Bookly's Writer of the Month: J. Robert Lennon's Many Worlds of Unfamiliarity

Happy New Year, Orange County bibliophiles! I caught up over the holidays, an impossibly futile and pleasurable losing effort, as catching up means only falling, happily, further behind, the near-infinite "to read" list added to at top, bottom and middle. But read some newish books which I'd meant to months ago, which inspires this morning Mr. Bib's newest occasional blog feature, a "Writer of the Month" profile of an author everybody should know, or be reminded of. And, as it happens, his terrific publisher, too.  Short story writer and novelist J. Robert Lennon's most recent novel, Familiar, arrived months ago from the wonderful people at Graywolf Press, but it's never too late to buy and read and, I trust, recommend and, in this case, review the author's impressive output.

J. Robert Lennon does a lot of what others do too little of. And he does none of everything others do perhaps too much of. Plot, character, dialog. Sure, is all there, but only because he has to. Lennon seems an impatient writer. He elaborates on a premise, complicates, runs with it. He's brilliant, eager to impress. And he impresses, consistently, in all kinds of voices, genres, and veering away, purposely I surmise, from the expected in order to deliver another wrinkle, another bubble.  

I learned about him from a writer-editor friend, Leslie Daniels, author herself of a hilariously subversive and witty little novel called Cleaning Nabokov's House. But it wasn't till she described him that I recalled the short novel of his Harper's published--Happyland--and the weird and instructive story of its publication in that magazine and not as a book.  You can read about it in "The Mystery of the Missing Novel," at the New York Times
Bookly's Writer of the Month: J. Robert Lennon's Many Worlds of Unfamiliarity
Unhappy Land 
Lennon's then-publisher backed off of actually printing the 2006 book after their lawyers told them they risked being sued by the real-life version of one of its main characters. This pitch-perfect social satire takes on the problem of our plutocratic politics with a gazillionaire maker of a doll which very much resembles the American Girl series, a woman who buys an entire town and tries to remake it into what very much resembles Disney's Celebration or Main Street, USA - faux Americana and pretend revisionist history. The serialized novel is a hoot, whip-smart and just plain fun. An unabridged ebook is, by the way, due out from Dzanc Books if you can't scare up a copy of the original.  
Anyhoo, from there I started reading the Lennon library as it were, first Mailman his 2003 crazy-good novel about a postal carrier who might be an average person were he not stealing and reading mail and then quitting his job to go on a  hysterically depressing and of course hilariously doomed and miserable voyage of un-self-discovery. Lennon's writing undermines itself, say his critics, while people like The Bibliofella revel in his paragraphical digression. If there was ever a writer whose work could be judged by opening at any page - go ahead, I dare you, any one page - and stumbling on the tiny beating heart of an entire world, it's Lennon.  So, be warned. This is self-conscious, puzzling, kaleidoscopic writing something like the spinning tea cups or falling down the rabbit hole.  

His novel Castle is a gothic identity dream mystery, if that's not a confusing enough description. I read that after the short story collection and another novel called On the Night Plain, described as a noir Western but another stylistically urgent and kinda uncategorizable book. You decide! Castle is another terrific premise of a blank canvass filled in by delicious words and all kinds of spooky affect. A secretive and probably guilty man returns to an old house in upstate New York which he might have once lived in, and discovers nearby a real or imagined castle and grounds almost impossible to get to, the whole book something like a nightmare it's hard to wake out of. Horror, fantasy, mystery? It does not matter, and least of all to Lennon, who seems to me to always be about finding the presumed psychological angle and then doing his best to make both more and less of it. What is symbolic or psychic turns out to be solid as, well, a rock castle in the woods.

Which brings me to Familiar, the most recent book. A funny, ironic title. A scary-ass novel
about video games, marriage, parenting, identity (of course!), the political and cultural roles of women, love, sex and, most of all, what we can expect as familiar or not.  A woman named Elisa Macalaster Brown, middle-aged, white, comfortable if complicated, drives I-90 to perform a kind of memorial pilgrimage for her dead son. A big truck passes her on the highway, the light shifts, and the crack in her car windshield, so long there it's been forgotten, just disappears. She is transformed, but not into a beetle or a princess but into a version of herself whose biography is close to, but so different from her former self. The shift is frightening, but it is manageable somehow. She will go back home to her husband, whoever he is, to her son who turns out not to be dead. She will pretend at work, fudging her way through a job she finds she can do, though it is not her job, not really. It's hard at first. In an early scene, she asks her husband to tell her "their story," the kind of only-you-would-know couple's intimate shared biography that makes a marriage or relationship in its telling and retelling. Complete with inside jokes and, yes, familiar-seeming details. 

Because what is familiar, Lennon seems to tell us, is not necessarily what we think it is. Difference and estrangement with which we have lived may not be so, and what is seemingly a reflection of us may not be a reflection, or us. The cracked window may have been more about the crack than the window.

Oh, and I almost forgot about the short story collection, one beautifully cracked, fragmented collage of "pieces" originally published in Granta, and a few of which showed up a few years back in The Best American Short Stories. If I had to offer a filmic corollary to the wonderful, weird fables in Pieces for the Left Hand (2009) it might be the absurdist film of Roy Andersson, whose Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living, give me the same gleeful, sorrowful sense of narrative's power to make sense of nonsense.  And of the potential for fable, metaphor in even the least likely or flimsy or narrative. The one hundred short-short stories in Pieces are organized in thematic sections, 
among them "Work and Money," "Lies and Blame," "Doom and Madness."

There's more, and I didn't even mention that Lennon is also a musician, reviewer and teacher (at Cornell). He is a busy guy, it seems, just as his stories and novels. I kept thinking, as I read Familiar, of a guy eager to show you the route he'd taken, spreading out a map on the hood of the car, but with the wind forcing you and him to use elbows and hands and every part of your bodies to keep it from blowing away. If you can stand that kind of intensity, you will want to hear the story of the trip.

All by J. Robert Lennon:
Castle, Graywolf Press, 229 pps. $14.00
Happyland (serialized in Harper's magazine in 2006)
Familiar, Graywolf Press, 224 pps, $15.00
Mailman, W.W. Norton, 496 pps., $14.95
On the Night Plain, Henry Holt,246 pps., $17.00 
Pieces for the Left Hand, Graywolf Press, 212 pps., $14.00

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southhern California.

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