J. Robert Lennon’s new novel, Subdivision, is a very good book that serves up what feels like a very bad dream. Imbued with dream-logic, the plot unfolds for the unnamed narrator along a path laden with mercurial transformations, uncertainty, and memories that are always just barely out of reach.
Subdivision presents a Kafkaesque tale with attention to minute detail worthy of the works of Nicholson Baker along with the embedded, frustrated teleology reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguru’s The Unconsoled (1995), where the dream’s protagonist-with-a-goal finds, in the mode of Zeno’s Paradox, an infinite sequence of intervening goals each demanding attention first.
How can one summarize a complicated, extended dream? Recounting plot points would get you nowhere, just as the plot points themselves get the narrator nowhere, as they push against a dense dream headwind. In Subdivision, we encounter a tale whose narrative bones are not double-jointed in non-linear flashback time but rather walk ever forward, strung together in accordance only with fuzzy logic. As a result, we find ourselves, along with the narrator, accepting at face value one bonkers situation after another: sure, the boss’ desk becomes a car, no problem; next?
Nevertheless, here is the gist: a stranger comes to town — the narrator, a young woman, arrives in a strange city and checks into a guesthouse where she has reserved a room after speaking with Clara, one of the owners. The other owner is a retired judge referred to as ‘the Judge’. The protagonist immediately learns that both owners are named Clara and both of them are retired judges.
The narrator is unsure why she has arrived in this city, as she has nowhere to live and no job. The guesthouse owners help by drawing a map of the Subdivision (which turns out to be the small village containing the guesthouse, connected to the actual city by one closed road). The map specifies places for her to investigate for possible homes and potential jobs.
She looks at one home with rooms too small to stand in and then a second, which alternates between an idealized garden cottage and a falling-down shack surrounded by dead trees and gnarled plants. The handsome homeowner tries to seduce her (she seems to remember some sort of intimate history with him) before he, a shape-shifting ‘bakemono’, transforms into a snarling, long-snouted animal. Along the way, amidst multiple encounters with this creature, she purchases a portable electronic assistant, which alternately hectors her and gives her life-saving advice before itself transforming into, well, something else.
Oh, and the crow shown on the book cover, flickering into and out of existence, also plays a major role.
[The crow] returned…and then it vanished again, and came back a second time. …[W]hile I could observe only two states of the crow…[it] could observe many states of this house … [It]thought no more of me…than it thought of any other possible person at this moment in any other possible variation on the world.
The narrator lands a job as a ‘Phenomenon Analyst’ at a boarded-up office tower in which there is only one co-worker, a man whose office is a “precinct of heightened probability” containing a machine that, in a pivotal plot point, continuously throws tennis balls against a wall. This is an experiment in ‘quantum tunneling’ in which he is certain, as he believes he is ‘quantum-entangled’ with the machine, that at some point one ball will be aligned with the wall on the quantum scale so as to pass right through it.
Along the way she finds herself entangled, and not on the quantum scale, with a little boy whose coloring book depicts couples with serious domestic problems, a boy whom she will be required by her electronic assistant to try to rescue from a distant abandoned shopping mall.
This sort of narrative risks going entirely off the rails in a most uninteresting way. Lennon, however, is in control, adept at stringing curious set pieces together to create a dreamlike world that has momentum and logic all its own and that captures the reader in much the same way that a dream ensnares its dreamer. The author is skillful at creating a very willing suspension of disbelief while immersing the reader in a surprisingly coherent experience of the incoherent with a surprisingly satisfying ending.
And speaking of quantum physics, suspension, and coherence, deep reality at the quantum scale is said to be one in which all possibilities coexist simultaneously. Every possible alternate state of affairs is probable and all possibilities are held in suspension until a consciousness (say, that of the narrator or, more meta, the reader) makes an observation, causing this delicate suspension to ‘decohere’. From there, all possibilities collapse into the one actualized world, real or dreamt.
Perhaps this deeper understanding of reality might illuminate why the experience of reading Subdivision, with its quantum experiment and its world of simultaneous possibilities transforming and evolving moment by moment, can be so satisfying. Or maybe not.