Familiar by J Robert Lennon
Reviewed by Eileen Battersby
J Robert Lennon
Elisa Macalaster Brown is driving home along Interstate 90. It is hot, a Monday morning in July. There is not much to look at; the scenery is drab, burned dry. The journey is more than a trip; it is a painful ritual. She has been visiting the grave of her dead son.
Familiar is a novel that imposes itself on the imagination from the opening sentences. There is a quiet unease that seems to be saying this surrealist novel is a lament for our time with its multilayered mood of menace. In Elisa, J Robert Lennon, author of Mailman (2003), has created a likeable and real character who personifies apathetic curiosity; she wants to know, she needs to know, but she may be too weary to find out because, pretty much like most stressed-out members of modern society, she is simply going through the motions of being alive.
Familiar the novel daringly explores the notion of exactly that, the familiar which has gradually become completely alien. Elisa realises that she appears to have slid into a slightly different variation of herself. Her concept of herself is suddenly and radically altered, not enough to alarm random onlookers, but to herself she is driving a different car, wearing different clothes on a different body.
This is a book about having gone too far before belatedly understanding, much less responding. It is as if the very idea of being human has been erased; memory has become confused and now loss is compounded by failure to detect the relevance and the nuance of the various signs, the multitude of clues. For a while Elisa had refused to move town because she did not want to leave the grave of her dead son. Her husband, Derek, a lawyer, points out that she is instead abandoning her living son. Such barbs of logic run through the narrative, which is written in an effective continuous present tense.
Lennon’s brisk prose is both vivid and precise; the dialogue is clear and authentic, often funny. In fact, considering that this is a deadly serious, often bewildering and affecting novel, Familiar is witty and satiric. It is obvious that its genius lies in Lennon’s feel for metaphysical contradictions that consistently undercut the realism. Yet beyond all that there is the simplicity of discovering that at the heart of a stylish, coolly intellectual, almost detached performance is Elisa’s grief, rendered even more complex by her guilt.
Instead of wild panic, Elisa’s initial reaction is contained by an awareness of something being off centre. Lennon ensures that Elisa, who had been intending a career in science and later managed a lab, thinks like a scientist. It is most impressive that a novel as deliberate as this one never becomes overwhelmed by either the details or the clues. Early in the book Lennon introduces a dramatic image that sustains the entire narrative: a crack in the windscreen. This theme of a subtle fracture recurs. There is also a defining instance of self-assessment: Elisa is aware that she is resourceful, “tough, she hopes; able to cope with whatever she finds immediately before her. But she doesn’t want to look up and see the future.” Who does?
Having absorbed the more obvious superficial changes, Elisa only fully experiences fear when she receives a call from her husband and becomes frightened: “That voice that both is and is not Derek’s. The presence of love where there is supposed to be none, or at least a different kind: habitual, practical, inert. A bulwark . . . There is something reassuring, isn’t there, about the absence of love. This is what she has often told herself. The only real marriage is the marriage of the body and the mind . . . To pick up the phone and find that love is gone, that’s something a person can understand … To pick up the phone and find that love is here, where it doesn’t belong; well.”