See You in Paradiseby J. Robert Lennon
The first substantial collection of short fiction from "a writer with enough electricity to light up the country" (Ann Patchett)
"I guess the things that scare you are the things that are almost normal," observes one narrator in this collection of effervescent and often uncanny stories. Drawing on fifteen years of work, See You in Paradise is the/i>/b>
The first substantial collection of short fiction from "a writer with enough electricity to light up the country" (Ann Patchett)
"I guess the things that scare you are the things that are almost normal," observes one narrator in this collection of effervescent and often uncanny stories. Drawing on fifteen years of work, See You in Paradise is the fullest expression yet of J. Robert Lennon's distinctive and brilliantly comic take on the pathos and surreality at the heart of American life.
In Lennon's America, a portal to another universe can be discovered with surprising nonchalance in a suburban backyard, adoption almost reaches the level of blood sport, and old pals return from the dead to steal your girlfriend. Sexual dysfunction, suicide, tragic accidents, and career stagnation all create surprising opportunities for unexpected grace in this full-hearted and mischievous depiction of those days (weeks, months, years) we all have when things just don't go quite right.
Menace runs through many of the 14 stories in novelist Lennon’s (Familiar) first collection, tales of quotidian suburban existence into which he often introduces a surreal element. In “Hibachi,” the gift of the eponymous grill leads to an odd act of liberation for a frustrated wife. “Total Humiliation in 1987” features an unhappy family on vacation that finds another family’s time capsule and thereby casts a pall on their own activities. In the entertaining title story, a young man of “good qualities” successfully romances a CEO’s daughter only to find that he has made a deal with the devil. While “The Accursed Items” is a failed attempt at experimental fiction, “Weber’s Head” generates dread and humor in equal measure as a man who rents out a room in his apartment gets more than he bargains for when he takes on the proverbial roommate from hell. Three of the best stories, “Zombie Dan,” “The Wraith,” and “Portal” are postmodern riffs on classic science fiction and horror themes. Although several individual stories score, the collection as a whole strikes the same note of suburban disaffection over and over again to the ultimate point of diminishing returns. (Nov.)
“Unconventional yet emotionally resonant stories. . . . Much like his contemporaries Kevin Wilson or Wells Tower, Lennon is one of those writers who defies categorization and is as likely to fit comfortably into Weird Tales as he is into Granta.” Kirkus Reviews
“[Lennon] leads us through his own magic portal into weird, slightly-aslant worlds brewed and steeped in the hot coils of his brain.” The Quivering Pen
“J. Robert Lennon finds the uncanny hidden in the every day. His dark, subservise stories are both hilarious and unnerving. See You in Paradise is smart, inventive and full of the fascinating particularities of various wayward humans.” Dana Spiotta
“These are wonderful, fearsome stories, and I read each with a growing sense of unease and delight. J. Robert Lennon is a master of the dark arts.” Kelly Link
“To say that J. Robert Lennon writes speculative fiction is like suggesting that Tom Waits is known primarily for a couple of toned-down love songs. Dark, dazzling and reeling with a constant undertow of dangerous unpredictability, See You in Paradise is a brilliant return to the short story by one of the great masters of eerie domestic dystopia. In Lennon's world, anything can happen--and does.” Téa Obreht
Fourteen short stories about the quiet desperation and weary pessimism of a disparate collection of travelers. One sometimes wonders if Lennon (Familiar, 2012, etc.) published his recent Salon essay, "How to Write a Bad Review," in hopes of catching a break. Fortunately, the gifted novelist doesn't need the help, especially if he continues to produce short fiction such as the unconventional yet emotionally resonant stories on display here. Culled from the past 15 years, the stories tend to drift toward two categories. The more exotic and eye-catching are those that insert some magical or paranormal element into a drab suburban landscape. In "Portal," an otherworldly doorway to alternate universes becomes as boring as an old gaming console with time. In "Zombie Dan," a couple finds that their recently resurrected pal is even more irritating when he comes back with an omniscient knowledge of their sins. In "The Wraith," a wife's depression cleaves from her to become a golemlike ghoul that haunts her husband. Then there's "Weber's Head," an old-fashioned horror story whose narrator wouldn't be amiss in the other category of stories of disaffected people on the edge of despair. "I was thoroughly debased, and at thirty-two felt like I'd been an old man for a long time," says Weber's roommate. "I saw no way of escaping the life I'd made for myself, save for the mountain falling down and crushing me." This theme of characters with their songs stuck in their throats runs throughout the book in stories like "No Life," in which a couple struggles with adoption; "Total Humiliation in 1987," about a marriage on the rocks; and "Hibachi," a Carver-esque tale of the liberating power of home appliances. Perhaps best to end with "The Accursed Items," an interesting diversion originally broadcast on This American Life.Much like his contemporaries Kevin Wilson or Wells Tower, Lennon is one of those writers who defies categorization and is as likely to fit comfortably into Weird Tales as he is into Granta.
Haunting, surreal, and often tinged with sf elements, Lennon's work is driven by a fertile, experimental imagination and an interest in examining suburban malaise. As evidenced in works such as Mailman and Familiar, he creates strange, unsettling, dystopian fictional worlds that may be real or may be manifestations of his protagonist's obsessions, pathologies, or damaged psychological states. Drawing on 15 years of work, this excellent collection includes a rich variety of short stories that explore these distinctive themes. Some of the stories are idea-driven, and they often highlight Lennon's interest in sf and flair for the macabre. "The Wraith," for example, is a potent and disturbing story about an unhappy suburban couple who suddenly find themselves living with a zombielike supernatural creature. Other entries are more character driven, and these are among the best in the collection. "Total Humiliation in 1987," for example, is an accomplished, emotionally moving psychological study of a marriage falling publicly and ignominiously apart in front of a couple's teenage children during a summer vacation. Lennon examines the suddenly unfathomable gulf that has grown between these parents with intelligence and pathos. VERDICT An eerie, disquieting, and powerful collection; recommended for fans of literary fiction. [See Prepub Alert, 6/2/14.]—Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community Coll., CT
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See You in Paradise
By J. Robert Lennon
GRAYWOLF PRESSCopyright © 2014 J. Robert Lennon
All rights reserved.
It's been a few years since we last used the magic portal in our back garden, and it has fallen into disrepair. To be perfectly honest, when we bought this place, we had no idea what kind of work would be involved, and tasks like keeping the garden weeded, repairing the fence, maintaining the portal, etc., quickly fell to the bottom of the priority list while we got busy dealing with the roof and the floor joists. I guess there are probably people with full- time jobs out there who can keep an old house in great shape without breaking their backs, but if there are, I've never met them.
My point is, we've developed kind of a blind spot about that whole back acre. The kids are older now and don't spend so much time wandering around in the woods and the clearing the way they used to used to—Luann is all about the boys these days, and you can't get Chester's mind away from the Xbox for more than five minutes—and Gretchen and I hardly ever even look in that direction. I think one time last summer we got a little drunk and sneaked out there to have sex under the crabapple tree, but weeds and stones kept poking up through the blanket and the bugs were eating us alive, so we gave up, came back inside and did it in the bed like normal people.
I know, too much information, right? Anyway, it was the kids who discovered the portal back when we first moved in. They were into all that magic stuff at the time—Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, that kind of thing—and while Gretchen and I steamed off old wallpaper and sanded the floorboards inside the house, they had this whole crazy fantasy world invented back there, complete with various kingdoms, wizards, evil forces, orcs, trolls, and what have you. They made paths, buried treasures, drew maps, and basically had a grand old time. We didn't even have to send them to summer camp, they were so ... tolerable. They didn't fight, didn't complain—I hope someday, when the teen years are over with, they'll remember all that and have some kind of relationship again. Maybe when they're in college. Fingers crossed.
One afternoon, I guess it was in July, they came running into the house, tracking mud everywhere and breathlessly shouting about something they'd found. "It's a portal, it's a portal to another world!" I got pretty bent out of shape about the mud, but the kids were seriously over the moon about this thing, and their enthusiasm was infectious. So Gretchen and I followed them out across the yard and into the woods, then down the little footpath that led to the clearing.
It's unclear what used to be there, back in the day—the land behind our house was once farmland, and the remains of old dirt roads ran everywhere—but at this time, a few years ago, the clearing was pretty overgrown, thick with shrubs and brambles and the like. We figured there'd just been a grain silo or something, something big that would have resulted in this perfectly circular area, but the kids had uncovered a couple of stone benches and a little fire pit, so clearly somebody used to hang around here in the past, you know, lighting a fire and sitting on the benches to look at it.
When we reached the clearing, we were quite impressed with the progress the kids had made. They'd managed to clear a lot of brush and the place had the feel of some kind of private room—the sun coming down through the clouds, and the wall of trees surrounding the space, and all that. It was really nice. So the kids had stopped at the edge, and we came up behind them and they were like, do you see it? And we were like, see what? And they said look, and we said, where?, and they said, Mom, Dad, just look!
And sure enough, off to the left, kind of hovering above what had looked like another bench but now appeared more like a short, curved little staircase, was this oval, sort of man-sized, shimmering thing that honestly just screamed "magic portal." I mean, it was totally obvious what it was—nothing else gives the air that quality, that kind of electrical distortion, like heat or whatever is bending space itself.
This was a real surprise to us, because there had been nothing about it in the real estate ad. You'd think the former owners would have mentioned it. I mean, the dry rot, I understand why they left that out, but even if this portal was busted, it's still a neat thing to have (or so I thought at the time), and could have added a few thou to the asking price, easy. But this was during the economic slump, so maybe not, and maybe the previous owners never bothered to come back here and didn't know what they had. They looked like indoor types, frankly. Not that Gretchen and I look like backcountry survivalists or anything. But I digress.
The fact is, this portal was definitely not busted, it was working, and the kids had taken special care uncovering the steps that led to it, tugging out all the weeds from between the stones and unearthing the little flagstone patio that surrounded the whole thing. In retrospect, if I had been an expert, or even a well-informed amateur, I would probably have been able to tell the portal was really just puttering along on its last legs and would soon go on the fritz. But of course I was, and I guess still am, an idiot.
We all went over there and walked around it and looked through it—had a laugh making faces at one another through the space and watching each other go all funhouse-mirror. But obviously the unspoken question was, do we go through? I was actually really proud of the kids right then because they'd come and gotten us instead of just diving headfirst through the thing like a lot of kids would have done. Who knows, maybe this stellar judgment will return to them someday. A guy can dream! But at this moment we all were just kind of looking at each other, wondering who was going to test it out.
Since I'm the father, this task fell to me. I bent over and pried a stone up out of the dirt and stood in front of the portal, with the kids looking on from behind. (Gretchen stood off to the side with her arms folded over her chest, doing that slightly disapproving stance she does pretty much all the time now.) And after a dramatic pause, I raised my arm and tossed the stone at the portal.
Nothing dramatic—the stone just disappeared. "It works!" Chester cried, and Luann hopped up and down, trying to suppress her excitement.
"Now hold on," I said, and picked up a twig. I braced my foot on the bottom step and poked the twig through the portal. This close, you could hear a low hum from the power the thing was giving off. In retrospect, this was probably an indication that the portal was out of whack—I mean, if my TV did that, I'd call a guy. But then, I figured, what did I know?
Besides, when I pulled the twig out, it looked okay. Not burned or frozen or turned into a snake or anything—it was just itself. I handed it to Gretchen and she gave it a cursory examination. "Jerry," she said, "I'm not sure—"
"Don't worry, don't worry." I knew the drill—she's the mom, she has to be skeptical, and it's my job to tell her not to worry. Which is harder to do nowadays, let me tell you. I got up nice and close to the portal, until the little hairs on my arms were standing up, and I stuck out my index finger and moved it slowly toward the shimmering air.
Chester's eyes were wide. Luann covered her mouth with her fists. Gretchen sighed.
Well, what can I say, it went in, and I barely felt a thing. It was weird seeing my pointer finger chopped off at the knuckle like that, but when I pulled it out again, voilà, there it was, unharmed. My family still silent, I took the bull by the horns and just shoved my whole arm in. The kids screamed. I pulled it out.
"What," I said, "what!!"
"We could see your blood and stuff!" This was Chester.
Luann said, "Daddy, that was so gross."
"Like an x-ray?" I said.
Chester was laughing hysterically now. "Like it got chopped off!"
"Oh my God, Jerry," Gretchen said, her hand on her heart.
My arm was fine, though. In fact, it felt kind of good—wherever the arm had just been, it was about five degrees warmer than this breezy little glade.
"Kids," I said, "stand behind me." Because I didn't want them to see what I was about to do. Eventually we'd get over this little taboo and enjoy watching each other walk super slowly through the portal, revealing our pulsing innards, but for now I didn't want to freak anyone out, myself least of all. When the kids were safely behind me, Gretchen holding them close, I stuck my head through.
I don't know what I was expecting—Middle Earth, or Jupiter, or Tuscany, or what. But I could never in a million years have guessed the truth. I pulled my head out.
"It's the vacant lot behind the public library," I said.
* * *
I think that even then, that very day, we knew the portal was screwed up. It was only later, after it was obvious, that Gretchen and I started saying out loud the strange things we noticed on the family trip downtown. For one thing, the books we got at the library—obviously that's the first place we went—weren't quite right. The plots were all convoluted and the paper felt funny. The bus lines were not the way we remembered, with our usual bus, the 54, called the 24; and the local transit authority color scheme had been changed to crimson and ochre. Several restaurants had different names, and the one guy we bumped into whom we knew—my old college pal Andy—recoiled in apparent horror when he saw us. It was just, you know, off.
But the really creepy thing was what Chester said that night as we were tucking him in to bed—and how I miss those days now, when Chester was still practically a baby and needed us to hug and kiss him goodnight—he just started laughing there in the dark, and Gretchen said what is it, honey, and he said that guy with the dog head.
Dog head? we asked him.
Yeah, that guy, remember him? He walked past us on the sidewalk. He didn't have a regular head, he had a dog head.
Well, you know, Chester was always saying crazy nonsense back then. He still does, of course, but that's different—it used to be cute and funny. So we convinced ourselves he was kidding. But later, when we remembered that—hell, we got chills. Everything from there on in would only get weirder, but it's that dog head, Chester remembering the dog head, that freaks me out. I guess the things that scare you are the things that are almost normal.
Anyway, that first time, everything seemed to go off more or less without a hitch. After the library we walked in the park, went out for dinner, enjoyed the summer weather. Then we went back to the vacant lot, found the portal, and went home. It's tricky to make out the return portal when you're not looking for it; the shimmering is fainter and of course there's no set of stone steps leading up to it or anything. Anybody watching would just have seen us disappearing one by one. In an old Disney live-action movie (you know, like Flubber or Witch Mountain) there would be a hobo peering at us from the gutter, and then, when we vanished, looking askance at his bottle of moonshine and resolvedly tossing it over his shoulder.
So that night, we felt fine. We all felt fine. We felt pretty great, in fact; it had been an exciting day. Gretchen and I didn't get it on, it was that time of the month; but we snuggled a lot. We decided to make it a weekend tradition, at least on nice days—get up, read the paper, get dressed, then out to the portal for a little adventure.
Because by the third time it was obvious that it would be an adventure; it turns out the portal wasn't permanently tied to the vacant lot downtown. I don't know if this was usual or what. But I pictured it flapping in the currents of space and time, sort of like a windsock, stuck fast at one end and whipping randomly around at the other. I still have no idea why it dropped us off so close to home (or so apparently close to home) that first time—I suppose it was still trying to be normal. Like an old guy in denial about the onset of dementia.
The second time we went through, we thought we were in old-time England, on some heath or something—in fact, after I put my head in to check, I sent Gretchen back to the house to fill a basket with bread and fruit and the like, for a picnic, and I told Luann to go to the garage to get the flag off her bike, to mark the site of the return portal. Clever, right? The weather was fine, and we were standing in a landscape of rolling grassy hills, little blue meandering creeks, and drifting white puffy clouds. We could see farms and villages in every direction, but no cities, no cars or planes or smog. We hiked down into the nearest village and got a bit of a shock—nobody was around, no people, or animals for that matter—the place was abandoned. And we all got the strong feeling that the whole world was abandoned, too—that we were the only living creatures in it. I mean, there weren't even any bugs. It was lonesome as hell. We went home after an hour and ate our picnic back in the clearing.
The third time we went through, we ended up in this crazy city—honestly, it was too much. Guys selling stuff, people zipping around in hovercars, drunks staggering in the streets, cats and dogs and these weirdly intelligent-looking animals that were sort of like deer but striped and half as large. Everybody wore hats—the men seemed to favor these rakish modified witch-hat things with a floppy brim, and women wore a kind of collapsed cylinder, like a soufflé. Nobody seemed to notice us, they were busy, busy, busy. And the streets! None of them was straight. It was like a loud, crowded, spaghetti maze, and for about half an hour we were terrified that we'd gotten lost and would never find the portal again, which miraculously had opened into the only uninhabited dark alley in the whole town. (We'd planted our bicycle flag between two paving stones, and almost lost it to a thing that was definitely not a rat.) Chester demanded a witch hat, but the only place we found that sold them wouldn't take our money, and we didn't speak the language anyway, which was this whacked-out squirrel chatter. Oh, yeah, and everybody had a big jutting chin. I mean everybody. When we finally got home that night the four of us got into a laughing fit about the chins—I don't know what it was, they just struck us as wildly hilarious.
Annoying as that trip was, I have to admit now that it was the best time we ever had together, as a family I mean. Even when we were freaked out, we were all on the same page—we were a team. I suppose it's perfectly normal for this to change, I mean, the kids have to strike out on their own someday, right? They have to develop their own interests and their own way of doing things, or else they'd never leave, god forbid. But I miss that time. And just like every other asshole who fails to appreciate what he's got while he still has it, all I ever did was complain.
I'm thinking here of the fourth trip through the portal. When I stuck my head through for a peek, all I saw was fog and all I heard was clanking, and I pictured some kind of waterfront, you know, with the moored boats bumping up against each other and maybe a nice seafood place tucked in among the warehouses and such. I guess I'd gotten kind of reckless. I led the family through and after about fifteen seconds I realized that the fog was a hell of a lot thicker than I thought it was, and that it kind of stung the eyes and nose, and that the clanking was far too regular and far too deep and loud to be the result of some gentle ocean swell.
In fact, we had ended up in hell—a world of giant robots, acrid smoke, windowless buildings and glowing toxic waste piles. We should have turned right around and gone back through the portal, but Chester ran ahead, talking to himself about superheroes or something. Gretchen went after him, Luann reached for my hand (maybe for the last time ever? But please, I don't want to go there), and before you knew it we had no idea where we were. The fog thickened, if anything, and nobody knew who had the flag, or if we'd even remembered to bring the thing. It took Luann and me half an hour just to find Gretchen and Chester, and two hours more to find the portal (and this only by random groping—it would have been easy to miss it entirely). By this time we were all trembling and crying—well, I wasn't crying, but I was sure close—and nearly paralyzed with fear from a series of close calls with these enormous, filthy, fast-moving machines that looked like elongated forklifts and, in one instance, a kind of chirping metal tree on wheels. When I felt my arm tingle I nearly crapped myself with relief. We piled through the portal and back into a summer evening in the yard, and were disturbed to discover a small robot that had inadvertently passed through along with us, a kind of four-slice toaster type thing on spindly anodized bird legs. In the coming weeks it would rust with unnatural speed, twitching all the while, until it was nothing but a gritty orange stain on the ground.
Excerpted from See You in Paradise by J. Robert Lennon. Copyright © 2014 J. Robert Lennon. Excerpted by permission of GRAYWOLF PRESS.
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Meet the Author
J. Robert Lennon is the author of seven novels, including Familiar, Castle, and Mailman, and a story collection, Pieces for the Left Hand. His fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, Granta, Harper’s Magazine, Playboy, and The New Yorker. He lives in Ithaca, New York, where he teaches writing at Cornell University.
Eric Michael Summerer is a voice actor and producer who has narrated numerous audiobooks, as well as countless instructional recordings and video games. He is an Audie award finalist (for Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End) and shares an AudioFile Earphones Award (for William Gibson's Burning Chrome). In addition, Eric co-hosts the popular boardgame podcast The Dice Tower.
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