This post is the first in a new series by the Kenyon Observer which aims to cover the intellectual life on Kenyon’s campus. In the near future we will feature audio and video of lectures and events alongside commentary from our departmental correspondents.
Event: J Robert Lennon Reading
Department: English / Creative Writing
Date: February 4th 2013
Location: Cheever Room of Finn House
Correspondent: Jessica Lieberman
As the snow fell quietly outside this Monday afternoon (2/4), J Robert Lennon gave a reading of his recent fiction to an audience of staff and students in the Cheever Room of Finn House. After a double introduction by Kenyon Review Editor, David Lynn, and Fellow, Elizabeth Rogers, Lennon read from a recently written, unpublished short story as well as an excerpt from his newest (and seventh) novel, Familiar. In addition to being a prolific and much-anthologized writer of fiction, Lennon is also a blogger, a widely published reviewer, and a writing professor in the Cornell MFA program, where he met Rogers.
His short story, “Doors,” explored a couple’s relationship through the lens of their attitudes towards the doors in their home. The meditations are incited by a robin’s nest that has suddenly appeared over the front door. The story flowed smoothly between narration of the two characters’ gendered conceptions of the domestic space, into self-psychologyizing investigations of their relationships to threshholds. While the husband’s analysis followed a more Freudian line of reasoning of blaming his mother’s habits for his own flaws, the wife understood her relationship to doors on a more symbolic level, acknowledging their meaning in almost literary terms. Finally, the piece came to a close with a narrative shift to the mother bird’s perspective as it lamented the lifeless egg that would never hatch outside the couples’ door. This last gesture bent the narrative arch back to the first image, enacting the symbolism of the mourned egg.
Next, Lennon read an excerpt from Familiar. The protagonist of the story, Elisa Brown, has recently discovered herself in an alternate reality, wherein her son had never passed away (as he did in her original reality). This alternate life includes a new husband, job, appearance, and routine. Crucially, however, Elisa does not know the narrative of this new life and must use the clues she finds around her in order to perform her expected roles (professional, marital, etc.). The portion that Lennon read in Cheever painted a detailed portrait of her first morning in this world. The thoughtful, magical-realist writing explored the phenomenon of the psychological breakdown from the ever fascinating and paradoxical lens of a rational narrator (“Thus, I am insane.”) The excerpt also built upon the themes of difficult marriages and psychology established earlier by his reading of “Doors.”
During the Question and Answer session, KR Fellow Natalie Shapero asked Lennon about the inspiration for the plot of Familiar. Lennon explained that the central aspect of the plot had been inspired by his reaction to September 11th, a feeling that the world had somehow been completely alerted. Although he wrote a draft exploring the idea in 2001, it was his revisiting of the text eight years later that lead to the revisions, which comprised the published novel. As a more mature person and writer, Lennon’s vision changed somewhat. The text expanded to include a discussion of the challenges of parenting, such as the impossibility of knowing in which ways you have caused your children’s successes and failures, he explained, with a critical self-awareness reminiscent of his characters’.