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.”
The present has shifted for Elisa, and now she is no longer sure of her past, which she appears to have lost. It is worse than suffering amnesia; she has been depleted. Noting the many small changes that have undermined her memories, she studies a photograph that she cannot recall being taken, particularly as the dead son is in it – although that should be impossible. “He’s looking at the camera, directly at the camera, as if he is thinking as he does it that it’s the future he’s looking at, future versions of his brother, his parents, himself, people he doesn’t know yet . . . In his eyes is the expression of calm calculation she remembers, of a sneakiness so subtle that he could not be accused of harbouring it.”
A similar approach to the theme of parallel universes and altered experiences within shifting time frames has also been explored in novels such as Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 or Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, neither of which achieves the unsettling mastery of Lennon’s far shorter and infinitely superior novel, which could inspire a brilliant screenplay.
The sympathetic Elisa is intelligent, if possibly unhinged by her dilemma. Having moved through her adult years with no interest in politics, she is informed that she had been obsessed by Sarah Palin – not an easy discovery for anyone. Elisa’s encounters with her grown sons are dramatic and troubling, while every step, even at its most extreme, she takes in trying to find some answers is true to her character.
In Mailman, Lennon plots the personal odyssey of a US postal worker, Albert Lippincott, who has spent 30 years serving his fellow citizens. Diligently, he sorts the letters and delivers them. There is a catch, though, as he has probably also read them. A divorced dropout and son of a cold, unloving, self-obsessed mother, Albert never had a chance, and through his small agonies Lennon creates an extraordinary portrait of a society in crisis. He also achieves the monumental lurking in the ordinary throughout this new novel. Familiar is fresh and original; it is also disturbing in its strangeness, because that strangeness is eerily real.
Difficult to surpass
As a midlife crisis with a difference, Elisa’s vividly felt, at times burlesque adventure is difficult to surpass, yet there is so much more to it. Lennon’s extraordinary novel also offers a heartrending dissection of parenting far more impressive than Lionel Shriver’s crass We Need to Talk about Kevin (2003). In one of the more peculiar exchanges it transpires that Elisa and her husband, when attempting to save their faltering marriage, banned their sons from the family home. They even changed the locks. True or false, how many tricks is Lennon employing? Has Elisa been kidnapped by aliens or she is merely going crazy? Funny thing, the human mind, especially when grief and guilt are involved, and Lennon is subtle for all the shock tactics.
Mailman enjoys a cult following as a word-of-mouth novel that has united readers. Familiar may not quite match its zany appeal, yet it continually taps one on the shoulder, and its cautionary hint of menace chillingly suggests this is how it could very easily be – or, perhaps, this is how it actually is.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent .