'See You in Paradise' Casts a Shadow Over the Domestic Sphere

by Paul Risker

18 December 2014

J. Robert Lennon's morbidly dark vision of American domesticity drains the light out of the human dream of domestic bliss to leave it shrouded in shadow.
 
cover art

See You in Paradise: Stories

J. Robert Lennon

(Graywolf)
US: Nov 2014

It was Graham Greene who said, “Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.” From up in the celestial heavens where he looks down upon us, there is one writer who he need not wonder about. From this certain viewpoint, J. Robert Lennon’s See You in Paradise, a collection of short fiction spanning 15 years, could be contextualised as Lennon’s own cathartic journey in which he peals back the romanticism of the “human situation” to capture his own rendition of Greene’s perceived mix of “madness, melancholia, panic and fear”.

In the ninth story of the collection, “Weber’s Head”, our narrator tells us of his roommate, “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t envy him. I wanted what he had: the ability to remake the world on the fly, to force it to conform to his vision. Or maybe what I really envied was his vision: that he had one.” Lennon’s possession of a creative vision is perhaps to the detriment of his cast of characters who he forces to populate his morbidly dark vision of American domesticity, a vision that drains the light out of the human dream of domestic bliss to leave it shrouded in shadow.

To say he captures a glimpse of the dark underbelly of the human dream is perhaps inaccurate; rather, Lennon plugs himself into the tragic truth of the short-lived or momentary pleasure of sex, love, companionship and the familial. He fills these 235 pages of prose—not taking into account half pages or blank pages—with failed relationships, divorce, and angst ridden, haunted, emotionally and psychologically impaired characters. In Lennon’s world, it is no exaggeration to say that the adage of the ticking time bomb is an apt and foreboding one.

Whilst the anthology opens with one family’s discovery of an inter-dimensional portal which opens up the possibility of the everyday livened up with a fantastical dimension, Lennon elects to employ the fantastical sparingly. Of the three stories laced with a fantastical preoccupation, two of the three crossover into the realm of horror (“Wraith” and “Zombie Dan”) leaving the opening story (“Portal”) sitting as a lonesome science-fiction tale or the unfortunate outsider. Together, however, these three stories offer an alternative and refreshingly creative take on Lennon’s dimly lit view of domestic life.

If the collection starts off as the realization of discontent, then by the time we reach the concluding story “Farewell Bounder”, what can be witnessed is an evolution of this theme of discontent that has flared up into the breakup of the family. From the ex-husband haunted by his ex-wife, the child of a broken marriage, to the cold matter-of-fact presentation of sex and affection, which Lennon morbidly shows can become routine and procedural, even expected, as we grow to become automated caricatures of the urban domestic landscape. We court, marry, reproduce, and accompany one another to the finishing line. If at any point the bomb should go off, then we simply take another stab at it; that is, of course, if Lennon’s vision accommodates a restart.

The transition between stories gradually paints an impression of See You in Paradise as a series of surreal dreams in miniature. The reader wakes up from one only to descend into another, caught in a cycle of pathos. Yet despite the looming darkness, there is a silver lining present. It is the gift of Lennon to not only make you see and conjure up images, but to also feel the touch of his characters and fabric of his world that leaves one to conclude; Heck, we’re in it together. In an age of video games that have redefined the interactive experience of storytelling, Lennon shows us that prose is still full of vitality and youth; an enduring interactive experience.

As we travel the urban roads with this cast of characters, Lennon compromises the need of the writer to express himself with the need for his characters to take centre stage by painting the world through their eyes. Interestingly, Lennon almost transposes himself as God, and while his pen is not necessarily visible or rather the sounds of his fingers punching the keys of his keyboard are not for necessarily heard, the voices of the characters have an air of individuality; the themes the only clue to a deity’s guiding hand. This allows for uniformity offset by individuality, and his stories feel interconnected. Whilst Hibachi initially seems to only serve to pad out the collection, in hindsight a previous story has contextualized the personal angst of this latter story. Therein it would not be an exaggeration to say that Lennon’s See You in Paradise has a capacity to present itself as a vast family tree, related by blood but comprised of unique individual selves.

But if Lennon drains the light out of the human dream of domestic bliss to leave it shrouded in shadow, there are fleeting moments where Lennon incites a sense of frustration by disrupting the aforementioned harmony. The dialogue and silent thoughts he writes for his characters can seem unbecoming; words or phrases seem almost unnatural for them to either speak or think. In these moments, we find ourselves struggling to compromise this present impression with the character we have come to know. Lennon can also be found to lend himself to a vulgarity that suggests a penchant for immaturity that sees him pull back the curtain momentarily to reveal the creator of this surreal world. Outside of these fairly serious quibbles that disrupt the tone of the experience, he conjures up well observed, precise sentences that capture the peculiarities of human behaviour and thought that renders a more evocative identification and interaction for the reader.

Here the morbid Lennon creates a lively, creative and humorous collection of personal stories, masterfully hooking the interest of the reader from the outset, forming an initial ping of interest that like a gust of wind propels you towards each stories eventual conclusion. Some of these stories, such as “No Life” and “See You in Paradise”, could be read as cautionary tales, which returns us to Greene’s perception of “the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.” In Lennon’s world, “until death do us part” is both confronted and upheld. Important ontological ideas regarding the existence of the soul intertwined with the ramifications of the dead being revived are touched upon in “Zombie Dan”. The idea of history habitually diluting one’s identity is prominent in “Wraith”. “Portal” tackles the realizations of the identity of one’s life. In “Weber’s Head”, the characters struggle to escape fate and their burdening nature.

If See You in Paradise is Lennon’s therapy, then one only hopes that the God of his fictional world follows more in the footsteps of the New Testament than Old Testament God, and their journey is one through hell to see one another in Paradise.

See You in Paradise: Stories

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