In January 2009, a few months before the release of J. Robert Lennon’s last novel, “Castle,” the author fell victim to a uniquely modern problem. The book — a surreal and disturbing story about a former soldier who sublimates his PTSD into home renovations — popped up on Amazon Vine, a program that enlists top-ranking Amazon customer reviewers to assess the quality of new books.
A full two-thirds were decidedly unimpressed. Readers found Lennon’s mix of psychological realism and formal playfulness off-putting. When the novel was finally published to the acclaim of professional critics, it had already garnered a number of mediocre three-star reviews within the portal of the country’s largest book distributor.
This episode says less about the acumen of Amazon users than it does about realism’s stranglehold on literary fiction. That’s not to say it’s ubiquitous — the bestseller lists occasionally host smart-guy writers like the late David Foster Wallace who use obvious devices to make sure their readers know they’re not up to the usual stuff. But writers like Lennon — too weird for the realists, too understated for those who look at novels and see gauntlets — are likely to slip through the cracks.
“Familiar,” his newest book, could change that. Graywolf knows it, too — they published it with a reader’s guide for book clubs. But even if “Familiar” doesn’t take the world by storm, it stands as a crowning achievement. For while Lennon’s seven other works provide their own delights, “Familiar” eclipses them all. This is an important book, one that reflects the 21st-century human’s fragmentary condition in both content and form, told in a manner so thrilling that it achieves an almost magical propulsion. It’s very funny, too.
The book begins with middle-aged protagonist Elisa Macalester Brown driving along an Ohio highway, reflecting on her disappointments. She grew up in Chicago, raised by people with “sagging book cases and thick eyeglasses and Oriental rugs worn through to the boards” who smuggled her into jazz clubs and Marxist lectures. In Gen-X defiance of her leftist intellectual parents, she marries a lawyer at 21, quits grad school to become a full-time mother, and moves to Wisconsin. Decades later, one of her sons has died and her marriage has suffered accordingly. She has an affair and takes up embroidery. She isn’t very happy.
But there in Ohio, something otherworldly happens: A crack in her car windshield disappears, and the air feels new. She’s wearing different clothes. Her car is not her car. She discovers a binder filled with receipts and an itinerary for an unknown conference from which she is apparently returning. “This is not her job,” she realizes. Unmoored, she drives home to find a landscaped white house in lieu of the indifferently tended yellow one she left behind. After years of letting the miserable days go by, she finds herself having a sweaty panic attack behind the wheel of a large, unfamiliar automobile in the driveway of a beautiful, unfamiliar house, the literary embodiment of that Talking Heads song.
How did she get here? Was it a stroke? Amnesia? A psychotic break? A rip in the fabric of the space-time continuum? She suspects the latter, and her harrowing search for answers drives the plot.
She quickly resolves to blend in with her new life for the sake of her husband and her sanity. To process her new reality, she must distinguish it from the old one. This is a clever device, one that allows a forensic exposition of her fraught relationships without slowing the plot, raising their stakes in the process. In this universe, her husband is loving, both her children alive, yet she remains alienated from them. Her yearning to make things right is frank and painful enough to please even the staunchest realist.
Her resolve also allows for hilarious riffs on the absurdity of routine. Getting ready for work becomes a domestic nightmare: “She wanted to make coffee — but does she make coffee? Or does Derek make coffee?” She quickly dispatches confusion once she arrives at the office: “By nine-thirty she has more or less worked out what she does for a living. . . . The job is both wildly intricate and completely boring. By ten she is wondering if she should take a leave of absence.”
Lennon has already proven himself to be an agile satirist, most recently in “Happyland,” a novel serialized in Harper’s magazine that tracks the basic outline of the strange but true tale of American Girl founder Pleasant Rowland’s plan to buy and renovate swaths of Aurora, N.Y., home of Wells College, Rowland’s alma mater. Lennon can also do painful and harrowing — see the unfairly maligned “Castle.” Sure, he breaks new ground when he mingles the two, but what makes “Familiar” his best novel is the fogginess of its protagonist.
Elisa’s quest for meaning takes her to a famous scientist, a New Age couples therapist, Internet message boards, a sci-fi convention. Though none provides satisfactory answers, it would scarcely matter if they did, bogged down as she is by her family concerns and her boring job. If that’s not realistic, nothing is. Lennon has created a woman for our times, no matter how many of our times are happening at once. “Familiar” is a terrific novel, unnerving and, ultimately, true.