This is what happens, she supposes to dramatic events: they create feelings that create other feelings, memories that give way to memories of having them. The 0lder you get, the more life seems like a tightening spiral of nostalgia and narcissism, and the actual palpable world recedes into insignificance, replaced by a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy.
There are days when I despair about the future of American fiction, and then there are days when I discover something extraordinary, and that brings me to J. Robert Lennon’s enigmatic, thought-provoking book, Familiar. Last year I read and was impressed by Castle–a disturbing book which follows the relocation of a strangely disaffected man to New York State. Familiar is equally disturbing, but for this reader, it’s a perfect, unsettling novel that surpasses genre and explores questions about identity, grief, parenthood, and the possibility of … a parallel universe. Is this science-fiction or is this a story of a woman so wracked with guilt and burdened with uncomfortable, deeply regretted decisions that she has a psychotic break?
Elisa Macalaster Brown is a middle-aged woman who’s returning home to Reevesport in New York State from her annual solitary trek to her son, Silas’s, grave in Wisconsin. Silas, the youngest son of two by just 11 months, was trouble from almost the moment he was born. He dominated his older, weaker sibling, Sam, and he grew from a difficult child into an alienated teen. Silas was killed in a senseless car accident; Elisa fell apart, “became obsessed with the past, with all the wrong turns their lives together had taken,” and she endured a meltdown. Eventually the family moved away from Wisconsin to Reevesport.
On the surface, Elisa appeared to heal, but she never fully recovered from Silas’s death. On the neurotic side and pencil thin, she’s employed as the manager of a lab while her husband, Derek is a lecturer at SUNY Reevesport. Their marriage is another casualty of grief, and Elisa has a hidden affair with a local man. As Elisa makes her contemplative, solitary drive back to New York to return to her unhappy life, something happens. The crack in the windshield of her battered old Honda disappears, and suddenly she’s in a different car, wearing different clothes….
Elisa looks up the road. Only a second, less than a second, has passed, and the road has grown. It’s wider, the sky is taller. And it’s cloudy now, partly cloudy, many small clouds, as though the single cloud has spawned. No–it isn’t the road that’s wider, it’s the windshield, the windshield is larger.
She glances around her, at the interior of her car, and it isn’t her car.
Elisa is still Elisa–except she’s called Lisa by her husband and work colleagues. She returns to her home, and while it is still the same house, she notices subtle changes:
Yews they tore out a few years ago are still there. The grass, to which she had always been indifferent, is healthy and trim, and the pink dogwood, the one that had seemed certain to die but then rallied and came back to life, that dogwood is gone and in its place stands a Japanese maple.
But these are just cosmetic changes. The ‘new’ Elisa is plumper, dresses differently, she has a different job, and she’s in therapy. Also rather disturbingly her marriage with Derek is quite different:
There is something reassuring, isn’t there, about the absence of love. This is what she has often told herself. The only real marriage is the marriage of the body and the mind. Until death do us part; a romantic lie. People can indeed be parted. Love can end, and the body and mind soldier on. To pick up the phone and find that love is gone, that’s something a person can understand. That’s a thing that happens. To pick up the phone and find that love is here, where it doesn’t belong: well.
But the strangest, most disturbing new element to Elisa’s life is that Silas isn’t dead….
Has Elisa had a psychotic break or has she entered a parallel universe in which Silas’s death, a single moment that “interrupted” and altered the course of her life did not happen? If Elisa faces the former scenario, should she risk confiding in anyone? Dropped into an alien life, so like her “old” life, and yet so different, Elisa is drawn to investigating the possibilities: is she experiencing some sort of meltdown? Which life is ‘real’? In this new life, Silas is alive, but why is Elisa totally alienated from her sons? What happens if she suddenly finds herself back in her old, grief-wracked life?
In the most imaginative, fascinatingly complex novel I’ve read since Steve Erickson’s Zeroville, author J. Robert Lennon plays with issues of identity, grief and memory through Elisa’s character. Elisa, of course, is driven to discover the truth behind the ‘splitting’ she experienced. Mentally, it’s a dangerous, disturbing journey, for she begins to unravel the delicate facade of stability and functionality she and Derek have built over the years. Increasingly she turns to yet another universe for the answers she seeks: the world of the internet–a world in which we can all be anything we want to be, and a world in which reality has no place. Silas argues that “stories exist to make sense of life.” How much of Elisa’s two lives are ‘stories’ that try and make sense of what happened?
Most of us, I suspect have experiences that occurred due to some fluke, some incident. If we hadn’t crossed that road at the moment. If we hadn’t picked up the phone. If we hadn’t taken that trip. That’s the sort of collective experience that the author taps into here, so even though what happens to Elisa has its fantastic element, it’s easy to identify with her dilemma. What would we do if given an opportunity to enter a universe without the one terrible incident that marred our lives? Would that new life be better, worse, or just different? This intelligent novel does not seek to provide easy answers for the reader–instead the novel is a deeply engaging, intense exploration of complex ideas. Grief, guilt, mental illness and regret all create whispering imagined parallel universes, but has Elisa gone one step beyond? Every word, every scene complements the mystery, the anomaly of Elisa’s experiences and memories. Incredible, intriguing, hypnotic, and troubling, this novel is one of my Best of 2012.
He saw himself in a strange city with his friend, except that the face of the friend was different.