Familiar

by J. Robert Lennon

Publisher: Greywolf
Copyright: 2012
ISBN: 1-55597-535-6
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 205

Buy at Powell's Books

This is the first book of an experiment. I'm fairly well-read in science fiction and fantasy and increasingly well-read in non-fiction of interest (although there's always far more of that than I'll get to in a lifetime), but woefully unfamiliar with what's called "mainstream" literature. Under the principal that things people are excited about are probably exciting, I've wanted to read more and understand the appeal.

Powell's, which I like to support anyway, has a very nice (albeit somewhat expensive) book club called Indiespensable, which sends its subscribers very nice editions of new works that Powell's thinks are interesting, with a special focus on independent publishers. So I signed up and hope to stick with it for at least a year. (The trick will be fitting these books in amongst my regular reading.) Familiar is the first feature selection I received.

Elisa Brown is a mother with a dead son and a living one, a failing marriage, an affair, and a life that is, in short, falling apart. Then, while driving back from her annual pilgrimage from her son's grave, the world seems to twist and change. She finds herself dressed for business, wearing a nametag and apparently coming back from a work-related convention, driving a car that's entirely unfamiliar to her. When she gets home, everything else has changed too: her marriage seems to be on firmer ground, but based on rules she doesn't understand. She has a different job, different clothes, a different body in some subtle ways. And both of her sons are alive.

I'm going to have to have a long argument with myself about where to (meaninglessly) categorize this on my review site, since in construction it is an alternate reality story and therefore a standard SF trope. Any SF reader is going to immediately assume Elisa has somehow been transported into an alternate reality with a key divergence point from her own. But that's not Lennon's focus. He stays ambiguous on the question of whether this is really happening or whether Elisa had some sort of nervous breakdown, and while some amount of investigation of the situation does take place, it's the sort of investigation that an average person with no access to special resources or scientific knowledge and a completely unbelievable story would be able to do: Internet conspiracy chatrooms and some rather dodgy characters. The focus is instead on Elisa's reaction to the situation, her choices about how to treat this new life, and on how she processes her complex emotions about her family and herself.

I had profoundly mixed feelings about this book when I finished it, and revisiting it to review it, I still do. The writing is excellent: spare, evocative, and enjoyable to read. Lennon has a knack for subjective description of emotion and physical experience. The reader feels Elisa's deep discomfort with her changed body and her changed car, her swings between closed-off emotions and sudden emotional connection with a specific situation, and her struggle with the baffling question of how to come to terms with a whole new life. The part of the book from about the middle to nearly the end is excellent. Video games make an appearance and are handled surprisingly well. And when Elisa starts being blunt with people, I found myself both liking her and caring about what happens to her.

On the other hand, Familiar also has some serious problems, and one of the biggest is the reaction I feared I'd have to mainstream literature: until Elisa started opening up and taking action, I found it extremely difficult to care about anyone in this book. They're all so profoundly petty, so closed off and engrossed in what seem like depressing and utterly boring lives. I'm sure that some of this is intentional and is there to lay the groundwork for Elisa's own self-discovery, but even towards the end of that self-discovery, everything here is so relentlessly middle-class suburbia that I felt stifled just reading about it. I think it's telling that no one in this book ever seems to have any substantial problem with money, or even with work. Elisa walks into a job that she's never done before and within a few weeks is doing it so well that she can take large amounts of time to wander around for plot purposes.

This is a book about highly privileged people being miserable in a bubble. While those people certainly do exist, and I can believe that they act like this, I'm not sure how much I want to read about them. Thankfully, the plot does lead Elisa to poke some holes in that bubble, if never get out of it entirely.

This is also another one of those stories in which every character has massive communication problems. Now, this deserves some caveats: Elisa's communication problems with her husband are part of the problem that starts the book and are clearly intentional, as are her communication difficulties with her children. And she's not really close enough to anyone to confide in them. But even with those caveats, no one in this book really talks to anyone else. It's amazing that anyone forms any connections at all, given how many walls and barriers they have around themselves. As someone with a bit of a thing for communication, this drove me nuts to read about, particularly in the first half of the book.

But the worst problem is that Lennon completely blows the ending. And by that I don't just mean that I disliked the ending. I mean the ending is so unbelievable and so contrary to the entire rest of the book, at least the way I was reading and understanding it, that I think Familiar is a much better novel if you just remove the final scene entirely. It was such a bizarre and unnecessary twist that I found it infuriating.

I don't want to spoil an ending, even a bad ending, so I'll only say this: it felt to me like Lennon just wasn't comfortable with his setting and plot driver and couldn't leave it alone. I think an experienced SF author wouldn't have made this mistake. There were two obvious possible conclusions to draw from the setting, plus a few interesting combinations, and I think someone comfortable with this sort of alternate reality story would have taken one of those options, any of which would have been a reasonable dismount for the plot. Alternately, they could have left it entirely ambiguous to the end and explored why the explanation may not actually matter. But Lennon seemed to me to have a tin ear for plausibility and for the normal flow of this sort of story and seems to have taken it as license for arbitrary events, thus completely violating the internal consistency and emergent rules that he'd spent the rest of the book building.

I've mostly talked about my reactions to the characters and the writing and have not said much about the plot. That's somewhat intentional, since figuring out where the story will go is one of the best parts of this book. It's surprisingly tense and well-crafted for not having that much inherent dramatic tension. The excellent writing kept me reading through the first part, when I hated everyone in the story, and then Elisa started taking responsibility for her own life and actions and I started really enjoying the book while being constantly surprised. I think it's the sort of story that's best to take without too much foreknowledge of where it's going.

I'm going to call this first experiment a qualfied success. Familiar was certainly interesting to read, and quite different from what I normally read despite the SF premise. If it weren't for the ending, I'd be recommending it to other people.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-04-10

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21