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Lennon's 'Familiar' looks at the ways we define ourselves

| Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012, 9:04 p.m.


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.

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