“I like to make the quotidian register as bizarre in fiction,” said J. Robert Lennon in a 2019 New Yorker interview. “It’s a reflection of how I see the world, and seems metaphorically rich to me, whether it’s in the context of a science-fictional riff or an exploration of a cognitive state.” Increasingly, this has become the most notable signature in Lennon’s varied catalog of novels and short stories. Even in his predominantly naturalistic works, the supernatural—or, at least, the uncanny—is often close at hand.
Pieces for the Left Hand: 100 Anecdotes relates, in an offhanded manner, a series of confounding upstate New York legends and hearsay in a section titled “Mysteries and Confusion.” The namesake fortress in Castle is concealed in a swath of enchanted woods on the inflexibly pragmatic narrator’s property. A nebulous Observer—who never influences events but whose presence is twice, seemingly, acknowledged by the characters—oversees the marital discord and horrific tragedy of Broken River. This union of the everyday and the surreal—rather than their juxtaposition—is awfully close to David Foster Wallace’s definition of the “Lynchian” in his famous essay from Premiere. While this term is overused, and typically misapplied to anything vaguely ominous or oneiric, Lennon has earned it, and nowhere more vividly than in his two new books, Subdivision and Let Me Think.
The former, Lennon’s first novel since 2017’s Broken River, tells a story that, in its broadest possible outline, could hardly be more mundane: A woman (the narrator) moves to a new town and settles into a guesthouse while seeking employment and more permanent lodging. But the initial strangeness of the guesthouse’s proprietors—two retired judges, both named Clara—gives way to a more overtly dreamlike series of events and realizations.
For one thing, the narrator simply appears at the guesthouse at the novel’s outset; we have no idea why she’s moved, where she came from, or how she got here. She cannot remember the last time she ate, frequently falls asleep, and accepts the bizarre world she inhabits the way one does in a dream. Guided by an alive-seeming electronic personal assistant named Cylvia, she encounters a child whom everyone assumes to be hers, a fellow lodger who seems downright somnambulant, and a shape-shifter called the bakemono (drawn from Japanese folklore) whose guise as a handsome man quickly falls to reveal a vicious badger.
The town itself, known only as the Subdivision (of what, it is unclear), has obvious purgatorial qualities. Judgment looms over the guesthouse, the town is circumscribed by an undeveloped wasteland, and a road to “the City” is under construction. At one point, the narrator even envisions the City as having “gleaming gates.” But it becomes increasingly clear that this world is a projection of the narrator’s mind, and that there’s a “real world” that underlies it.
In this way, Subdivision, like Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, is a novel with a key. But rather than shocking us with a twist ending, Lennon gradually clues us (and the narrator herself) into what’s really going on beneath the surface. This process is heavy-handed at times, as when the narrator encounters a store called Memory in an abandoned shopping mall. The narrator’s metaphorical sublimations of traumatic events and relationships tend toward the obvious, and one of the recurring images, of a jigsaw puzzle filling itself in on a table in the guesthouse, reads like a cliché. But Subdivision is never less than riveting, thanks to Lennon’s lean and evocative prose, our thrilling inability to predict what will happen next, and the certainty that it will be something surprising and disturbing.
The intensity of Subdivision’s narrative purpose stands in marked contrast to Let Me Think. A collection of short fictions, the book is a deliberately scattershot affair (the cover even depicts a scatter plot representing each of its 71 pieces). Many of these stories were written in response to specific prompts, or for a particular venue (The Short Story Advent Calendar) or event (a live reading at a writing conference), and only occasionally transcend those origins.
Lennon has proved himself a master of brevity with his clever, melancholic Pieces for the Left Hand. But the one-sentence “Death (After)” feels like it was rescued from his Twitter drafts folder, and in the four paragraphs of “Unnamed,” Lennon serves up little more than a glib metaphor (life as a truck rolling downhill). Elsewhere, among the absurdist marital dialogues, one-page ditties on death and desire, aphorisms, and syntactical and formal games, we find amusing slices of life such as “Falling Down the Stairs”—which probably worked better when it was presented aloud, but feels slight as a published story—as well as reveries such as “West to East,” which have a meditative quality that recalls the workaday poetics of Harvey Pekar.
In general, the longer pieces in the book find Lennon as his very best. In “Blue Light, Red Light,” two parents’ white lie to their son leads to a tragically ironic finale; here, as in virtually all of his past work, Lennon remains an insightful observer of the complexities of parent-child relationships, and the lack of character names besides “the boy,” “the mother,” and “the father” makes the story feel like a parable. “The Loop,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker, is pitched somewhere between Groundhog Day and Adolfo Bioy Casares, though the unnerving supernatural premise takes a while to infiltrate the action. There are also two delightful Steven Millhauser-esque pieces, “#faculty retreat” and “The Unsupported Circle,” where Lennon riffs on non-literary forms such as the Twitter thread and the YouTube video.
Lennon also places the four sections of “The Cottage on the Hill” throughout the book, even though it was published as one piece in Unstuck (before that fine publication was discontinued). Here is Lennon at his most Lynchian. Again, we find a parent failing to connect with his children during their trips to a secluded cottage, but there’s a disturbing quality to the way the characters talk past each other, as well as the way the cottage itself changes physically over time. Splitting the story up helps provide the collection with some semblance of structure, but more importantly (and obviously), it accentuates the passage of time between each section, as the children become increasingly remote from their father.
Lennon has been described as something of a shape-shifter himself, and it’s true that his works cover an admirably broad range of tones and settings. But these two new books, one of which covers the past several years of his work, help to clarify some of his fixations and sensibilities. The Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press remains his faithful publisher, and if recent history holds true, it won’t be long before we see another tome from Lennon. Let us hope that the next one plays more consistently to this talented writer’s many strengths.