The only reason I (Ben) pulled J. Robert Lennon’s new novel off the shelf is because I saw the Graywolf Press insignia on the spine. Graywolf is the publisher behind such gems as Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses and Joe Coomer’s Pocketful of Names, not to mention authors like Percival Everett, George Packer, Sven Birkerts and Charles Baxter. You’re in good hands with those three little wolves.
While I didn’t have the time or money to buy Castle on the spot, I resorted to my fallback strategy: Mention it to Erik Brueggemann, who would then buy it himself, read it within 36 hours and loan it to me so we could discuss. “It reminds me of a Kubrick film,” he said when he handed it over. “We’ve got to talk about it.”
Castle’s cover sets the table pretty well: The book does feature mysterious woods in which a mythic white deer turns up, and the black permanent marker behind the title gives a hint of the sinister within. The book’s narrator, Eric Loesch, returns in middle age to his childhood home in upstate New York. He purchases a plot of land with a forested area, and only later does he inspect the title and realize that a tiny portion of that land, located inside those woods, does not belong to him. The owner’s name, however, is blacked out.
Told in the first person, Castle evokes the same eerie, off-center tone of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. You are aware, relatively early in the book, that there’s something odd about the narrator. He’s the sort of person who finds the “maze of ropes” leading to a bank teller window “unnecessarily convoluted.” Eric can be polite and businesslike one minute, hostile and antagonistic the next. He gets into arguments with his real estate agent, then a hardware store clerk, over trivial matters. “It is perhaps a fault of mine,” he confesses at one point, “that I find it difficult to conceal negative emotions from those who have elicited them, and rather than make a futile attempt to do so, I now chose to make my feelings known directly.” (Rest assured, he’s not a robot.)
Stuck inside his head, though, you can only guess at who Eric is and, more significantly, what he’s done and why he’s returned home. How does such a confident, disciplined man have the wherewithal to renovate an entire house by himself yet feel terrified about going into the basement? It will be relatively clear by the second or third chapter who Eric was in his past life and what may have transpired, but how those details play out (and when Lennon chooses to reveal them) are what propel the narrative along.
Eric begins exploring the woods and discovers there’s something hiding in them from his past. So begins the cat-and-mouse game which is as much psychological as it is tactical. One of Castle’s best virtues is that it just keeps getting weirder. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on its surreal logic (I thought David Lynch would direct this film before Kubrick would), it bends in another direction.
My main complaint is the same one I have with Never Let Me Go (although I loved that book and very much liked this one): Both books lay their cards on the table too soon, and too conventionally. After respecting the reader’s intelligence to put the pieces together, both novels resort at the eleventh hour to easy exposition, answering questions I wanted to be answered but with a bit more resolution than I’d prefer.
Castle’s ultimate revelation also feels arbitrary. Nothing specifically triggers Eric’s past memories — he just recalls them one moment. But why he couldn’t remember and/or confront these memories a hundred pages sooner is never explained, leaving the reader to feel like Lennon simply withheld them for no good reason. Given Castle’s exploration of the psyche, there are valid reasons why Eric’s memories were suppressed, but Lennon doesn’t dwell on them.
There is one truly creepy moment when Eric is trapped at the bottom of a pit in the forest, and who he sees when he looks up at someone else peering down at him is the book’s most haunting moment. Lennon’s accomplishment far outweighs the book’s minor shortcomings. Castle will leave a bruise.