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By J. Robert Lennon
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
J. Robert Lennon is the author of seven novels, a professor at Cornell University's MFA program, and an distant alumnus of the University of Montana's MFA program, but his new book Familiar marks my first exposure to his work. I am happy to have finally been introduced, because Mr. Lennon is the rare author who writes with discipline--here presenting a sharply crafted plot, clean crisp sentences and a narrative carved down to its essential elements--but who also manages to be totally unique.
The premise of Familiar is simple: a middle-aged woman named Elisa inexplicably enters a parallel universe in which her dead son is alive. If this idea sounds a little, well, familiar, then I am happy to report that Mr. Lennon handles it with style, crafting a narrative that is frightening, compelling, tense and unique. The pages fly by at a thriller-like pace, but there are uncomfortable questions lurking below the surface. Has Elisa gone mad? Is her old life or new life the real one? Is happiness available to her in either version? Which leads to questions about the lengths we go to, both consciously and subconsciously, in the elusive pursuit happiness, and more questions about whether such efforts are ultimately worth it. In effect, flowing directly beneath Lennon's remarkably controlled plot is an elegantly constructed rabbit-hole, and in the course of reading this book it's difficult not to tumble down it at least once.
When Elisa's "shift" happens, she is driving home from a visit to her son Silas's grave. She notices that several details have changed. She is fatter, driving a nicer car, chewing gum. Alarmingly, she has a different job and the nature of her marriage has changed. Soon she finds out that Silas is alive.
The first 50 or so pages of this slim book show Elisa working out the parameters of her new life and trying to come to terms with what has happened to her. Rather than blow her own cover, she learns and tries to abide by the set of "guidelines" that her husband and therapist have put in place to govern her marriage, she learns the intricacies her new job (thankfully it sounds like a boring job, and hence there isn't much to learn), and she initiates contact with her previously dead son (although she and her husband have cut him out of their lives sometime in the past in an effort to preserve Elisa's sanity). She tells no one about what has happened to her.
Lennon does a wonderful job of maintaining suspense, showing Elisa's palpable sense of dread, and keeping things somewhat ambiguous with regard to her sanity.
It soon becomes clear though that Elisa's new life has problems of its own. In her life pre-shift, Silas is dead, and her marriage is basically over. She is thin, but almost in an ascetic way, as if she depriving herself of some fundamental ingredient toward emotional fulfillment instead of food. She's having an affair, and her career seems little more than a constant reminder of her failures (she dropped out of graduate school in chemistry and now works as an assistant in a lab).
In her new life, she's estranged from her sons, has made bad choices, and has every reason to feel terrible guilt. She doesn't feel guilty though--because those bad choices and the guilt that must accompany them belong to the "other Elisa" (i.e., the stranger who is also her whose body she is inhabiting). So perhaps the shift, the parallel universe, is all an elaborate rebellion by her subconscious, meant to assuage her guilt?
The reader experiences a remarkable shift during the course of this book, which mirrors Elisa's own shift. We move from assuming that "real Elisa" is suffering a psychotic break due to grief over her dead son, to the belief that the "other Elisa" is in fact the real Lisa, that the break has been brought on by her guilt. The fun is in the guessing, and Lennon does a great job of keeping the suspense ratcheted up and never tipping the scales definitively toward one version of the truth. Of course the parallel universe explanation can never quite be completely disproved, either.
All of this builds to Elisa's unraveling, and the conclusion book felt right to me. Claustrophobic, horrifying, and satisfying, although the puzzle is never quite solved and the loose ends aren't tied up.
Besides his career as a writer and professor, Mr. Lennon seems to be an all around funny and personable guy, and a bit of a renaissance man. He moonlights as a recording artist under the name Inverse Room, is one-half of a band called Bemus, co-hosts an entertaining (if somewhat bizarre) podcast called the Lunch Box Podcast with poet Ed Skoog, and writes a column called "Ask a Midlist Author" on the Graywolf website, which is quite funny and does a good job of showcasing his deadpan sense of humor.
All in all, Familiar is worth picking up, and I will definitely be dipping into Mr. Lennon's backlist.
Out of 10: 9.1