As good as fiction gets.Ben Winters

The creative process is a funny thing, but when I’m in the middle of it I don’t do much laughing. As an idea gestates in my mind, hour upon hour of writing time can flit by with my skull hitting the desk more frequently than my fingertips hit the keyboard. Trying out a new genre or stylistic approach, I’m prone to stalling on line one as I dither over how to write my way in. And even if I manage the impossible, and set down a passage coherent enough to read back, the first results of my experimentation invariably feel forced, contrived. At times like these, I tend to wonder how I’ve ever managed to string more than two words together.

But there are those out there who make it all look like a breeze, who make the transition from one style, one genre, one voice to another as easily as shifting gears in a car. The Italians (as usual) have a beautiful word for this: sprezzatura. The word’s literal translation is ‘studied carelessness’, and since I added it to my vocabulary it leaps from my lips whenever I see an example. Think Gene Kelly smiling away while nailing a particularly dicey series of steps: sprezzatura. Or Ella Fitzgerald scatting out a dizzying melody, rattling off every note in perfect pitch: sprezzatura. And when I turn to the literary world for examples of the term, J. Robert Lennon is the first name that springs to mind.

A self-described mid-list author, J. Robert Lennon has yet to win a National Book Award. Perhaps that’s no injustice; maybe there have been more brilliant or daring works which better deserve the accolade. But for this reader, no author has ever made his feats of daring seem so effortless or fun. Across eight novels, and too many short stories for me to count, he has tapdanced through just about every genre of fiction, tested his pipes in a variety of different voices, held himself down to microfiction and expounded across five-hundred-page novels, and never once have I detected him breaking a sweat. His latest novel Broken River is another chance for him to dive headlong into a genre experiment where some of his literary-fiction contemporaries might hesitate to dip a toe.

The premise of Broken River could be the set-up to more than one genre outing: a Brooklyn family moves into a ‘fixer-upper’ house in rural upstate New York. The house comes at a bargain, and for good reason: it’s been vacant ever since its previous occupants were brutally murdered over a decade ago. Lennon’s early description of the murders hints at drug-related motives, so it’s a crime novel, no? But hold on – isn’t this more or less where we find ourselves on page one of The Amityville Horror? Part of the fun of Broken River is Lennon’s refusal to be tethered to one genre or another. As curiosity about the house’s past gets the better of two of the new occupants, we get caught up in the mystery with them. Mother Eleanor and her twelve-year-old daughter Irina both dredge up clues on the same internet cold-case forum, each unaware of the other’s online identity. Lennon keeps us firmly planted in the real world while telling the story from Eleanor’s and Irina’s points of view, as well as those of man-of-the-house Karl and the book’s other main characters. When Irina impulsively reveals a clue that’s best kept secret, the awful chain of actions, reactions and coincidences that follows remains grounded in realism.

Like a primitive life-form crawling out of some sort of narrative primordial ooze, the Observer evolves into a character of its own, gradually acquiring feelings, making judgements.”

But there’s another element running through the novel, a ghost-like presence that begins to take shape early on. Lennon has often cited the idea that every story is a ghost story, the ‘ghost’ being the reader hovering over each scene, passively observing. “The reader is the ultimate extra-diagetic story element,” he tells me. “They’re the entity the story is made to serve.” In Broken River, he tries a trick I’ve never seen before, granting self-awareness to his omniscient narrator. Like a primitive life-form crawling out of some sort of narrative primordial ooze, the Observer (as it comes to be called) evolves into a character of its own, gradually acquiring feelings, making judgements. For the most part passive, and completely detached from the plot, this character might have been superfluous in any other book. But its supernatural presence comes in handy for a novel that feels at times like it wants to be a full-fledged haunted-house story, letting the novel wear the genre without succumbing to its tropes. The Observer watches as events move inexorably toward disaster and you wonder, with mounting urgency, if it might gather enough presence within the story to do more than just sit by and hope for the best.

But wait! There’s more! As if Lennon hadn’t piled enough onto his plate, amid this swirl of tension, foreboding and disconcerting surrealism, he somehow manages to make Broken River his funniest novel since 2003’s out-and-out comedy Mailman. Lennon’s previous two novels, Castle and Familiar, eschewed humour entirely. Both are fine works of fiction, and Familiar in particular is masterfully told. But, as with any straight dramatic work by a natural comic (Woody Allen’s excellent Interiors, for example), my admiration for those novels, immense as it is, is tinged with the tiny sense of a lost opportunity to make me laugh.

Broken River wastes no such opportunity. Like Mailman‘s fictional college town of Nestor and its neurotic protagonist, the rundown titular town of Broken River overflows with oddballs, more than one of whom will take a turn hijacking a given scene through the force of their personalities. For instance, there’s Jasn (not Jason) Hubble, Irina’s guitar teacher, who clearly consumes copious amounts of marijuana and treats his pre-teen student “like she’s about forty and they are in a band together.” And of course there’s the dubious family patriarch Karl, a failing sculptor who thinks he’s found a new creative outlet making glass knives but who seems to spend more time in his studio polishing his manhood than any of his art pieces, a man stalled in adolescence, whose utter inability to rise to the station of fatherhood is perfectly portrayed in his tendency to call his daughter ‘Dude’. Karl is hardly likeable, objectively speaking, and he’s not alone in that regard. But Lennon’s manic narration and laugh-a-line dialogue work to sand down the rougher edges of a rather abrasive cast of characters.

The book’s rampant humour works without undermining the essential element of suspense, mostly because Lennon is some kind of genius, with an innate instinct for how much joking around he can get away with.”

Lennon has admitted in past essays that writing comes easily to him, and when I ask him about all the different ingredients he had to juggle to make his story work, his casual replies prove the point. Discussing chapter one, which moves with ease from the most gripping opening I’ve read in years to a haunting extended denouement, he tells me he wrote it “spontaneously one morning in a half-awake effort to recreate the middle chapter of To the Lighthouse.” To a writer like me, who needs a minute to work out the wording of a thank-you when a stranger writes ‘Happy Birthday’ on Facebook, the idea of spontaneously writing even the rough draft of such a powerful piece seems like some kind of alchemy.

Likewise, the book’s rampant humour works without undermining the essential element of suspense, mostly because Lennon is some kind of genius, with an innate instinct for how much joking around he can get away with. It’s an instinct so innate, in fact, that it passes under his own radar. “Honestly,” he tells me when I mention how often Broken River made me laugh out loud, “I don’t remember trying to make the book explicitly funny at all – but perhaps the omniscience and roving third-person-limited demanded kind of a more antic worldview. There are things I recall laughing at while writing it, but they felt more like private jokes for myself than overtly funny writing.”

And while I would find it daunting to try to shoehorn what amounts to a philosophical exercise into a thriller, Lennon’s account of the Observer’s inception as he wrote chapter one is almost flippant. It was created, he says, “entirely by accident. I wanted to show violent action, but not directly; I wanted this cushion that would allow the reader to learn of terrible events without feeling compelled to look away. By the time I got to the end of the chapter, the Observer had earned its capital ‘O’, and when I returned to it a couple of chapters later, I realised that it could have its own narrative arc, too, that mirrored the way a story gathers self-awareness as it rolls along. It’s kind of an extended joke about reading and writing.”

What Lennon sees as an extended joke is actually a risky move, a device that might read like so much authorial navel-gazing to a sceptical reader. But Lennon doesn’t speak in terms of risks. As a professor at Cornell University, he tells me, “I always tell students that if they know what they’re doing, they should do something else.” Are there any real risks to writing? I ask. “Writing itself is already not much of a risk, if we’re talking about the big picture – the stakes for failure, especially to a college professor like me, are pretty low. So I’ve got the luxury of following my bliss, I guess. Good writing, for me, usually comes from groping around in the dark, and if Broken River succeeds artistically, that might be why. I had no idea what I was doing! The book taught me how to write it.” Though some would give in to trepidation and shelve their more off-the-wall ideas, Lennon doesn’t have it in him to give up so easily. Some years back he wrote in a blog post: “I am not depressed, I am not plagued by self-doubt, I do not get writer’s block, and I am not bothered by others’ regard for what I do. These are not moral victories, and they are not the result of clever techniques I’ve devised. They’re in my nature.”

Still, it would be unfair to Lennon to put his achievements down to a superlative talent and inborn bravery. No amount of genius can write a novel on its own. And when, after reading a poignant essay he wrote that touched on his recent divorce, I ask him about the concept of suffering for one’s art, his answer reveals that maybe his sprezzatura doesn’t come so easily after all. “Well, I don’t think suffering is good for writing. It might give you material for later, when you feel better, but for most people, misery makes everything harder.” Interestingly, two subplots running parallel in Broken River, one about Karl’s creative block and another about Eleanor, a successful author unable to move past the opening of her latest novel, are written with a telling empathy. Lennon tells me, “Broken River isn’t explicitly about my life – those characters are very different from my ex and me – but sure, I’m always channelling, usually unwittingly, my anxieties and miseries and fears in my writing. I think all of us do.”

How fortunate for Lennon that he has an avenue for channelling his feelings. How lucky for his readers that it leads in so many wildly different directions. “I do love writing in different forms and subgenres, and I’d like to think that all the categories of work I do inform one another in some way. Even if they don’t, this prevents me from getting bored. I always feel as though I have something to write.”

May it ever flow so freely.

Read the opening chapter of Broken River


J_Robert_Lennon_newJ. Robert Lennon is the author of eight novels, including Familiar, Castle and Mailman, and the story collections Pieces for the Left Hand and See You in Paradise. His fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, Granta, Harper’s, Playboy, and the New Yorker. Broken River is out now from Serpent’s Tail. Read more.

Brett Marie, also known as Mat Treiber, grew up in Montreal with an American father and a British mother and currently lives in Herefordshire. His short stories and other writing have appeared in publications including The New Plains Review, The Impressment Gang and Bookanista, where he is a contributing editor. He recently completed his first novel The Upsetter Blog.
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