Books | Familiar by J. Robert Lennon

Familiar is the first novel by J. Robert Lennon I have read – it will not be my last. In fact, having read some of his interviews and then having mentioned this particular book to a number of my friends, some of whom had read and loved Lennon’s previous novels such as The Light of Falling Stars and Castle, I have been left thinking where the hell have I been before now.

I’m someone who likes to compare and contrast a novelist’s latest work with that of their previous. This was ruled out with Lennon’s Familiar. However the opening in particular did remind me of a modern American classic, The Sportwriter by Richard Ford.

In the inaugural ‘Frank Bascombe’ novel, its narrator explains in the present tense how he (Bascombe) is meeting his ex-wife at the graveyard of their dead son on what would have been his thirteenth birthday. Similarly, Familiar’s protagonist, Elisa (Lisa) Macalaster Brown, is driving home from visiting the grave of her dead son, Silas. We are told in the third person present tense that this is a trip she makes once a year and from the outset, Lennon foreshadows Elisa’s mental state (comparable to Bascombe’s “dreaminess” in The Sportwriter) with the monotony and seemingly normalized nontime of the trip and its drab landscape.

“Interstate 90 is a dull gray strip laid over brown land. There’s a drought here and everything is dead.”

Elisa’s apathy to her surroundings and to her life is also documented in the pleasure she seems to take in her indifference. This fatalistic view of life is made more obvious when we find out that, “Politics are meaningless to her”. It seems her son Silas’ death means the death of God for Elisa and that this “makes people feel superior to her”. But the opposite is also true. Silas’ death has afforded her an almost Nietzschean superiority in her dismissiveness of these other people.

“She didn’t care who won the 2008 election – this disgusted people she knew. But they forgave her because her son was dead and they figured that had something to do with it […] In any event, her days of worrying about other people’s opinions of her are long over.”

The novel doesn’t waste time introducing the hook or even telling the reader beforehand that it’s coming (“Everything’s going to change in a couple of minutes”).

After stopping for gas and food, Elisa gets back in her Honda and notices that the crack in the windscreen has disappeared. Not only that, but she finds that her body is different. She is carrying more weight, she is wearing different clothes, and, after checking a binder on the passenger seat, she discovers that she has a different job.

Elisa occupies what appears to be an alternate reality, aspects of which are nonetheless familiar to her. (What I imagine feels like a constant state of déjà vu.) The novel then becomes a quest of sorts, Elisa plays detective, attempting to find out what has happened to her while acting out to the best of her ability the necessities of the new life she suddenly finds herself in. Her preference is to believe that she has entered some kind of parallel universe and avoids attributing her circumstances to any kind of a psychotic break.

J. Robert Lennon

We find out that Silas is dead. That he is living with his older brother Sam – both having been disowned by their parents – and that Elisa and her husband (Derek) have been seeing a counsellor (Amos) to help them “detach” from the children. We also learn that Elisa had suffered a “first break” (this current one is ostensibly the second), as the Amos puts it. Previously, she’d been addicted to the internet, particularly with groups and forums dedicated to politics and children with mental health problems.

For the most part Elisa’s mind-set remains very much focused on her old life, the one in which Silas is dead. She imagines that she and the Elisa from her new life, an apparent doppelganger, have swapped places. But for me her problem, as is posited in the latter half of the novel, is not at all to do with physics – Elisa has not entered a parallel universe – but of psychology.

We learn much about Elisa and Derek as parents and about Silas and Sam as children, and of the general difficulties of trying to raise children. It is clear that that Elisa’s predicament is not only attributable to her personality (and subsequent actions), but to her husband’s and children’s also.

Elisa had suffered as a child due to her volatile “bohemian” mother, an affliction that resulted in her lacking the ability “to see herself clearly”. Elisa’s marriage to Derek had been based primarily on her attraction to his steadiness (as opposed to her parents erraticism), which on some level was meant to assist her in her “war against the genetic and cultural heritage she ultimately had no hope of overcoming”.

It is clear that Elisa has suffered an earlier trauma other than that of imaging Silas’s death, a trauma affecting a perceived failure on her behalf in her attempts to become a parent. For me, her difficulties with Silas have led to the awakening of this past trauma, hence her perceived failure (or fear of failure) as a parent is the overwhelming source of her depression and has been channelled into the subsequent “deeply satisfying and fascinating” fantasies, none more so than of Silas’s death. It seems Elisa has invented a “reality” to better suit her circumstances.

Her initial addiction to the internet (during the first break) and her later preoccupations with the MetaphysicsNet forums in her ‘new life’, strike me as her attempts to de-sensitize herself from the outside, to forego actual face-to-face contact. Elisa wants to hide behind a façade. When forced to deal with the actual reality of her situation, and when she cannot ‘return’ to work in the lab following an attempt at an impromptu interview, she resorts to sexual defensiveness and alcoholism (a symptom of her catastrophe–thinking) in an attempt to reassert and/or to deflect herself. (Elisa can hide from everyone but herself.)

Having learned much about her past, you feel for Elisa regardless of her attempts at self-sabotage. The past, or her imagining of it, has cast a deep shadow over her present, and you come to see her as a woman who has struggled to find herself in a world of men. In a sense, her body and unconscious end up ‘saying’ what her voice cannot.

And it is not as if Elisa doesn’t try to reconcile herself to the circumstances she finds herself in. In renting one of Silas’s games (Mindcrime: Destiny’s Mirror) she is perhaps trying to understand not only Silas, but herself also. This doubling of her life, of indulging in hyper-realities (be it through video games or online forums) is a way of re-examining the present to better understand its context and Elisa’s place in it. Much of her memories too are hyper-remembered. Like Proust, Elisa’s reality takes shape in these memories, only it is more extreme and at times she teeters on the edge of full blown solipsism.

Familiar is an audacious novel, particularly for such a slim volume. The many answers to the many questions are asked not only of its characters, but of ourselves also (and not only as readers, but as human beings). This becomes even more apparent when you realize how the novel was conceived of, that is, in the nascent aftermath of 9/11. Lennon was on a book tour (subsequently cancelled) and driving a rental car (much like Elisa is, only Lennon is experiencing transition between an old and post-9/11 America), witnessing the palpable unreality of a sky bereft of aeroplanes and “faces…hard and bewildered”.

Familiar is a testament to Lennon’s prowess as novelist. He is able to feel and think (as Ian McEwan wrote in The Guardian in the aftermath of 9/11) “oneself into the minds of others” nor scared to tackle contemporary anxieties with “the mechanics of compassion”.