What Amy’s Reading: Familiar

When Elisa suddenly slips into a parallel world where her teenage son has not died ten years previously and is now an adult who is estranged from her, you might think, as I did at first, that J. Robert Lennon’s Familiar is going to be a book like The Intuitionist or The City and the City, where the world of the novel is at a slight angle to our own, and the rules governing our reality are ever so gently bent, a kind of suburban magical realism.

But Elisa spends the entire story trying to figure out the rules of her new parallel world, where she must pretend that she hasn’t just arrived and that she has been living here all along. This makes Lennon’s book very different from those other novels, where it is the reader, not the protagonist, who must figure out the rules while the characters casually go about their business. Elisa’s story is very explicitly about the principles governing world-building. Our puzzlement is hers.

Lennon largely resists the temptation to make this a meta-fictional novel that comments on itself, and there is no authorial hand reaching in from above (though a book called Familiar does briefly appear at the end). Instead, Elisa goes searching for a paradigm to help explain what has happened to her. She considers video-game design (her not-dead son’s profession), talk therapy, science fiction, and physics with its theory of the multiverse. Elisa is herself a scientist, a plant biologist who has become a university administrator. Her mind is orderly and rational, and she is determined to find a true explanation for the impossibility–the fictionality–that has just erupted in her life.

Marco Roth in the journal n+1 has written about the recent trend in contemporary literary fiction for protagonists with faulty brains. He calls them “neuronovels,” and sees them as the 21st-century heirs to early 20th-century modernist “stream of consciousness” novels, in which neuroscience has been given all the explanatory power for altered perception and heightened language. Roth deplores this turn to the materialist and wonders why novelists have ceded so much ground to science.

Lennon’s book happens to rebut Roth quite neatly. Something is gravely wrong with Elisa–either in her mind with her perception of reality or with the quantum particles of her entire world–but she is not otherwise different from us. Perhaps if Roth had written this book, Elisa would run right to the library to read “The Metamorphosis.” But applying science rather than, say, literature to her problem proliferates Lennon’s story, instead of neatly reducing and resolving it as Roth fears. Science happens to contain exactly as many stories as psychology (i.e. an infinite amount).

Lest I leave you with the impression that this is a cold exercise in problem-solving, I hasten to add that the book contains a beating heart as well as a faulty brain. Elisa must figure out how to relate to her family in this new world, her husband and surviving son, as well as the son that died in her old world but has reappeared to her. And he is not okay. It is affecting and haunting.

If you like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, read this book. I suspect John Fowles’ The Magus is somewhere in this book’s ancestry. Right now I’m reading The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, which J. Robert Lennon recommended at his book reading here in Ithaca.

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