FICTION: Haven't I seen me somewhere before?: Familiar J Robert Lennon Serpent's Tail pounds 11.99, pp205
(Observer (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Familiar is a tale of midlife marital grief transformed by a science-fiction conceit full of puzzles but no solutions. Elisa is driving home to New York state after a visit to the grave of her younger son, Silas, 10 years on from his death in a car crash, when she notices the strange disappearance of an age-old crack in her windshield. It's the first sign that she's slipped into another world - she's still driving, but she's heavier, wearing different clothes and, most miraculous of all, Silas isn't dead.
The direct present-tense narration and instantly engaging plight prove an irresistible combination. Elisa is frightened and mystified yet also game for the peculiar task of figuring out how to pass as herself in this remixed existence without rousing the suspicions of her husband, Derek.
In her former life they both had lovers to keep their marriage afloat; now they have a creepy therapist who advises them never to contact Silas and his older brother Sam in California. Apparently Elisa has a history of psychosis - news to her - which once manifested itself as an obsession with Sarah Palin, yet one of the first things the novel tells us is that Elisa doesn't care about politics; there's a lot not right.
Elisa delves for answers into an online world of geeks and cranks theorising alternative realities. Someone mentions a novel called Familiar - its protagonist "enters parallel worlds through the pages of a book. . . also called Familiar" - yet the emphasis is less on smart-aleck self-reference than the emotional texture of Elisa's situation.
In terms of what's actually going on, the novel is sufficiently fleshed out to let us take our pick: it could be about madness or the multiverse, or a cracked-mirror allegory of how age redraws relations between parents and children. When Elisa visits her sons, now in their mid-twenties, they resent her for reasons she can't fully grasp. All she knows for sure is that Silas's survival means a continuation of the strained family relations that existed before his death, which she'd regretfully come to view as a blessing for Sam, always in the shadow of his bullying younger brother.
One of the clever things about the set-up here is how neatly it invigorates some of drearier procedures of conventional fiction. The sequence in which Derek rehearses for his wife's benefit the history of their marriage could seem a rather stagy way to handle backstory but it is lent impetus by Elisa's need to understand the person she's become. You can't help noticing that for much of the book she finds herself in much the same position as your average realist novelist, trying to ensure that vital information is aired without seeming ersatz.
In this way Familiar is even more metafictive than any winky in-jokes might indicate. Silas is a successful video game designer and at one point Elisa finds an interview with him online: "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."
The novel puts us on our guard against Silas, a figure full of hate, yet it's still hard not to see his words as emblematic of J Robert Lennon's project here. If Familiar is a motiveless rush of pure predicament, his great achievement is that it's also a meditation on family and identity likely to stir brain and heart alike.
To buy Familiar for pounds 9.59 with free UK p&p call 0330 333 6847 or go to guardianbookshop.co.uk
J Robert Lennon: 'a meditation on family and identity likely to stir brain and heart'.
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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