Review: Familiar, by J. Robert Lennon

Grief and reality collide in this novel of psychological suspense.

J. Robert Lennon’s Familiar is unlike anything I’ve read in a long time. Here, briefly, is the plot: a woman returns home from a visit to her son’s grave, but discovers she’s somehow slipped into an alternate universe, one in which her son is still alive. Driven by the fantastic but focused on the emotional, the book is difficult to pin down, occupying that amorphous space between speculative and literary fiction.

Is it a book about loss, a mother coming to terms with the death of her son, a son who’d hardly been reachable in life? Or is the book, at least so much as the plot is concerned, about a woman struggling to make sense of a parallel reality? Call it what you want, classify it how you’d like (“speculary fiction” is one possibility), but you’d be missing the point. The truth is, much like the double-slit experiment, Familiar occupies both spaces at once.

Like Vonnegut, Lennon is able to defy genres; Familiar appeals to a variety of readers, from the sci-fi set to the literary fiction elite. Also like Vonnegut, there’s even a Kilgore-Troutian Moment in which the universes of the writer, reader, and protagonist briefly and spectacularly collide.

While spec fiction often operates at a remove (another planet, another millennium, or in this case within the possibility of a multiverse) in order to bring our lives in focus, here, it is Elisa, the protagonist, who must travel far from the familiar to bring her old life into relief: “The way a factory worker, forced to listen to the same clang of metal against metal for years and years, will lose that frequency for good: that part of her is worn away.” Regardless of her means of self-reflection, Familiar is concerned with emotional truth and neurological reality.

Has Elisa slipped through a crack in the universe, or, to be blunt, is it simply her mind that is cracked? To me, it’s this question that makes Familiar “psychological fiction” without the alienating pretense of that label. Elisa finds herself in a parallel universe (what’s important is that she believes this to be true), and making sense of this new reality is just as difficult as making sense of life anywhere.

Tragedy — or a trip to an alternate universe — often makes us aware of both the absurdity and monotony of our existence, and how baffling it is to navigate life. Of her husband in the new universe, Elisa notes, “He is ill equipped for this life, for the other life, for any life. Though she supposes you could say that about anybody.” Can grief ever be managed? How do we ever make a decision amid the infinite possibilities the universe presents us? Or, on a more practical level, “how is she supposed to eat her sandwich with this soda can in her hand?”

Sad and captivating, Familiar explores the depths of loss and the limits of reality, leaving us to consider our susceptibility to the lives we create for ourselves.

Recommended if you liked: Threats by Amelia Gray, Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen, or Luminarium by Alex Shakar.

Find more fiction from J. Robert Lennon in Recommended Reading and Electric Literature no. 5, and check out his writing tips here.


— Benjamin Samuel is co-editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. You can find him here.

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