“The Puzzling Place” – Subdivision by J Robert Lennon

Like a literary Bruce Springsteen / Guns’n’Roses / Tom Waits / Islands / Bright Eyes / Juliana Hatfield / insert anyone else who released two albums on the same day, Bookmunch favourite J Robert Lennon has blessed us with two books at the same time, Let Me Think, his third short story collection, and a novel (his seventh or eighth depending on whether you include his children’s book Happyland) called Subdivision.

Subdivision is strange even by J Robert Lennon’s standards. We are first introduced to our narrator as she arrives at the guesthouse, owned by Clara and the Judge, each of whom are both Clara and the Judge (ie they are both called Clara and both formerly judges). There is an obscure jigsaw puzzle begun on the table that she is encouraged to finish. She is taken to a room and later given a list of possible places she could stay and possible employment opportunities. She goes for a walk and picks up a sort of Alexa type device known as Cylvia. She has a run-in with a good looking man who eventually reveals himself to be a bakemono, which is a type of Japanese ghost apparently. In time she gets a job in a tower that was once the site of a terrible wind-related disaster. Each day there are events (crows flickering in and out of reality, different realities perceived by looking through a window, different realities obtained by typing a different code into a doorway etc) that make you question what it is you are reading. And as our narrator goes about her business, she is faced with glimpses of auto wrecks, a mysterious child, a possible husband, another life – and at times, when she is engaged in conversations with others, she flips into a mode where conversations seem to continue from this previous time without any explanation and without any real awareness from the narrator herself.

The subdivision, we think, is a place akin to The Good Place (a US TV show for those not in the know, in which people wake up, after death, and are told they have arrived at the good place, as opposed to the bad place) – except were this a show on US TV, it would probably be called The Puzzling Place as there isn’t much in the way of explanation. (In point of fact, just as Lennon’s last novel but one Familiar seemed to me to grow out of the last episode of the most recent season of Twin Peaks, particularly the climax that saw Dale Cooper inhabit a different reality, a reality in which he seemed to be trapped, so again here: there is a scene in that most recent season of Twin Peaks where David Lynch’s character is confronted by a roaring in the sky, a hole opening up, that can’t be seen from a few feet away, so here we have our narrator following another inhabitant of the guesthouse across a field as Cylvia herself has a conniption and all of reality seems to be at war with itself).

Here is our narrator puzzled by her reality in a way that is not a million miles from the experience of the reader:

“The block’s entire gestalt filled me with bewilderment and longing, and I thought I might come to some realization if only I stared hard enough, and groped my way through the haze…”

At her work, she has a conversation with a quantum tunneller, whose explanation seems to hint at that which we grope at in the haze:

“…the truth is we are all living in the quantum world! Its logical mysteries are like an infinite speed bicycle that we’re all riding, all the time, without even knowing it.”

I even wondered, towards the close of the book, where this fits in Lennon’s ongoing canon, and Lennon himself seemed to respond:

“I sensed that the gondolier’s song had been in progress for years, and that it was a long, long way from completion. He might be reprising notes that he’d first whistled decades before – notes that seemed random in the moment, but that occupied a role in the grand symphony that I was too close to hear, like the threads of a tapestry viewed through a magnifying glass.”

Ah, I wondered, is Subdivision a book that will come to make more sense as the years go by, as Lennon writes other books? As the climax approaches, a sign passes that “looked as though it once said something vitally important, but I couldn’t have told you what.” Ah yes, I thought, that’s more or less says what I feel needs to be said.

Any Cop?: It’s a puzzler, make no mistake, but a gently beguiling puzzler. The riddles don’t alienate you and the world of Subdivision is a cosy and enticing one (even in the moments where the winds are a-raging or bakemonos are getting all crazy).

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