We’re reading FAMILIAR by J Robert Lennon

11 Sep

M John Harrison finds himself on a road to nowhere.


Serpent’s Tail, PPB £11.99

Elisa Brown is a lab technician, married to Derek, whose speciality is “maritime law as it applied to the Great Lakes”. It’s a stultified, low-key relationship. It’s familiar.

Once a year she makes the day-long trip to the grave of their dead son, Silas. “When she’s finished,” the author tells us, as flatly as he tells us everything else, “she gets back into her car and goes home.” Her Honda is twelve years old and smells of a dog the family once owned. Elisa uses an old, familiar crack in the car’s windscreen – it runs “from the lower left hand corner to to spot at eye level on the passenger side” – to orient herself on the road. It’s a habit. She seems a little frame-dependant. All of this is acceptable, if drab, until the crack disappears, reality swerves, and the Honda turns abruptly into a Dodge Intrepid.

Elisa now finds herself in the body of a woman with the same name, whose history is as similar to her own as it is different. In this new life, she has gained several pounds. She chews gum. Her bra is uncomfortable. Her son is less dead than a computer game designer and successful internet bully. Her marriage to Derek has come apart and they’re in counselling. Everything is familiar but not the same. Thereafter, Lennon handles themes of alienation and anomie, using Elisa’s combination of slow panic and intelligent exploration of her new existence to show us that her fit with the life she’s lost is no better than her fit with the one she’s gained.

Who – if anyone – is undergoing the fugue, the psychotic break, here? The original Elisa, who feels she has jumped lives? Or the “new” Elisa, who suddenly believes she is an interloper in her own life? The constant interrogation of identity, the sense of being at a loss about yourself not simply because you have changed but because the change forces you to question your entire context, gives Familiar a faintly Hitchcockian resonance, to go with its outright reification of the Talking Heads song “Road to Nowhere” and its sly nod to David Lynch’s Lost Highway. It also has some of Hitchcock’s mischievous humour: Lennon damps down the weirder elements of the story – its implications of quantum indeteminacy and many-worlds theory – by having Elisa navigate a crank culture of conventions and messageboards as she searches for someone who can give her an understanding of the physics of her situation. If, of course, there are any.

It’s a very readable novel but the part I found most readable was the beginning, that strangely matter-of-fact and melancholy narration of Elisa’s original life. These sad, stiflingly quotidian events pulled me through thirteen or fourteen pages without a thought – except to wonder why I was so immersed by the ordinary. I couldn’t, in the end, see why the book needed a quantum shift or Lucretian clinamen to illuminate its subject. One world, one set of ordinary human emotional dislocations, would have been enough. The moment the crack in the windscreen ceased to be a metaphor and became the conduit of an actual transition, Familiar became a less interesting solution to its own problem.

Read M John Harrison’s story “In Autotelia” in Arc 1.1 

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