It is impossible not to be intrigued by some of the plights featured in this or that story, thanks in part to the kinetic and assured momentum of the sentences and word choices, but thankfully, there is no pressure or encouragement from Lennon to regard any character as a person. —Jeff Bursey
See You in Paradise
J. Robert Lennon
Graywolf Press, 2014
236 page, $16.00/$18.50 Canadian
1. Since the appearance of his first novel, the award-winning The Light of Falling Stars (1997), J. Robert Lennon has built a reputation on taking ideas and, in novels and short stories, bending them to form alternate versions of the world. What starts off as a shared comprehension quickly dies a jolly death, though that pleasure is restricted to the chamber containing the narrative; outside a consideration of the structure itself, the substitution of Lennon’s vision for the actual world dislocates his characters and, by extension, Lennon’s readers. Put bluntly: I believe the world is such-and-such, but if I take to heart what See You in Paradise says is the way things truly are, then my naive perspective is overturned with an attentive and genuine malice.
After reading this newest collection of short stories, in addition to two earlier works, Pieces for the Left Hand (2005), a set of 100 stories, and Familiar (2012), a novel, it seems to me that, unlike Wordsworth’s resigned statement that the “world is too much with us,” Lennon believes the contrary: people are not concentrating sufficiently on what the world contains, are too comfortable (or complacent, or distracted) to look at it with their own eyes, are ill-suited for it, or are immature and therefore incapable of comprehending what is going on. His disapproval is present everywhere, but it is humorously presented, a point to which I’ll return.
Lennon positions the reception of this book with the first story, “Portal.” It dwells on the ramifications felt within a family of a feature discovered by the two children on the property. Jerry, the father, starts off:
It’s been a few years since we last used the magic portal in our back garden, and it has fallen into disrepair. To be perfectly honest, when we bought this place, we had no idea what kind of work would be involved, and tasks like keeping the garden weeded, repairing the fence, maintaining the portal, etc., quickly fell to the bottom of the priority list while we got busy dealing with the roof and the floor joists. I guess there are probably people with full-time jobs out there who can keep up an old house in great shape without breaking their backs, but if there are, I’ve never met them.
My point is, we’ve developed kind of a blind spot about that whole back acre.
Jerry and his wife, Gretchen, are having marital difficulties, and their children, Luann and Chester, are typical youngsters, complete with mood changes and late-night phone calls from unidentified friends. While it’s stated that the family’s adventures in the portal start to change each one, Jerry is either unaffected or doesn’t have the awareness to look at his own conduct. His description of their property’s features and problems (one and the same) is amusing for its absence of abiding wonder. After the first few excursions to worlds with hovercrafts, robots, and faceless people, the portal comes to resemble a clapped-out amusement park attraction. Much like the raising of the dead in a later story, “Zombie Dan,” attempts at a scientific explanation are left out or only hinted at, and the conceit works because Lennon doesn’t expend any energy making this freak of Nature probable; it just exists, like the story itself, and has the same reality.
Confidence is required to place those opening lines at the beginning of a book. This story of a worlds-travelling device, one that hums and sputters, provoking Jerry to consider it as “out of whack” and “[l]ike an old guy in denial about the onset of dementia,” is a story about, among other things, story-telling itself. Chester gets lost in Xbox, and Luann spends hours out of the home. The portal can’t compete. What is Lennon saying about his own efforts, and about the regard for writing nowadays?
It is a sign of control, and of a firm hand in fashioning this book, that while its contents were written over the span of fifteen years, it is as unified as if it had been composed within a shorter time. With that in mind, it’s worth indicating certain themes, techniques, and moods present throughout the 14 stories.
Categorizing people is important for Lennon, and for the characters in his fiction. Considering the previous owners of his home, Jerry tells us that they “looked like indoor types, frankly. Not that Gretchen and I look like backcountry survivalists or anything.” Edward and Alison in “No Life” vie to adopt a particular child with an older couple, the man a judge, “an honest-to-God member of the privileged class”; in the title story a hapless man is threatened by the rich father of the woman he’s somewhat interested in, and forced to take a job he’s never considered. Not everyone can resume life as “restored-life individuals” (italics in original) in “Zombie Dan”; it’s only for the privileged few: “The rich had been getting the goodies for millennia—why should that change now?” In one of the most harrowing tales—and many can qualify as Twilight Zone-like—bearing the evocative title “A Stormy Evening at the Buck Snort Restaurant,” a brother and sister are “running out of money” and people in those parts know there’s “something wrong with them…” Yet no one intercedes.
Examples of people slotting others above or below them are found throughout the book, with the most extended and naked assertion of difference saved for the final story, “Farewell, Bounder,” where two characters can see from outside the people gathered for the unusual party that’s underway, and which they are about to join:
… the town’s activists can be seen affecting solemnity, their caftans and rimless spectacles and gaunt, squirrellike bodies moving through the emptied front room. Here is Lydia Speyer, who lies down in front of idling bulldozers. There is Paul Waller, architect of the local scrip, earned in local health food stores and restaurants and redeemable at same… They are all here, the editor of the anarchist newspaper, the brewer of medieval beers, the used bookstore owner, the wan naturopath.
This is both true to life—who does not know that special someone who brings a guitar to rallies and sings made-up lyrics to popular tunes?—and almost underhanded in the undercutting of the commitment of these progressives. Lydia lies down only in front of bulldozers that are idling; the anarchist editor socializes instead of setting off an incendiary device somewhere; the unhealthy looking practitioner of healthy eating likely redeems Waller’s food-snobbish currency. And what comes to mind if the adjective “used” when applied to the bookstore owner is viewed as operating in parallel function to “wan”?
Class matters a great deal (this is also seen in Pieces for the Left Hand). The rich return from the dead and, like the judge in “No Life,” pick their descendants—extending their lives in ways not open to others—while everyone else stumbles along to extinction (like the brother and sister in “A Stormy Evening”). In “The Wraith” this is located in fantastical terrain: the depressed Lurene miraculously separates into lighter and heavier selves. Her husband, Carl, must accommodate the two halves, a sheer impossibility, especially as his efforts are half-hearted. The result of his failure is horrific and throws Lurene back into desperate confusion. Margaret and David in “Total Humiliation in 1987” are separated by her ambition to do more with her talents as a chef and his contentment at raising their two daughters, Lynnae and Lyrae. Whether it’s politics or money, domesticity or regeneration, career demands or accidents of birth, the lesson is that the great divide separating the majority of people from the minority cannot be crossed. In these stories society is not breaking down; that has already happened.
What would unite the two main groups? If an answer to that question was revealed, still it would be useless, in the end, for the prime agents here are not so much flawed as inadequately formed, resembling creatures out of the cosmogony of Empedocles. See You in Paradise is replete with women without a childhood that prepares them for adult life, men who have not emerged out of late adolescence (the train-obsessed narrator of “Weber’s Head” may be a candidate for Peter Pan Syndrome) and those who, like the teacher Luther in “The Future Journal” (who wants to classify his second grade students’ reading habits along evolutionary lines), are incapable of considering the impact their ideas might have on others. Nothing will go quite right or as expected.
It is impossible not to be intrigued by some of the plights featured in this or that story, thanks in part to the kinetic and assured momentum of the sentences and word choices, but thankfully, there is no pressure or encouragement from Lennon to regard any character as a person. The menace present throughout the collection, built up from “Portal,” exists on the atmospheric level, and doesn’t transform the figures into objects deserving of compassion. (Think of Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods .) Though the opening line of “Total Humiliation in 1987”—“We rose at four in the morning—Margaret, the girls, and me—and zombied into the already-packed van to depart on our final family vacation…”—portends trouble, and a burial occurs, it isn’t a sentimental tale. Lennon’s roster of players includes failures, liars and whiners, the inept, the incurious, and those who are high maintenance but not high performance. What they are made to go through is fascinating, but if you stopped to think of them as your friends, you’d conclude that they’re dead losses.
Perhaps it’s needless to say that, for me, such a disregard for the importance of characters is a positive aspect to See You in Paradise.
At the start I mentioned Lennon’s disapproval, and malice. These are motors that power most of the best stories. (When missing, as in “Ecstasy,” “Flight” and “The Future Journey,” the result is less interesting). These two features can be presented under the guise of geniality—in “Portal,” Jerry foregoes being a pioneer in favour of restoring an old house—and can also be sharply worded. The prickliness takes many forms. In “The Accursed Items,” a list of damned objects or memories, each described in a sentence that begins with upper-case letters and ends without a period, Lennon writes: “THE ORANGE TOBOGGAN whisking her to her death”. When former lovers meet due to a travel mishap in “Flight,” the woman offers the man a place to sleep at her apartment: “‘There’s a patch of cold floor with your name on it,’ she said.”
Apart from the phrasing of lines that bring out rueful laughter and leave a sting, Lennon has branded his characters in a way that opens them to ridicule. Though names contain importance for the characters—in “Hibachi,” Philip and Evangeline correct “anyone who mistakenly called them Phil or Angie”—they work here in specific ways, when characters are given one. A name will appear in more than one story, as though it’s been shoved in there for our convenience; a name can be dull (John, Dan); or in the case of Lurene, Ruperta, Lynnae, and Lyrae, names serve as markers of someone’s failed attempt at uniqueness. This dismissal of a convention highlights the inferior position identity has in relation to what is going on.
All that, in addition to the action, the shifting perspectives, the ambiguities, and the clever, entertaining, and unanticipated conceits that fill See You in Paradise, while important, would not be enough if J. Robert Lennon didn’t posses a fine command of tone. This is a rich collection that will repay rereading.
Excerpt from “Zombie Dan”
One of the main features of See You in Paradise is the way Lennon pays attention to language as he makes his various points. (By points I mean, in part, that he has his fixations, like most writers.) In the excerpt there is an appeal made to Dan’s friends on this basis: “as friends and neighbors and decent, compassionate Americans.” That there is nothing special about these people—they are as “thoroughly debased” as the narrator of “Weber’s Head” says he is—becomes obvious. But the appeal to their patriotism works on multiple levels: it’s amusing, and seems a ridiculous way to enlist people; it is rhetoric that the speaker, the rich Ruth Larsen, Dan’s mother, believes can clinch the deal; and it aims to elide the distinctions that separate her from the undifferentiated friends, who would never be her neighbors. It also speaks to the higher stature of Americans when compared to people in other countries. American exceptionalism, then, is class snobbery on the nation-state level, and that fits in with many other remarks and observations in this collection. In “Zombie Dan” money’s reach extends into the grave, putting a spin on the term voodoo economics. None of Dan’s friends stand up to Larsen because they are further examples of the half-formed men and women, those without a strong inner core, who populate Lennon’s collection. Maybe they are the truly dead.
Excerpt from “Zombie Dan”
They figured out how to bring people back to life—not everybody, just some people—and this is what happened to our friend Dan Larsen. He had died falling off a yacht, and six months later, there he was, driving around in his car, nodding, licking his pale thin lips, wearing his artfully distressed sport jackets and brown leather shoes.
Dan’s revivification was his mother’s doing. Yes, it was his father, Nils Larsen, who greased the right palms to get him bumped up in the queue, but his mother Ruth was the one who had the idea and insisted it come to pass, the one who called each and every one of us—myself, Chloe, Rick, Matt, Jane, and Paul—to enlist our emotional support, as friends and neighbors and decent, compassionate Americans. When Dan revived, she explained, he would need to rely upon the continuing attention and affection of his loved ones, and it was all of us—his old high school chums—whom he would need the most.
Of course we agreed, how could we not? Dan’s mother brought us all together in the living room of the Larsen penthouse—a place of burnished mahogany, French portraiture, and thick pink pile carpet which none of us had ever imagined we’d see again—and told us what was about to happen. We stared, petits fours halfway to our gaping mouths, and nodded our stunned assent. A thin, bony, almost miniature woman of sixty with an enormous dyed-black hairdo like a cobra’s hood, Ruth Larsen gazed at each of us in turn, demanding our fealty with hungry gray eyes. The procedure would take several days, and then Dan would need a few weeks to recuperate—could we be counted on to sit at his bedside, keeping him company in regular shifts? Why yes, certainly we could! Were we aware just how important a part of the revivification process it was to remind the patient of his past, thus effecting the recovery of his memory? And did we know that, without immediate and constant effort, the patient’s memory might not be recovered at all? And so would we commit ourselves to assisting in this informal therapy by enveloping Dan in a constant fog of nostalgia for the entire month of March? Sure, you bet!
Excellent, Mrs. Larsen told us, her papery hands sliding over and under each other with the faint, whisking sound of a busboy’s crumb brush.
What remained unspoken that day, and went largely unspoken even among ourselves, in private, as we waited for Dan to be brought back to life, was that we had pretty much gotten over Dan since the funeral, and could not be said to have greatly missed him. Indeed, by the time Dan reached the age of twenty-five, the year of his death, we had basically had all of Dan we could ever have wanted. He was, in fact, no longer really our friend. The yacht he’d fallen off of belonged to some insufferable blueblood we didn’t know—that was the crowd Dan had taken to running with, the crowd he’d been born into, and all parties concerned had seemed satisfied with the arrangement. Dan’s being dead was no less acceptable to us than his having drifted out of our circle.
But Ruth Larsen didn’t know this, and so we were the ones she called upon in Dan’s time of need. Either that, or the insufferable bluebloods had refused. At any rate, we agreed to do what Mrs. Larsen demanded, and for better or worse he would be our friend once again.
—J. Robert Lennon
Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic and author of the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010). He is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.