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Familiar by J. Robert Lennon

The plausible explanation she has been
craving, the one that lies outside herself,
has never seemed farther away.
Having neatly tucked away Breakfast of Champions once more, I was drawn as if by the divine hand to an article at Electric Literature* which lead me in turn to Familiar by an author unknown to me. The article may have read thusly:
Like Vonnegut, Lennon is able to defy genres; Familiar appeals to a variety of readers, from the sci-fi set to the literary fiction elite. Also like Vonnegut, there’s even a Kilgore-Troutian moment in which the universes of the writer, reader, and protagonist briefly and spectacularly collide.

Of course, it may not have done. Regardless, I was intrigued.

I have written before of the strange feelings inspired by the selection of a novel by an as-yet unread author. Do I go overly dramatic and find meaning in every word, or do I stand back, detached and disapproving? In J. Robert Lennon's case, I was ambivalent as I began, distrusting his words, but I was quickly swept up by the sheer narrative impetus. I remained cool, but the story fairly zips along. 

It's hung on the conceit that, as she drives home from a conference, middle aged and returning to a home scarred by tragedy and a marriage between literal infidels, everything changes: her clothes, her car (notably the cracked windscreen), her job, her life are all altered seamlessly and suddenly, but her memories of her other existence persist and she is discombobulated. The most prominent change however is that her previously dead son is still alive. What follows is her attempt to find meaning in the midst of madness. Will she ever get home again? Does she even want to?

I wonder if we'll ever find a way out of this world.
My delicate, formative years were influenced heavily by the novels of The Discworld, Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever, the children's cartoon Dungeons & Dragons etc., so I'm partial to a bit of multiverse action. I love working along with the protagonist(s) towards the resolution of their dilemma. Of course, that's the issue with Familiar. There is no resolution. It builds as these things do towards a sense of climax but ends, just as Elisa Macalaster Brown suspects of her meeting with the strange, otherworldly internet avatar Patricia, at the second right before it threatens to make sense. Frustrating, sure, but also liberating, as we don't need to contend with the author's need to complete the narrative loop and can imagine our own explanations. 

Indeed, throughout the book I found instances of a sharp and probing intellect at work. I particularly like the post-modern referencing (and acknowledgement thereof by the blogger on the discussion panel - "Everyone loves the po-mo!") of his own book at the conference (which he graciously refrained from looping back to the conference from which Elisa is travelling when things unravel), and Elisa's absorption in the first person RPG designed by her son, the now not-dead Silas, inveigles in the notion that this universe in which Elisa finds herself is itself the creation of someone, possibly herself, possibly her son. Indeed, as she tracks him online in semi-disbelief at his Lazarus-like resurrection in this world, she finds an interview in a games forum or magazine (I forget which) where he tears the traditional 'safe' narrative of role-playing games a new one: "Designers are stuck on the notion of story. As if it's the story that makes a game worth playing… Life is inherently nonsensical. Drawing strands of meaning together is for idiots… It's a fake moral justification for what the gamer really wants, which is to make shit happen."** She even suspects he keeps new universes on the counter in his kitchen.

All this builds into a peremptory, urgent and exciting novel, a metaphysical thriller that has a very broad appeal, dealing with familial trauma, adultery, the trials of parenthood, the world of work, but also notions of identity, or self-worth, and the solipsistic notion we are the only real thing in the world, which brings us all back neatly to Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout. They weren't wrong, those mystics at Electric Literature.


*Not that particular one, rather one which I can now no longer find (spooky) but which listed ten or so great novels to read if you liked Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, which I do. Lots.

**This curtailed quotation is borrowed from the Guardian review of the same which can be read in full on their website.

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