Lennon's 'Familiar' looks at the ways we define ourselves
J. Robert Lennon's novel “Familiar” is as tightly wound as a great Alfred Hitchcock movie. Elisa Macalester Brown is driving along a highway when she slips from her own world into another. All of a sudden, her car is different, she's a little heavier, wearing different clothes, and gum has materialized in her mouth.
Not everything, however, is changed; she lives in the same house and is married to the same man. Her new reality is total and familiar, but not the same.
The biggest difference: Before, one of her two sons had been dead eight years. The shift happens when she's driving home after visiting his grave. And now, the accident that killed him never occurred; Silas is alive. It is something out of the far reaches of a grieving parent's imagination: to be transported into a parallel universe where the child lives.
Despite regaining her lost son, Elisa thinks of the world before her transformation as the real one — she's been cast into a slightly different version of herself and must play that role. Lennon writes, “She thinks, I expect this is temporary, and that I will soon return to my real life. But, if this is my real life, then I am a woman whose only emotional investment is in an imaginary life. Thus, I am insane. And so I'd better hedge my bets — I'd better be invested in this life. Just in case.”
Is Elisa in a new reality or has she experienced a mental breakdown? “Familiar” circles around the question. Lennon uses the “she” throughout to describe Elisa — the third person allows us to know her thoughts but provides the objectivity of an outside observer. A wholly subjective first-person narrator — all “I,” with its prevarications and unreliability — would tip toward suggesting she's simply delusional.
Elisa prevails on her husband to tell her the story of their lives together without letting on that she's not really herself. The request pains him in ways she doesn't entirely understand, but what does become clear is that their marriage is in trouble in both worlds.
She develops other new-world survival techniques. At her unfamiliar job, she reads reams of emails and goes through her office, getting up to speed on her career and entering old friendships wholly unknown to her.
Lennon wrings tremendous tension out of the tiny details of her newly strange life: Which way to her office door? What are the rules her husband mentions? And, of course, what has happened to her son in the time since his not-death?
It takes a while before she confronts that question, and the answers are not comforting. This is a family in which coldness and blame prevail over warmth and generosity. In both universes, the family dynamic is not healthy; she is not necessarily in a world that's better. It's just different.
Elisa's investigations lead her to quantum theory and metaphysics, but the book never goes too far down the scientific rabbit hole. Instead, Lennon lingers on Elisa's concerns about identity and the various ways that she defines herself — family, work, love life, art and a remembered past.
“The older 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,” she thinks. These are concerns shared by people of a certain age — heightened by her particular situation but certainly not limited to someone who has slipped between worlds.
A creative-writing professor at Cornell, Lennon has been writing literary fiction for more than a decade. He keeps “Familiar” balanced at a perfect pitch between allowing us to believe what has happened to Elisa is real and to think that she's had a mental breakdown brought about by anxiety and depression.
In the scientific shadows, Lennon has executed a literary puzzle, a marvelous trick of the mind.
Carolyn Kellogg is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Time is of essense for Pitt in finding football coach, athletic director
- Steelers must be creative in providing snaps for linebackers
- Fleury’s career-best 6th shutout lifts Penguins over Avalanche in overtime
- Assistant at Duke eyes Pitt football job
- High school basketball notebook: Plum grad Cressler returns as volunteer assistant for Knoch
- Analysis: Misunderstood Chryst served Pitt well
- Beacons track shoppers’ smartphones amid retailers’ aisles
- Greensburg high school roundup: No. 3 Norwin girls take down No. 1 North Allegheny
- 8 Western Pennsylvania hospitals penalized over infections
- Pitt coordinator Rudolph is considered hot coaching commodity
- Meningitis suspects to be freed from jail while awaiting trial in 64 deaths