Review of J. Robert Lennon's "Castle"

The following review appeared in the Dallas Morning News, 5 April 2009. The first half of the book is compelling and odd: You know something is up, but aren’t quite sure what it is and or what to foresee coming next. I wasn’t thrilled with the ending but it did make the eerie set-up relevant to the here and now: At first the story and style seemed in the spirit of 19th century American Romantics, like Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” The House of the Seven Gables, or Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Right now I’m reviewing Marcel Theroux’s Far North, another post-apocalyptic novel for these gloomy days of The Great Recession.
CASTLE/By J. Robert Lennon/Graywolf; 228 pages, $22
Self-Portrait of Guilt
Filmmakers have been quick to seize on the Iraq War as rich material: for instance, last year’s “In the Valley of Elah” features Tommy Lee Jones’s knockout performance as a military father struggling with his son’s death. But the most notable books so far have been nonfiction, a good example being Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s “Imperial Life in the Emerald City.” It’s only natural that now novels will attempt to portray this chaotic moment in history, but few will tackle that task with the complexity and eeriness of J. Robert Lennon’s fourth novel, “Castle.”
Constructed like a Chinese box, Lennon nestles story-within-story to mimic the ultimate reality of a labyrinthine Iraqi military interrogation center. At first the novel seems a quaint, neo-Gothic tale of a naïve homebuyer taking possession of a dilapidated fixer-upper in New York State, echoes of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe: There’s a preternaturally gloomy forest, an eldritch outcropping of rock, and ultimately, a small-scale castle with a mysterious owner: “In spite of the brilliance of the day, and of the trees’ nascent foliage, I was instantly enveloped in gloom” (68).
In the classic tradition of the unreliable narrator, it quickly becomes apparent that all is not well with the “I.” He seems to have fled some calamity in his life, but makes little mention of it, and when others do, such as his sister, he reacts with paranoia and hostility. His new home has an expanse of land into which he descends, literally and figuratively. Here he encounters a white deer that leads him to the castle, and pursues an elusive forest man with ties to his own past.
Here the novel veers wildly toward the psychological thriller. The owner of the castle appears to be one Dr. Avery Stiles, a disgraced professor of psychology from a nearby SUNY campus. The spooky tone reminiscent of early American Gothic literature vanishes. While the reader becomes a subject of mind games redolent of B.F. Skinner behavior modification experiments, cryptic clues about the suicide-murder of the narrator’s mother and father plop out of the closet. The narrator then reveals his father’s complicity in Dr. Stiles cruel experiments on himself as a boy.
Lastly what may be the narrator’s ‘true identity’ emerges, although in this hall of mirrors, it’s impossible to recognize which reflection is real: Without giving too much away, there’s a fictionalized Abu Ghraib prison scenario, in which the narrator plays a crucial role, and what seems to effect his return to the demented ‘castle’ of his youth. Lennon pulls off a virtuoso performance with this convoluted structure, and like the best thrillers, you can’t put it down. Clever and insightful, it compels the reader to solve a series of riddles that reveal the emotional rationale underpinning our most despicable behavior.

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