Each of us has experienced the loss of control over our lives, the sensation that different paths that once (and only once) could have been taken by us have been left behind, the dislocation when we do, or are subject to, something unanticipated that sunders the life we knew from the life to come. Dead possibilities can weigh heavily on us, or not be considered for more than a moment, depending on our regrets and our self-assurance.
The lead figure in J. Robert Lennon’s latest novel, Familiar, is someone who has seemingly crossed over from one universe of done deeds to another. Elisa Macalaster Brown grieves for her dead son, Silas, and while returning from an annual trip to his Wisconsin grave to rejoin her husband, Derek, and their surviving son, Sam, in Ohio, she is transformed into someone much like herself, though with distinguishing marks. The bulk of the novel shows how Elisa tries to inhabit a new and unsettled life as Lisa Brown, mother of the same two children, both alive and estranged, and unhappily married to the same husband.
Those who believe that dramatic life choices would result in stark differences may be disappointed in the dreary similarity of the universes, and might wish, like those who believe in past lives where they served as handmaids to Cleopatra or as knights under Henry V, that an alternate world would offer a true alternative. What we have, in this mix of the familiar and the dissonant, is the complete confusion of Elisa as she fumbles and bluffs her way along, navigating family, work colleagues and the professional help the marriage requires. Lennon shifts between this new life and the life of the real Elisa, through flashbacks, showing us her marital history (there is little evidence of genuine love between her and Derek), her parental abilities (she and Derek hit their children), and her family’s mental illness (she and her mother were sometimes “blue,” in her father’s mind).
At an early point Elisa thinks to herself: “But she knows [the Lisa life] isn’t true. Or rather, if it is, she has no intention of accepting it, so it might as well not be true.” However, this does not stop her from wanting to learn something from the bizarre situation she’s in. “She has been put here for a reason, surely. To do something. To find out what she did wrong in her real life, to find out how she could have saved her son.”
The biological imperative of a mother to rescue one of her children from death is strong, but since in both worlds Silas is portrayed as a troublesome young man who bullies everyone, we are prevented from entering the same emotional realm Elisa occupies. His death by car crash is accidental and has nothing to do with either of his parents, yet Elisa needlessly blames herself. While understandable at first, this becomes wearying, particularly when the question of blame, about that and much else, is returned to repetitively. (That Elisa and Silas bear names close to each other is part of the mirroring this book explores.)
We are given an indication early on that Elisa’s life is going to change when a crack in her Honda’s windshield is paid attention. She focuses on it as she drives, and at a point where the transformation occurs it disappears. Cracks show up later or are mentioned in other language—“Was there a split, a single place where the universes diverged?”—and when they arise they are pregnant with the possibility of a return to the real world.
But the real world shifts more often than these cracks show up, and part of Lennon’s aim is to undercut whatever we may think is solid and known. Elisa can’t keep things straight, and the multiple possibilities for her predicament and its consequences live and die like fireflies. She veers from thinking the new life is meant to teach her something to deciding that she’s “a casualty of circumstance, not the center of the universe. And so this change, this transference, cannot be meaningful. It’s something that happened by accident: a glitch.”
Amos, a marriage counsellor, tells Lisa (as he knows her) that the memories she has of Silas being dead signify that, “from my perspective, you are having a psychotic break,” and in her real world she did have a “year of blankness” after Silas’ death. A physicist Lisa confides in says: “‘I’m saying… that something made something happen.’” Towards the end a woman named Patricia offers an obscure kind of help, but as readers we’re no closer to an answer to what has happened.
However, we can get a glimpse into the thought behind the narrative. Though it’s focalized primarily through Elisa, there is a narrator, and he consistently calls her Elisa, not Lisa. That may or may not be a clue. About halfway through, the word “fermata” appears, invoking Nicholson Baker, whose novel The Fermata (1994) centred on a young man who could stop time. When Elisa, in her new world, starts playing the computer game Silas has invented and describes its look, Baker’s 2010 article in The New Yorker on his experience with such games comes to mind. This comes off as a type of sport on Lennon’s part, and further encouragement to think of metatextuality arrives near the end when a science fiction writer talks about Familiar, his “‘last book,’” that features “‘a young man in search of his twin [who] enters parallel worlds through the pages of a book, a sort of enchanted book also called Familiar…’” Regardless of this kind of fun, we may want to keep in mind that, to some extent, we are still with Elisa inside that Honda travelling to Ohio. Lennon is offering his own take on the road/quest novel.
Readers of his earlier fiction may have come across the theme of Familiar in Pieces for the Left Hand (2005), a collection of anecdote-style short fictions that looked at the goings-on of small-town life, of political scandal, and of existential questions. One piece, “Intruder,” outlines how the unnamed narrator returns to his home to find things out of place. It’s possible he doesn’t remember the state of things when he left, but it may be something darker:
But in that case, there had been an intruder after all: the version of me that had done these things. Or perhaps the real intruder was the version of me that noticed the change. This made more sense, since the house as it was belonged to the version of me that had made it so, and the version of me that did not recognize it was a stranger.
The difference was that the intruder would take up permanent residence in the house, and its true owner would never return. Then it must be so, because I am still here.
That disquieting notion becomes, at novel length, more expansive, messy and complicated, but the visceral terror lying within the short tale is missing. However, as a work that dives into questions of reality, family dynamics, blame, and sanity Familiar is intellectually engaging and sure of itself even as J. Robert Lennon calls into doubt what we might think of as firm.
Familiar: A Novel, J. Robert Lennon | Graywolf | 224 pages | $17.00 | paper | ISBN #978-1555976255