What a delicious, heartbreaking, hilarious and true work we have in J. Robert Lennon's eighth novel, Broken River. It arrives just in time for the kind of feverish reading that fans of good literature are wont to do when the sun finally shows its face and Montanans patiently wait another two months for real summer to arrive. It's a special novel that features both a plot worthy of binge reading and fiercely crafted sentences. Usually we have to settle for one or the other.
I've been a follower of Lennon's work (and spirited Twitter account) for some time, and this latest novel features his usual touchstones. We have at the center an eccentric, dysfunctional (but damn it, they love each other) family. The home that shelters them somewhere in rural New York state has a life and a will of its own. If you didn't know, homes are a re-occuring obsession in Lennon's work: home repairs, homes left vacant and a weird invitation to imagine what creaking floors are thinking.
On the surface, we're presented a murder mystery, but it's a trick. Lennon reels us in with corpses at the start so we don't notice that the real drama lies with the people who are still alive, their fractured and unlikely relationships with each other and the precious and terrible ways they strive to reconnect.
The family unit consists of Karl the sculptor; his wife, Eleanor (a novelist); and their precocious, home-schooled 12-year-old daughter, Irena. The story includes a couple of thugs in town, book editors in New York City, a pretty waitress at Denny's, and her drug-dealing brother. All of their perspectives are presented through a tightly wound, forever-shifting third-person perspective. Seriously, these voices are captured so closely it almost feels like a violation of their privacy. In Irena, we have a girl who knows more than her parents think. "She is beginning to feel resentful. It's nothing in particular that is making her angry, just the vague and growing sense that she is little more than a pawn in her parents' lives." And then her mother: "The gesture unexpectedly fills Eleanor with sadness. She suddenly believes that her marriage is going to fail." And finally, the cool dad: "He loves her, for shit's sake, everybody knows that," and then, "but for real: Irena is a girl who's part him. How can he deal with that? How can anyone?"
Lennon is a writer who works with flagrant disregard for genre. I know this because he said as much in our last interview. His last novel, Familiar, shifted brazenly from science fiction to domestic drama to something like horror, and things are much the same here. Most audaciously, Broken River features a strange third-person omniscient voice, the "Observer," with a self-referential, emerging consciousness—the kind that will get you thrown out of most writing workshops. "Indeed, it is quite capable of observing anything, all things," the Observer states of itself. "But it has begun to recognize that its purpose, as opposed to its ability, is limited: or more precisely, its purpose is to be limited. It is unconcerned with, bored in fact by, the enormity of its power."
Lennon uses the Observer to address readers directly about the godly powers of narration, how the story is built from which details the author chooses to include, and what he omits.
Add to the Observer not one but two characters who are novelists (Irena is working on a book, too), and now we're really breaking all the rules. Through Eleanor, Lennon seems to exorcise his own grievances about the relentless tortures of novel writing. "It's like a nuclear meltdown, a destructive reaction that feeds on itself and renders everything around it toxic," she says. "At best, finishing a draft these days feels like inadvertently knocking something off a table—a bowl of soup, say—and gazing at it there, slowly spreading at your feet, and thinking, I guess I'm not going to eat that anymore."
And that pretty much settles it: Broken River is a novel written in large part for writers, and why the heck not? Who even picks up a book anymore if not to extract the author's tricks, to fuel their own half-hearted NaNoWriMo promises to themselves? And even if by some rare miracle you're a person living in Missoula reading a book review in the Independent who is not also an aspiring writer, this book could be for you, too! There are killers on the loose, marriages in trouble and marijuana to be dealt—something, in other words, for almost everyone.
J. Robert Lennon reads from Broken River at Shakespeare & Co. Tue., May 23, at 7 PM.