You Wouldn't Want to Live There, but it's Fun to Visit: J. Robert Lennon's 'Castle'
J. Robert Lennon builds suspense as carefully as he builds character, and the fits and starts leading up to the story’s major revelations impressive
Length: 229 pages
Author: J. Robert Lennon
Publication date: 2009-03
Though there is a literal castle in J. Robert Lennon’s book of that name, there are also at least three figurative ones described by our narrator, Eric Loesch. These “castles” are both physical and mental structures that allow the deeply damaged protagonist to survive at various points in his life. The story begins when Eric returns to his hometown in upstate New York to build another of these figurative castles, this time in the form of a run-down cabin in the woods. As he tells us, “[O]ne area of my expertise is infrastructure-- its creation, maintenance, and repair-- and the tasks required for the renovation of a house happened to fit neatly into my particular skill set.” He refers frequently to his various skill sets, leading the reader to wonder where and how he acquired them.
In fact, Eric himself is a literary castle, a character built brick-by-brick. It doesn’t at first seem terribly odd that he spends a week in the woods rebuilding the cabin by himself, or that he is deeply upset with himself for inefficiently making one wrong cut and one wrong measurement while repairing the house, as if such mistakes were beneath him. It becomes clear that he is socially inept when he clumsily rejects the tentative advances of the real estate agent who sells him the house, and brusquely rebuffs the friendly questions of the salesman at the hardware store where he buys supplies.
When he begins to have strange fits of anxiety and nightmares about walking through sandstorms and hidden tunnels, we realize that he is troubled. It's not much longer before we realize that Eric is actually deeply disturbed. Because he sees the rest of the world as being disordered and unreasonable, the fact that he is the one who is off-balance occurs to the reader as a slow dawning, a sense of unease that is unjustified by isolated incidents, but confirmed by cumulative events. The building-up of this unreliable narrator is the book’s greatest strength.
It’s no spoiler and no shock to discover that Eric is a former soldier, but this is just one of the mysteries surrounding his past. We learn that something happened to his parents long ago, something dramatic enough that townspeople who remember him still tell him how sorry they are -- much to his distress. Eric does not want to remember. He's much more interested in why the name of the former owner of his cabin is blacked out on the legal records and why, in the middle of the land he’s bought, there is a patch of land with no right of access. On this patch of land, there are the ruins of a small castle.
Lennon builds suspense as carefully as he builds character, and the fits and starts leading up to the story’s major revelations impressive. Post-reveal, it’s an equally great pay-off to see how Eric’s obsessions and tics correspond to events in his past, which are eventually explained to us. However, beyond a certain point, there’s not much for a reader to do but appreciate the technical prowess on display. Is there anything more frustrating to a reader than an ending that is ambiguous, but was clearly not meant to be? If there is, it’s possibly the feeling that you actually do understand the ending, and there’s just not that much there to ponder.
The last half of the novel should hit much more powerfully than it does. It loses impact because the characters and situations introduced in this section, while excellent in concept, are not round enough to measure up to the full-bodied plot and character that Lennon has built so masterfully up to this point.
In a short-story format, these sketched situations might have carried more weight in implication than explication. But in a novel-length work, the detail and careful pacing of the first half contrasted with the hastily introduced elements of the second half, creates a situation that amounts to a bait-and-switch. We are prepped to expect a bang; we are given a long deflating whimper.
Even so, Castle is a legitimately smart and engaging read. Lennon has not only an excellent sense of character, but also a wonderful ability to create a tense and eerie atmosphere that suggests otherworldliness, all the while keeping factually down-to-earth. Castle is structurally unsound, but it’s great fun to explore.