‘Should give Lennon a major boost if there is any justice in the world’ – Familiar by J Robert Lennon
In 2012, my debut novel The Passenger was published, which concerned a man who awoke to find that not only had he been asleep for a number of years but also that the life he found himself living was inexplicably alien to him (he had a wife and three children and no memory whatsoever of who they were and how they came to be associated with him). J Robert Lennon’s latest novel, Familiar, occupies a similar premise (even as Lennon does what I tried to do a million times better): a woman, Elisa Brown, driving home from visiting her son’s grave, staring at the crack in the windscreen of her car, suddenly finds herself driving a different car, returning from a conference, her body slightly heavier, her son no longer dead, the world about her altered, sometimes subtly, sometimes less so.
She arrives home – the house is the same but different, her husband is the same man but different, she has a different job – and her perplexity grows. She wonders if she has had a stroke, asks her strange husband to take her to hospital, comes to learn that she and he are involved in an unfamiliar therapy, with basic rules that instruct each party to first blame themselves and then blame circumstance. Lennon expertly navigates Elisa’s bewilderment – her situation is perfectly plausible (in that we question, along with Elisa and the people she gradually admits into her secret, her situation and explore it from every angle) and the way she deals with it is interesting, intelligent, rigorous and, at times, thrilling. She comes to believe that quite possibly she has slipped from one world or timeline to another and considers the possibility of an exchange (the world she is inhabiting having a version of herself who is now inhabiting the world she formerly inhabited); a scientist herself, at least once upon a time, she discusses her predicament with two other scientists both of whom seem to consider her delusional.
And Elisa is a fragile creature, no doubt about it. We know in the world she left, she had a breakdown of sorts after her son died; in the world in which she finds herself, she also learns she had a breakdown, obsessing with the internet (which, again, is largely unfamiliar to Elisa – just over midway through the book, she finds herself on an aeroplane visiting her sons across the country and wonders at all the handheld digital devices her fellow passengers use, the reader wondering in an aside of Elisa’s original world is perhaps a world in which iPads and the like have yet to be invented). There are subtle confluences, culminating with a moment towards the end of the novel when Elisa attends a conference debating the idea of a multiverse, or alternate universes, in which she finds herself in a large auditorium and feels or imagines the other Elisa, also sat in the auditorium, in the self-same chair, holding the self-same ring binder.
There is a kind of detective novel at work as Elisa tries to find out who she is in the world she finds herself and also what happened to her to put her where she is – and beyond Elisa, there is Lennon, threading strands of narrative (one version of Elisa becomes obsessed by the intranet, eventually another version of Elisa, or the same version, comes to form an entente with her troubled son via avatars and chat forums). The way that Lennon has his characters interact reminded me of Sisterland and The Ocean at the End of the Lane – all three writers share a similar skill in marrying the mundane and the fantastical – but Familiar is different and arguably better than both. The pacing and prose of the novel works like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, and yet Lennon couples that otherworldly sense of literary sci-fi McCarthy achieved with a tremulous humanity (we care about Elisa – which might not be to all tastes, particularly those who champion McCarthy’s cerebral take on the world but it utterly worked for me).
Of course there was a frisson for me, personally, reading a novel that arguably explores similar terrain to my own novel (there were sentences and paragraphs where I’d be thinking, yes! that’s just what I was trying to articulate; the climax of his book is as unresolved, in a way, as mine was too – although there may be readers who want a more definite take on what actually happened in the novel). But there was more (far more actually) to my enjoyment of Familiar than this simple frisson. Reading Familiar reminded me of reading the books I read as a younger man, the books that thrilled the still unformed (or less formed) me, novels by Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami. Fans of Lennon will see certain connections with both The Light of Falling Stars and Mailman. But these connections, to Lennon’s other novels, to the other novels and novelists I’ve mentioned in this review, pale besides the fact that Familiar is just a terrific novel, well written, thrilling, satisfying, unusual. I hope that there are better novels this year because it means this must be a terrific year for novels. It doesn’t matter if there are not, however, because any year that delivers a book as good as this (a book I already know I will re-read, which is the highest praise I can offer a novel) is a good year indeed.
Any Cop?: A novel that thrums with a real psychological resonance, a novel that gets under your skin, tickling and worrying at you. A tremendous novel. One you’ll read and want to recommend. One you’ll come back to. One to add to the list of faves. One that should give Lennon a major boost if there is any justice in the world.
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- August 12, 2013 / 4:46 am