“Perhaps on some level, every human interaction was a psychological experiment.”
I’d wanted to read Castle by American author J. Robert Lennon for some time after coming across the title on Asylum. I’ve read opposing reviews of it, and was somewhat concerned about a mention of animal cruelty–a subject I take issue with in books and film. I once saw a scene of a horse slaughter in the film Maitresse (Gerard Depardieu wanted a horse steak), and the scene was so disgusting, it wouldn’t leave my mind, and it raises the issue of the need to give the viewer or reader fair warning of the content ahead of time.
But back to Castle… So the wildly different reviews and the threat of the animal issue made me delay reading Castle for some time. I finally got to it, and regretted not getting to it sooner. This is a strange, uncomfortable and hypnotic story that gets under the skin for its focus on human manipulation and I enjoyed it so much, I just bought a copy of Mailman by the same author
The first person narrative is told by Eric Loesch–an odd man of unknown, middle age, a loner who shuns all forms of society. When the book begins, it’s 2006 and Eric has returned to his old home turf in upstate New York:
In the late winter of 2006, I returned to my home town and bought 612 acres of land on the far western edge of the county. The land was forested, undeveloped, and surrounded by hills and farms; no one had lived on it for years. According to my information, it had been bought by the state from a variety of owners during the 1970s, with the intention of turning it into a recreational wilderness. But the state ran out of money and the project never got off the ground. The land, and the farmhouse that stood on it were forgotten.
Eric is a strange, withdrawn man, and there are hints of something rather dark in his background–in both his recent and distant past. The nearest town, the town Eric grew up in, is Gerrysburg with a population of 2,310 people. While Eric seeks the familiar (his old home, for example), he shuns any friendly overtures from the locals, and insults anyone who tries to pierce through his somewhat economical, carefully measured speech and behaviour. People who are drawn back to their old homes are often motivated by sentiment, but there’s no sentimentality in Eric’s make up; his narrative and actions are both strictly practical, and after buying the dilapidated farmhouse, Eric gets to its methodical restoration.
Here’s a glimpse into Eric’s mind as he eats at a local restaurant:
The place was sparsely patronized by scattered collections of hippies and loners, who thoughtfully chewed their food without saying much to one another. There had been a time in my life when I had reacted to such people with deep disdain. In those days, I viewed pacifism and activism as expressions of cowardice, and had even gone as far as to pick fights with anyone who espoused such radical ideas. Indeed, I considered such people inherently, and wilfully, weak–and believed that their political views were merely a convenient way of justifying their weakness. Eventually I would learn that all human beings are inherently weak, and that our efforts to overcome that weakness are little more than pathetic sallies up the face of an impossibly high mountain. As a result, I came to a somewhat nuanced understanding of “alternative” lifestyles. But I was still uncomfortable in the presence of such people, finding them unreasonably indulgent of their frailties. Furthermore, I could feel their judgment of me: doubtless they found my trim profile, stern bearing, and unwavering gaze discomfiting. The people here tonight, however, appeared focused on their food and on one another, and I was left in peace.
It’s a chilling passage–not only for the way in which it reveals Eric’s alienation, but also for the way it reveals his thought process which is loaded with cognitive dissonance. He mentions that he used to “pick fights” with people like his fellow diners, but at the same time he notes that now he’s “left in peace” because everyone is concentrating on their food. The unspoken twisted logic here reveals that while in the past he agitated for violence, he believes that the trigger came from external sources rather than from within. It’s also clear that Eric sees himself as superior to other people. This sense of superiority shows in Eric’s few interactions with the locals. He lectures a shop clerk and freezes the real estate agent’s friendliness chalking it up to her desire to extend the relationship from the professional to the personal.
Eric seems to have few plans for his new home, but in the middle of his renovations, he inspects the title to his property and discovers that there’s a plot of forest and rock in the middle of his land that he does not own. To add to the mystery, the name of the owner is blacked out. This sets Eric off on a mission to hike to the rock and the forest and investigate for himself.
To say any more about the plot would be to spoil the book for any potential readers, but I will say that Castle is primarily an intense psychological novel. As the story develops, exactly why Eric is compelled to return to his roots remains a mystery which grows as information about Eric’s past is slowly revealed. Some reviews mention experiencing difficulty with exactly what Eric does or does not remember–in other words is Eric’s lack of memory believable or is it just a plot device to make the book more intriguing? I’d land on the former as Eric is the classic unreliable narrator, and his mental problems aren’t easy to peg (and I don’t want to reveal spoilers). On one hand he’s abrasive and antisocial to the point of pathology, but on another level, there’s decades-old damage there that has never been addressed and is largely buried, waiting to be re-discovered. The key thing to the book is that it’s unclear just where reality and fantasy separate, and that has to stay in the fore.