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Castle by Robert Lennon




1 April 2024

 

Castle by Robert Lennon

 

J. Robert Lennon appears to be a popular, well-respected author. According to the bio snap on the back cover of this book, he’s been published in The Paris Review, Granta, Harper’s, Playboy, and The New Yorker. He is also a writing instructor at Cornell. Much to aspire to, here.

 

But of course you know what’s coming: again, I don’t get it. At least the New York Times Book Review snippet on the back cover calls it “confusing,” so I’m not alone in that take. It’s the “convincing” part with which I deeply disagree.

 

It’s clear to me why this book is on my list for the semester: it has an unlikeable protagonist, Eric Loesch. But unlikeable might be an understatement, here. This man comes off haughty and narcissistic, like a know-it-all who believes himself smarter than he actually is—the perfect example of the R. Buckminster Fuller quote, “The more we learn the more we realize how little we know.” His interchanges with everyone, but in particular Jennifer, at the start of the novel made my skin crawl: his behavior and word choices are snarky and lofty, and the dialogue is unconvincing. Like why did he believe Jennifer was hitting on him just because she thanked him for helping her make a sale? Also why did he make her feel bad for thanking him for the sale—as though she only wanted his money (which she obviously didn’t, she was just being kind)? At times, it was difficult for me to distinguish the protagonist’s persona from the authorial voice; although, I suppose we are to assume that everything in the story is protagonist’s persona and not authorial voice, since it’s written in the first person. The dialogue was just so unnatural…as though the author himself is so deeply autistic he misapprehends the mechanics of human engagement. This, along with the fact that our protagonist has zero intimate connections, made the story difficult to read because I simply didn’t care what happened to him.

 

Those missing intimate connections spoke volumes to the persona’s engagement with and author’s portrayal of women, in particular. Eric had zero compassion or goodwill toward women. Jennifer is referred to always further than arms-length as “Jennifer the real estate agent” for some twenty pages straight. Our author, despite the number of times Eric engages with her, never permits Jennifer any agency or depth. The same can be said for the sister, Jill, whom he represents as this thorn in his side for being a druggie and alcoholic who sleeps around (it turns out she’s none of those things anymore and might’ve only been those things as a coping mechanism for being the scapegoat of the family)—but no compassion or permission for depth is extended to her either. Some curiosity is eventually extended to her toward the end of the story, when she shows Eric how much she knows about bees (228). But that’s all she gets. Stiles’s wife and daughter are represented solely as impediments to Stiles’s work on constructing his castle. Eric’s mother is portrayed always the battered, victimized damsel without any complexity or agency. She can do nothing against Eric’s father to prevent Eric from seeing Dr. Stiles. Womp womp. Finally, there’s another Jennifer, this time a private first class, introduced with scant backstory at the book’s climax. Why the name Jennifer again? What is going on with this author’s representation of women in this book? Is this a reflection of the protagonist’s or the author’s disposition toward women? This made me deeply uncomfortable.

 

This book’s plot also left me wanting more. In it, Lennon dropped numerous threads to which he never returned. For example, what does this white deer represent? Why is it on the cover of the book? My best guess is a slaughtered innocence…? If so, why does the deer keep attempting to save Loesch? Then, Lennon has this perfect opportunity to draw a metaphor/link between Dr. Stiles’s tortured squirrel and the detainee being interrogated at Camp Alastor—but he never goes there. He leaves it untouched. Finally, how does the logic work if this agent was dishonorably discharged only to be called back for another mission at the end of the novel? I’m having such difficulty with this. He’s already stood trial for war crimes. There’s an implication here that he would now be working for intelligence, but he wasn’t before. He was in civil engineering (although the backstory on how he got into civil engineering is left mostly unexcavated). These dropped threads niggled at my brain.

 

The part that frustrated me most about this story was plot-based. First, the sleight of hand Lennon uses to keep his reader ignorant of Loesch’s history with Stiles—for fully half of the novel—felt absolutely disingenuous. Remember that it’s written in first person. So it baffles logic that Loesch demands the name on the deed of the land at the center of his newly purchased lot as though he doesn’t already know the name. Loesch finds the die cast locomotive on the table and picks it up as though he’s never seen it before. Loesch keeps the child’s drawing of a castle aside as he clears the house as though he doesn’t know it was Stiles’s daughter who drew it. He even reads Stiles’s book as though he is unaware of the book’s authorship. It seems to me that Lennon was attempting to retain some mystery about the protagonist even though it’s written in first-person—and that felt really slimy to me. It was more confusion than mystery. It would be one thing if Lennon was implying that Loesch had memory loss because of PTSD/trauma…so I kept waiting and waiting for such a suggestion to surface, but it never did. Womp womp.

 

On a similar note, the appearance of Camp Alastor at the climactic moment of the novel itself annoyed me for various reasons. First, Lennon did everything in his power to avoid mentioning Loesch’s motives earlier—as though his protagonist were deliberately trying to avoid thinking about them (but if he were avoiding them, why buy the house?). The appearance of this new setting and new characters in Camp Alastor meant that we needed all fresh-new backstory and descriptions right at the climax of the novel. And instead of engaging me, I was mentally kicked out of the reality of the story. I was bored and frustrated. Moreover, since I dislike war stories for various reasons, I was annoyed: I didn’t choose to read this because I thought it’d be a story about war crimes.

 

Perhaps all of this could’ve been tied together neatly in a bow if there were some lesson here (or even a sniff or hint of a lesson) about PTSD and its fallout. Instead, at the end of the novel, our protagonist heads off on a new mission. Frankly, the whole thing felt underdeveloped, disjointed, and instead of mysterious, it was confusing.

 

As for my own craft, I suppose I learned from Lennon a handful of things. Even if my protagonist is flawed, she will still remain likeable enough to compassionate. She’s lovable. She’s just an utter disaster. My protagonist’s actions will always make some logical sense. I’ll be conscientious to be faithful to my reader about my protagonist’s thoughts/plans/history. Since she’s written in the first person, her motives and knowledge will not be withheld from my reader’s view, if possible, so that I am not being disingenuous with my reader. Any thematic or plot-based threads I create will be purposeful and carried through to the ending (or removed, if not useful). Finally, I will not jolt my reader out of the pre-established setting right at the climactic moment so that they become mired in new backstory right as the pace accelerates.

 

I would not recommend this book. It wasn’t an enjoyable read.

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