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Familiar by J. Robert Lennon

Familiar (2012)

by J. Robert Lennon

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Judging by just two novels read, Lennon has turned himself into a pretty serious genre writer. What means that? Well, someone who uses the elements of genre fiction as a vehicle for (intelligent) explorations of "universal human themes." Themes like: parenthood, personality, power, the struggle for individuality, trust and betrayal . . . And it isn't about sugar-coating the serious stuff with fantasy, horror or SF elements. It's about using those elements to get a novel, fruitful angle on the theme. You get books that aren't more-or-less re-presentations of your own everyday life (Yay!), but which *do* bear upon it in interesting and sometimes enlightening ways.

This is the story of a woman on the fringes of the world of science, on the fringes of a faltering marriage and struggling to fully engage with her flawed children. Not being a woman, I can't vouch for how genuine the experiences and reactions of his protagonist might be, but from an outsider's perspective it certainly rings true. Elisa is a flawed but very sympathetic character, who by having a go at life in two quite similar, but crucially different versions, shows us a little something about the some of those big issues above. Where Castle is hurt by the shallowness and predictability of it's male protagonist's past, Elisa's complicated and (except for one big thing) quotidian life really enriches this one.

As often seems to happen with novels that have a great concept & great initial execution (I'm thinking of PKD), resolution is difficult or impossible, so the ending seems abrupt and arbitrary, but I don't think resolution is really possible here. Perhaps a more elegant means to drop the curtain could have been found, but that's a small matter in a really fine book.

Speaking of PKD, while a lot of folks really groove on Dick as *weird!/trippy!*, I've always liked his take on normality--his satiric takes on the grind of workaday life, marketing & advertising; his regular Joe characters; his bizarre version of everyday speech, like dialogue that has been going to therapy for 10 years . . . The weird and the trippy, for me, is what gives him the distance, the defamiliarized perspective that allows him to better lay out the familiar for us.

Lennon indulges himself in the stage props far less than Dick, but I think he can be looked at as a sort of PKD with the opportunity to do a lot more character & theme development with far fewer plot elements. For those who enjoy Dick for the very phastasmagoria of plot devices he employs, the similarity I'm talking about won't be at all obvious. For those who enjoy Dick for a lot else aside from that, I think you will enjoy Lennon as a kind of drier, more disciplined and perhaps more fulfilling author working some of the same veins as PKD. ( )
2 vote ehines | Jul 4, 2015 |
Elisa is driving back from visiting her son’s grave when the crack in her windshield disappears. In fact, most of her life is different: her job, her children, her marriage. She wasn’t particularly happy in her old life, and she doesn’t seem to like this one much better. This is one of those literary-fiction type novels where no one really seems to like each or make any kind of real connection. The novelty of the plot carried me along to the end but I was ultimately unsatisfied. ( )
  jholcomb | Oct 19, 2014 |
A strange book that I expected to like more than I did, because it was sort of about the nature of reality: a woman whose son has died suddenly finds herself plopped into a different world, where her son hasn't died, she has a different job, she's not having an affair, etc. etc. My problem was that I found all the characters, including her, rather despicable. Her new family was so dysfunctional, and no one seemed to have the capacity or wisdom to pull themselves out of it. And the ending didn't really pull the whole thing together. ( )
1 vote bobbieharv | May 3, 2013 |
A naturalistically written book that plays with the true strangeness of memory, character, and perception. About halfway through I started to worry that the author was heading off toward some cheap alternate universe story cliches but Familiar is a much more thoughtful novel than that. It is genuinely disturbing in the ways it subtly questions the comfort of our memories and our settled evaluations of our life events. As the story progresses, it is decreasingly clear what of the protagonist's problems are external or internal, but by the end it does seem that no matter what has "really" happened, it's herself she has to deal with.

I think this is one of my top four books read this year. It beat out The Marriage Plot by a mile. It makes a good double feature with Julian Barnes' Sense of An Ending, but I felt let down at the end by the Barnes novel (much as I love some of his work). Familiar told me less at the finish, and said more. ( )
1 vote scatterall | Apr 10, 2013 |
Strange but oddly mesmerizing. Intense, 40-something Elisa is driving home from visiting her son's grave six hours away, when she realizes the crack in her windshield has vanished, she's driving a whole different car, and seems to have gained a bit of weight and is wearing office clothes. When she gets home she finds that the past is different in her memory than it is for others. Has she slipped into a parallel universe, or suffered some sort of psychotic breakdown? The novel examines a marriage and a woman under stress, and what might happen to someone given a second chance in this way. It's rather unsettling. ( )
1 vote amanderson | Mar 31, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
It runs deep in life, the feeling that we have wandered down some corridor just alongside the one where we truly belong. An inattentive step or two and already we have traveled too far. The door has disappeared. Our place in the world has become irrecoverable. The past half-decade of American letters has seen the translation or publication of a little pack of kindred novels intended to reproduce this sensation, nearly all of them fascinating. Call it the literature of the ontological wrong turn. Some of its representatives have been issued to great gales of attention, like “1Q84,” by Haruki Murakami, or “Remainder,” by Tom McCarthy, others to the keen enthusiasm of a few lucky explorers, like “Metropole,” by Ferenc Karinthy, or (by my lights the secret masterpiece of the field) “The Other City,” by Michal Ajvaz. To that beguiling list add J. Robert Lennon’s allusive and mysterious new novel, “Familiar,” his ninth book and one of his finest.
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After the death of his mother, he had spent five years in the house of his brother. It was not from what he said but the way he said it that his enormous animosity toward the domineering, cold, and unfriendly nature of his brother became evident.
Then, in short, not very pregnant sentences, he related that he had a friend now who very much loved and admired him. Following this communication, there was a prolonged silence. A few days later he reported a dream: he saw himself in a strange city with his friend, except that the face of his friend was different.

—Wilhelm Reich, Character Analysis
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Elisa Brown is on the long drive home after visiting her son's grave when the crack in her windshield vanishes. She notices other changes too. Her body is curvier; her clothes and car are different. Back home, she has a new job, a sturdier marriage, and disturbingly altered sons. Has she had a psychotic break? Or entered a parallel universe? Her quest for answers hinges on seeing herself as she really is--something that might be impossible for Elisa, or for anyone.… (more)

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