characterization that can follow literary novelists who return to similar themes.
In Lennon’s latest, Familiar (Graywolf Press), the premise is something like “It’s a Wonderful Life” with amnesia, sucked into “The Twilight Zone.” Elisa Brown is driving back from visiting her son’s grave, as she has does every year since his death, when suddenly something changes. She’s not herself, but she’s still herself. She’s in her own body, but her body isn’t hers—her figure is more voluptuous. Her car and her clothes are different. However, when she gets home she sees that her house is still her house, and her husband, Derek, is still her husband. Elisa’s shock becomes complete when she finds out that her dead son, Silas, is alive.
Instead of being entirely forthcoming with Derek about her bizarre newfound condition, Elisa tries, to an extent, to fake it in this new reality. Her approach can be hard to fully understand at first, but, given that in the world that Elisa thought she knew her and Derek’s marriage was on the rocks, with Elisa carrying on an affair with a man in a nearby town, vulnerability may no longer be available. She doesn’t fully trust Derek with her mental stability, nor can she trust the therapist, Amos, that they’ve been seeing for years in this reality. She must figure out who she is now, and she also must become a detective on two other fronts: How did this possibly happen? And who is Silas in this new reality?
What she ultimately comes to learn is disheartening. Both Silas and his brother Sam, who Elisa was on good terms with in her previous reality, are estranged from her and Derek and living in the neighborhood of Silverlake in Los Angeles, where Silas is a known creator of video games. Silas had been a difficult child growing up, and, having the chance to live on in this reality, his manipulative and abusive tendencies continued to flourish. Under the highly questionable influence of Amos, Elisa and Derek had kicked their two children out of the house and cut off contact in order to save their marriage – though Elisa has to spend much of the novel figuring this out piece by piece. Her inability to ask outright questions can become a point of frustration at times, especially given that she does confess some form of amnesia, which Derek and Amos are oddly quick to dismiss entirely.
Elisa pursues both the mystery of Silas and the mystery of how she came to this reality through technology, and in both cases the metaphor is clear, but not heavy handed. Her first attempt to get into her son’s head is not to get him on the phone, but, more expensively, to go out and buy a videogame he created, and a game console to play it on. Mindcrime: Destiny’s Mirror is described by the young store clerk as “pretty okay,” and seems designed more to teach Elisa about her estranged son than to keep your average video game player entertained, but the scene where Derek and Lisa sit down to play it is where the novel really hits its stride. She begins to cyber-stalk Silas on the video game message boards. Despite all the warnings she receives – from watching his behavior on those boards, from Derek, from her terse email exchanges with Sam – she still eventually goes out to Los Angeles to see them, to try to make sense of everything.
The search for an explanation for her inexplicable predicament leads Elisa to dig into research on parallel universes. This quest leads her to a parallel universe that’s coming to replace reality for many of us more and more every day, the Internet. Specifically, a forum called MetaphysicsNet, where she soon meets a character (in the ‘he’s a character’ sense) named Hugo Bonaventure who claims he can help. Later on, she assumes an alias close to her own name, CrackedLisa, becoming an online version herself that isn’t quite her real self. If the first half of the story raises questions about the nature and consequences of therapy, the second half, intentionally or not, does even more so about the nature and consequences of life shifting further and further online, on to the other side of the screen.
The story culminates at a MetaphysicsNet conference in Chapel Hill, NC, where, before the hallucinogenic climax, where the reader is left with some questions to work out on their own, Lennon can’t help but playfully drop in a sci-fi writer on a panel who has written a novel called Familiar, about a man who enters a parallel world through the pages of a book also titled Familiar. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. It’s also a welcome wink in a novel that time and again presents a starkly grounded take on life via a surreal storyline: that other life you might have led, when fate was a coin toss, might have been no better than the one you got, just different, and with a different set of trade-offs. Familiar thus finds itself not far from, say, some Russian magical realism, illustrating harsh realities through fantastical premises. If this were intentional, it wouldn’t be surprising, as Lennon is a writer who has proven to be versatile enough to take on most any genre he wishes.
J. Robert Lennon is the author of six novels including Mailman and The Light of Falling Stars. His stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, the Paris Review, Granta, Harper’s, and the New Yorker. He lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and two sons.
Ian F. King is the editor of KGB Bar & Lit Journal’s book reviews section, the literary events editor for Slice Magazine, and a contributing music writer for Line - A Journal. His writing has also appeared in Hobart, Pindeldyboz, Slice, Take the Handle, and Nylon.com, among other places, and can also be found at the music blog Dear Jerks. He lives in Brooklyn.