Familiar by J Robert Lennon
Reviewed by Eileen Battersby
J Robert Lennon
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 .