Slowly but surely, over the course of the last few years, J Robert Lennon has been creeping his way up our list of writers whose books we always make sure to check out (in our head, he’s higher than Jess Walter but not quite yet a Jonathan Lethem). He’s done this surreptitiously, not helped by the fact that sometimes his books haven’t been published in the UK (see: Castle). We’re not quite yet at the point where we can proudly say we’ve read everything – but we can say we’ve read more than half of his books and it is our intention to go on reading until we’ve read the other half. Along the way, there have been novels we really liked (the first Lennon book we read was Mailman, which was a blinder, and the most recent, Familiar, also a blinder) and a short story collection, Pieces for the Left Hand we were exceedingly fond of (to the extend that Lennon gave us permission to reprint a story from that book in our own first anthology, The Flash, some years ago). We were really looking forward to his latest book, See You in Paradise, a collection of short stories, and we are somewhat disappointed by the fact that it isn’t quite everything we hoped it would be.
First of all, what is it we’ve got here? Well, this is one of those collections of stories written over a large period of time (the last 14 years to be specific) and, unlike those collections written in a feverish buzz that tell you where the writer’s head was – you know, at – at that point, what you get here are stories that are in some senses all over the place. Which, you know, no harm no foul, doesn’t necessary mean anything negative, it just means that here is a collection in which a writer hopes to demonstrate a flavour of their work – in this case, it’s a collection of J Robert Lennon-ness. Which shouldn’t, as we say, necessarily be a bad thing. We like J Robert Lennon. We said that, right? We like the way we comes at things. We like the words he chooses to get across to you what it is he’s getting across to you. If you take a book like Mailman, you can see plenty of evidence there of his ability to fashion a narrative that grips you and beguiles you and makes you feel sympathy for its lead character even as he occasionally sucker punches you with some truly shocking passages. We also know, from books like Familiar, that Lennon is deft – truly deft – at creating genuinely original, bizarre, off the wall situations in which his characters react, as you or might, to something alarming and bewildering. All of this we like – and all of this is much in evidence in See You in Paradise.
Certainly if you’re on the lookout for genuinely original, bizarre, off the wall situations, you’ll be spoiled for choice in See You in Paradise. ‘Portal’ kicks things off with ‘a magic portal in our back garden [which] has fallen into disrepair’. Later, ‘Zombie Dan’ unravels in a world in which ‘They figured out how to bring people back to life – not everybody just some people’. ‘The Wraith’ concerns a couple in which one half, the wife, Lurene, has always been unhappy and who, one day, after breaking ‘through the floor of her misery and into some annihilating subbasement of agony,’ she breaks into two people, a happy person and a kind of golem of unhappiness – guess which one her husband is the most attracted to. There are also a good few examples of that skill Lennon has with narratives that grip you and beguile you and make you feel sympathy for their lead characters whilst at the same time sucker punching you. ‘Hibachi’, for instance, concerns an odd little couple that you sense maybe don’t talk to each other as much as you maybe feel they should. The husband has a debilitating accident that the wife appears to take in her stride, to such an extent that the husband makes her a gift of a hibachi (which is a sort of Japanese oven come hotplate) – which she uses to take her revenge on the friends who turned their backs after her husband’s accident. It’s a good tale full of nice twists and unexpected corners. Ditto the title story, ‘See You in Paradise’ in which a young man who, you sense, has probably bumbled through life, is given a helpful shove by his well-off fiancé and ends up on a tropical island before he knows it, earning a crust and making a name for himself in a way that is, we sense, largely inexplicable to himself. Things don’t quite work out as the participants expect but, again, it makes for a good read. Later, there’s a tale called ‘Total Humiliation in 1987’ in which a marriage meets its end, its actual end rather than its gradual dissolution, as a result of a time capsule found buried in the sand near a holiday home. Plenty here to write home about.
Where things don’t hit home as well – ‘Weber’s Head’, ‘The Future Journal’, ‘Farewell, Bounder’ for example – the narrators are a little too similar to one another and create a sense of blurring that you don’t really want from a short story collection. Ideally you want short story collections by the same author to be unified by the thing that you like about a writer (let’s call that ‘the way they write’) whilst at the same time being separated by a real sense of difference (which doesn’t mean that you have to necessarily have science fiction rubbing shoulders with period costume drama, but it does mean that you can’t have a bunch of stories about flawed men – see also Aidan O’Reilly’s Greetings, Hero). This invariably leads the reader to feel like the author should have been a bit crueller, should have in fact killed his or her darlings. One or two stories less in this collection and it might have tipped the scales more towards the thumb being up than the thumb being sort of half way. And we didn’t even mention the story ‘Accursed Items’ which is a little bit too much like Rick Moody’s ‘Primary Sources’ and ‘Preliminary Notes’ from The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven for comfort (which isn’t to say that we think Lennon is in any way plagiarising Moody, and rather that the story feels like one of those generic up and coming McSweeneys writer tries his hand at being a bit clever – Lennon is much better than that). All told, See You in Paradise isn’t a bad book, in lots of ways it’s fine – but coming so hard on the heels of Familiar, which was extraordinarily good, our hopes were maybe raised a bit high. We wanted something new and exciting rather than a collection of b-sides, but a collection of b-sides is what we got.
Any Cop?: Some hits, some misses, some killer, some filler. What else can you expect from a collection of stories written over the last decade plus? (Well, you could expect The Angel Esmerelda, we know – but See You in Paradise isn’t as good as The Angel Esmerelda).