Ian Mond Reviews Subdivision by J. Robert Lennon
Subdivision, J. Robert Lennon (Graywolf Press 978-1-64445-048-2, $16.00, 240pp, tp) April 2021.
If my column has a mission statement, it’s to shine a light on literary or translated works with speculative elements that rarely get recognised or discussed within the genre. J. Robert Lennon is an example of the former, a literary author whose fiction has increasingly gravitated toward the fantastic but who is likely to be unfamiliar to genre readers. I came across Lennon’s work back in 2012 with his seventh novel, Familiar, which takes the notion of parallel universes and brilliantly shapes the conceit into a realist narrative about family, memory, and identity. Lennon followed this up in 2017 with the criminally underrated Broken River, an unconventional psychological thriller about infidelity, true-crime obsessions and the commercialisation of art, witnessed by an “observer”, a self-aware, literal representation of the omniscient narrator. Both those novels play at the fringes of the genre. It’s never confirmed whether the protagonist of Familiar has slipped into an alternate reality (she could be experiencing a psychotic break), and as much as I adored the role of the observer in Broken River, the entity has no direct bearing on the plot. But with Lennon’s latest novel, Subdivision, there’s no doubting its genre pedigree – it’s a surreal, discombobulating story set in a fantastic world that, like Familiar, deals with memory, identity, and the nature of trauma.
The novel begins simply enough: an unnamed woman moves into a guesthouse in a suburb known as “The Subdivision.” From the outset, though, we know something is not quite right. Although the story is narrated in first person, our protagonist is very much a blank slate, with no indication of where she’s from or why she’s relocated. There’s also something peculiar about the owners of the guesthouse, Clara and the Judge (who happen to both be judges named Clara) and their insistence that our narrator completes the enormous, befuddling jigsaw puzzle (without box or picture) haphazardly laid out on their dining room table. Working from an intricate map of the Subdivision provided by her hosts, our narrator searches for permanent lodging and a job, ably assisted by her stubborn, somewhat prophetic digital assistant named Cylvia and watched over by a black crow. On her journey, she will check out an apartment with an endless number of tiny rooms (reminiscent of the “half floor” from Being John Malkovich), board an ominous black bus with an equally foreboding driver, escape (on numerous occasions) the clutches of a shape-shifting bakemono, and secure a job as a “quantum tunnelling researcher” where she becomes quantumly entangled in an experiment involving tennis balls and a brick wall.
Although Lennon never spells anything out, a reader with a passing knowledge of genre tropes will quickly solve the mystery of “The Subdivision.” This isn’t a structural flaw; it’s clear that Subdivision is first and foremost a story about a woman either unwilling or incapable of confronting a traumatic event. There are no epiphanies or flashbacks where the narrator or the reader get a complete accounting of the truth. Instead, the absurdities and oddities the woman experiences, while unsettling and surreal, provide an oblique appreciation of her back-story. The most obvious example is the jigsaw puzzle that (giving nothing away) captures a snapshot of a tragedy clearly linked to our protagonist (although she fails to make the connection). There’s also a terrific scene where the woman visits the local church and surveys the stained-glass windows, which detail the story of “Our Lady of Perpetual Forbearance” – an intelligent and independent young girl who rebels against her father by “cohabiting with an older boy she met in a nightclub.” Then there’s our narrator’s regular encounters with the bakemono, which typically end in heated, violent arguments that provide a disturbing glimpse into a toxic, abusive relationship.
In its inventive and unconventional approach to trauma, Subdivision acts as a companion piece and a mirror image to Lennon’s earlier novel, Familiar. They are both works underlined by a tragedy that fundamentally and literally changes the world around the female protagonist. The critical difference is that Subdivision foregrounds the fantastic element, while Familiar is a realist novel that leaves open the question as to whether the narrative is set in a parallel universe. In both cases, there’s a recognition that genre fiction provides a unique, revealing way of considering a topic as weighty as the psychological effects of trauma. Subdivision, playful, surreal, edged with darkness, is another terrific novel from an author you may not have heard of, but who certainly should be on your radar.
This review and more like it in the June 2021 issue of Locus.
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