Saturday, May 11, 2013

Familiar by J. Robert Lennon


A woman starts living a new life, familiar but not quite

Elisa/Lisa is driving home from a visit to her son’s grave when suddenly her car is a different model, she’s gained weight, and there's gum in her mouth when there wasn't before. What just happened? She takes the transformation in stride (pretty much), rummaging through her familiar purse for clues to her new unfamiliar life. She becomes a detective at that point and much of the story momentum comes her figuring out her new job, her new/old husband who seems to be much more sexually in love with her, and the new marital therapist fond of culty aphorisms. Most importantly, Elisa must come to terms with the fact that, in this universe, her dead son is alive, but estranged from her. Her mildly unhappy life has been traded for another mildly unhappy life – same Elisa, same town, same family, but the configuration of elements is different. Secretly she begins investigating what might have happened – a wormhole to a parallel universe perhaps. Meanwhile, her therapist reveals that the Elisa in the parallel universe is also an Elisa prone to psychotic breaks. (Is that what happened then?) Her search brings her into the company of unconventional conspiracy sci-fi types, oddballs. After a while, she realizes she may not want to go back.

The novel was very gripping for the first three fourths or so, hard to put down. The prose style was plain, but evocative and powerful. No literary metaphors, no imagery. But the for the most part realistic story raised a number of important questions, about identity, about marriage, about family. About reality.  The tension in the plot reminded me of Ben Marcus, although there is a smidgen more humor here, especially in the descriptions of the nerds and geeks. A video game plays a prominent role in the novel, and many times, the novel feels like a video game. Things can be rebooted. Who are you? It makes you think – that could be me.

The story is unsettling here, perhaps too unsettling. Only near the end did I start to feel a hint of pretentiousness – when it felt that an entertaining Twilight Zone episode was being forcibly bent to have a much deeper sociological meaning.

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