Review: Familiar by J. Robert Lennon


The best book of 2013? Neil Stewart hails Familiar by J. Robert Lennon as sad, strange, moving, deeply weird and an absolute masterpiece

J Robert Lennon Familiar best books of 2013

I’m calling it now: there won’t be a better English-language novel published this year than Familiar by J. Robert Lennon, the writer’s astounding seventh work of fiction. This is a book which explodes all the clichés of the “domestic” novel, bursts through genre divisions, and asks enormous questions – while still being compulsively, thrillingly readable. It is sad, strange, moving, deeply weird. It is, I say again, easily the best book of the year.

It starts very simply. Elisa Macalaster Brown is returning home after driving interstate to visit her son’s grave. She becomes aware of a crack in the windscreen of her car, a straight-line fracture that seems to run exactly parallel with the safety markings at the road’s edge. Her mind – unoccupied by the mechanical business of the long-distance drive – drifts momentarily. There is a brief sense of dislocation and, in that instant, everything is transfigured. Abruptly the car she is driving is different. The body driving the car is different. She has chewing gum in her mouth, yet never chews gum. When she pulls the car over and phones her husband, his voice is different. Even her name as changed: she’s now truncated to “Lisa”. Only her consciousness remains: she remembers the “old life” but the new one is something she has to navigate and conquer. And the strangest, most frightening changes of all won’t be apparent until she gets home.

My heart was in my mouth in Familiar’s closing pages, which feature the weirdest lift journey in fiction; by the very end, I felt incredibly, boundlessly sad for Elisa

Elisa doesn’t know what’s happened; nor do we. Part of the book involves her attempts to find out: a mildly surreal picaresque of therapists, physicists, computer game designers and speculative thinkers. In a different book, this would be enough. But Lennon has another agenda, and tackles a taboo: parents who fail their children. This makes Familiar a kind of horror story, one that – for me – eclipses the most prominent bad-parent novel of recent years, We Need to Talk About Kevin (which I found facile and built around an unbelievably obvious twist). Familiar is subtler, creepier, and in a way more sadistic. Lennon takes the notion of parental failure to a kind of natural extreme: in her new life, Lisa discovers that her dead son is still alive, but that she and her husband decided some years ago that to save their marriage, they would cut their two sons off completely. Thrown into this new scenario, Elisa seeks out her children for the first time in years – partly, of course, to see her older son brought back to life, as it were – but this causes more ructions, more disaster. It is tremendously sad, and its melancholy underpinned by an unasked question: what, in her scenario, would any of this book’s readers do otherwise?

The questions throughout are these: should she embrace her “new” life and try to forget what her life used to be? Should she attempt to try to rework this “new” life until it is indistinguishable from the “old”? Or is this an opportunity to make amends for mistakes she thought could never be corrected? And while there are echoes of other high-minded, desperately sad books – notably Dennis Cooper’s God, Jr, with which Familiar shares an interest in the unresolvedness, true-to-life weirdness of the modern computer game – oddly, what it most reminded me of is two films I adore. It’s impossible not to glimpse David Lynch’s Lost Highway in the central conceit of an mysteriously transformative journey by road. In its blending of dysfunctional-family tropes with science fiction, it even more closely recalls Donnie Darko, another story of second chances and unbearably sad sacrifices. My heart was in my mouth in Familiar’s closing pages, which feature the weirdest lift journey in fiction; by the very end, I felt incredibly, boundlessly sad for Elisa. I have this reaction to the dilemma faced by Donnie Darko, too, and indeed to the general notion of parallel universes: I find something unbearably poignant in the theory that every tiny decision, every action, causes yet another almost-identical branching in reality: if, somewhere in the infinite universe, almost-you is living a life that diverges from yours in maybe only the most nugatory detail, what does that mean for your choices? Your identity? For free will? Familiar asks – but doesn’t beat you over the head with – these questions, and is confident enough not to supply pat answers; Lennon knows these are things the reader will continue to think about, long after setting the book down.

One very minor criticism, an entirely partisan one, and one possibly beyond the author’s control: to publish a book this major in first-run paperback, on rather floppy paper stock, as Serpent’s Tail have done in the UK, is a shame. This should have been a big-deal hardback, lavishly produced. And in fact, some Elisa-esque fracture of reality should place, instantaneously, a copy of this book in every home. This is a brilliant, bruising novel about how we make our way in the world. Everyone should read it. C


Follow Robert J. Lennon on Twitter @jrobertlennon