J. Robert Lennon makes the surreal perfectly plausible with his eye for details from observed everyday reality in his new novel, Familiar, to be released on October 2, by Graywolf Press. The clarity of his prose offers the reader a fresh, stark, and swift opening that situates the reader’s sympathies with the main character, Elisa Brown. Driving across Wisconsin, she recalls her sons’ early years growing up there in the 1970s, and that their adolescence proved a turbulent time, in the 1980s, and relations with her husband Derek had left her empty with what was left of the familiar. Wisconsin had brought her to the grave of her younger son, Silas. Elisa’s confused reflections about grief, relations with her elder son, Sam, and estrangement from her spouse situate the reader quickly in the interior of a troubled mind.
Lennon opens with his dispassionate observations of this middle-aged woman in the midst of a personal meltdown, mourning, while she stares through a crack in her windshield while driving; her story enters the realm of the surreal. The reportorial narration evokes compassion for this clueless protagonist. Lennon as narrator renders a more complex character than if he’d tried to use Alice as the narrator of her own story as it unfolds in this poignant novel.
Elisa experiences some kind of break out there on the interstate. She’s not who she used to be. This isn’t amnesia or a timewarp. More like a parallel universe or alternate history. The premise here is that Elisa must become an undercover detective to determine who she has become in this life, in this body, she now inhabits. Did she really sacrifice her sons for her relationship with her husband? Is she, or is she not, having an affair with the guy at the frame shop? How is it she remembers doing someone else’s job the past decade but works in a different office and has different responsibilities? Is this a pyschotic episode? Had she been successful in preventing Silas from getting into that car that crashed in a fatal accident? When Elisa discovers her Silas is alive and a technology guru, she dives into cyberspace to reconnect. The ghosts in the machine are neither magical realism nor cliché in Lennon’s hands. The postmodern sensibility that mediated reality is more real than the reality of which it is a representation gives the entire novel its sense of the surreal.
The cunning way in which Lennon recasts Elisa Brown’s identity by changing the outcome to events she’d always wondered “what if this had not happened” is to take the imaginary leap of playing your cards differently and still losing the game. This novel offers a writer more than a few lessons in the craft of story structure. The narrator tells the reader exactly what they need to know when they need to know it. The effect is that the reader feels the dissociation of relations and identity of a woman defined as mother and wife. Down a deep rabbit hole, like Alice, but this is no Wonderland. In a clear, concise, and cutting plot of total confusion, Lennon shows us madness masked in Midwestern normality. To know this chaos and find its order in a coherent story with deep and textured characters that reveal a complex set of family dynamics and dysfunction is a literary achievement.