In 1997, J. Robert Lennon published his debut novel, The Light of Falling Stars, a moody literary melodrama about the aftermath of a plane crash. His sophomore effort took an entirely different tack: in The Funnies, Lennon spun out a bittersweet comedy about the dysfunctional offspring of a Family Circus-style cartoonist. With his third novel, On the Night Plain, Lennon again went off in a new direction, this time producing a bleak western set on a sheep ranch after World War Two. Next came 2003’s Mailman, the sprawling, madcap story of an unhinged postal service worker; and after that, Happyland, a knives-out satire about a small town struggling to preserve its identity, which was serialized in Harper’s in 2006.
With two new books out this spring, Lennon remains unpredictable. His new novel Castle is a tense psychological thriller, and aside from its authorship, it has very little in common with Pieces for the Left Hand, Lennon’s simultanesously-released collection of one hundred brief “anecdotes” about uncanny experiences and ironic surprises.
Although Lennon deserves praise for his adventurousness and wide-ranging ambition, his literary chameleon act also betrays a tendency to elevate style over substance. In both Castle and Pieces for the Left Hand, Lennon’s prodigious technical gifts carry him a long way. But neither book fully transcends the level of genre exercise, and both lose steam once the limits of Lennon’s formal concerns become apparent.
Originally published in the UK in 2005, but only now available in the United States, Pieces for the Left Hand contains 100 very short stories, each of which turns on a surprising twist or a sudden ironic reversal. In “Town Life,” for example, a famous actress moves to a small town in order to find respite from life in the spotlight, but then becomes deeply unhappy when the locals actually do ignore her in an effort to respect her privacy. Other anecdotes mix humor with a dash of the odd or the uncanny: in “Switch,” the narrator realizes that when he moved several years earlier, he inadvertently took someone else’s very similar cat with him and abandoned his own.
The best of Lennon’s short-shorts convey lightning-quick flashes of insight into the irrationality and strangeness of human consciousness and emotion. In “Deaf Child Area,” the husband of a pregnant woman finds himself so unsettled by the presence of a “Deaf Child Area” sign down the street from their house that he decides to remove it. He recognizes that the action is completely irrational, and that the sign will have no bearing whatsoever on his unborn child’s ability to hear — yet all the same he cannot live with the discomfort and fear that the sign’s presence causes him. In “Familiar Objects,” Lennon ponders “the iconic degree of familiarity” taken on by everyday items like keys, wallets, and watches, and offers the perceptive observation that the comfort we take in our near-constant contact with these kinds of objects isn’t all that different from the obsession inherent in some forms of madness.
Lennon’s anecdotes also take strength from the fact that, unlike many writers of short-short stories, he eschews indulgent poetic effects. Throughout Pieces for the Left Hand, he sticks to straightforward storytelling and lucid, essayistic logic, and the results are far more satisfying than the strained lyricism that afflicts the work of short-short writers like Lydia Davis and her imitators.
Taken in isolation, many of Lennon’s anecdotes are extremely compelling. They are, however, also terribly formulaic. Given the fact nearly all of the 100 pieces in the book employ the same basic form — in which a brief set-up leads to an ironic reversal — it’s little wonder that they eventually grow tiresome in their predictability. After 30 or 40 repetitions of the same formula, Lennon’s anecdotes become about as surprising knock-knock jokes. You might not be able to guess what the punchline is going to be, but you always know exactly when it’s coming.
Lennon’s new novel Castle, on the other hand, squanders an engrossing and riveting set-up with a deeply disappointing ending. As Castle opens, a hearty and self-reliant middle-aged man named Eric Loesch has just purchased an isolated patch of countryside not far from the small town where he grew up. Loesch has not returned for nostalgic purposes; instead, he tries hard to keep himself at a distance from anyone who might have known him in his childhood, and responds coldly to friendly overtures from his neighbors. As he laboriously rehabs a battered old house on his newly purchased land, he avoids thinking about the life he has left behind — though he does seem to be haunted by the specter of some kind of awful violence in his recent past.
Loesch soon discovers that he is not alone on his property: someone seems to be hiding out in the impenetrable woods near his house. He also can’t help but notice the discomfiting fact that no animals seem to live there, save for one strange breed of white-furred deer. Meanwhile, he discovers that information about one of the previous owners of his property has been willfully obscured in official records.
Lennon packs the first 100 pages of Castle with unsettling mysteries and disturbing turns of events. As Loesch struggles to make sense of what’s going on around him, his narration gradually takes on a Poe-like quality of barely-suppressed madness. Lennon uses a combination of psychological uncertainty and the prospect of imminent danger in order to create a tremendous amount of suspense, all of which seems to moving Castle toward a dramatic moment of revelation.
But when that moment arrives, it becomes clear that Lennon has only been leading us on: the deep, dark secrets of Loesch’s past prove to be at once improbably elaborate and deadly dull. The novel’s conclusion is protracted and tedious, taking a great many pages in order to make labored and obvious points about Loesch’s psychology, as well as about the broader cultural and political implications of his experiences. In the end, Lennon’s expert ability to imbue his fiction with intrigue and suspense far outpaces the meager and unsatisfying substance of the revelations he has to offer.