SUBDIVISION
By J. Robert Lennon

LET ME THINK
By J. Robert Lennon

The prize at the end of the so-called puzzle-box narrative — that amnesiac riddle, that prism held up to reality — is a return to reality itself. If the protagonist can best the maze, we all end up on solid ground, together. The television show “WandaVision” comes to mind, and recent books including Marie-Helene Bertino’s “Parakeet” and Marie NDiaye’s “That Time of Year,” stories where real life hides in a matrix of the narrator’s grief.

But it’s also an old fun house, fiction as escape room. The mysteries are at once simple and profound: Who am I? Who are you? How did we get here? What happened to us? There is a secret to uncover, and the secret is perhaps best described as plot. If we can only focus for long enough, the answer will arrive and we will be released.

J. Robert Lennon’s ninth novel, “Subdivision,” is a dazzling enigma packed with mysteries in miniature. There are houses built in probability wells, adventures in quantum tunneling and quizzes on whether or not characters have behaved wisely. There’s even an actual jigsaw puzzle that, once completed, may lead us out of this intricately planned trap — only the pieces are blurry, constantly shifting, and the box with the reference image is lost.

The novel follows an unnamed narrator who has arrived at a guesthouse in a town simply known as the Subdivision, “a 4.19-square-mile area bounded by open fields, woods and hills.” She can’t remember her journey, or what (let alone whom) she has left behind. In fact, the Subdivision occludes everything that happened or existed before the Subdivision. She’s tired, prone to blacking out in the guesthouse’s bathtub, and she often forgets to eat during the day. But she’s also optimistic, ready to get to work, to make “progress.” The owners of the guesthouse (both judges, both named Clara) provide her with a map that details apartment rentals, job openings and areas of interest. A tunnel that leads from the Subdivision to the City is closed, with a sign marked “Danger,” so that, naturally, is where we’re heading.

Here Is Fiction as an Escape Room, Packed With Mysteries 1

Like levels in a video game, each chapter provides a clue to the nature of the Subdivision. The guesthouse serves as a home base, with the judges Clara offering, well, clarity: the occasional tip to besting the challenges ahead. “I see you’ve made some progress on the puzzle,” one of the Claras says of the jigsaw spread in the lobby, even though the narrator has hardly touched it.

The mysteries of the Subdivision oscillate between the hilarious and the dangerous, with a small cast of vexed characters who do more to block than facilitate the narrator’s advancement. A crow stalks the edges of the story, a living omen, and a confused truck driver named Mr. Lorre (right, lorry) is in constant need of rescue. On a trip to the pharmacy, Fortuitous Items, the narrator arms herself with a portable digital assistant named Cylvia, who provides context, navigation and emergency support. When she requests a bedtime story, Cylvia replies, “Fictional narrative is not among my functions,” before launching into a tour de force pastiche, scrambling Holden Caulfield with Anna Karenina. Cylvia is part of the mystery too, and is undergoing an evolution of its own, constantly changing appearance, texture and tone, while offering only spotty protection from the obstacles at hand: the frayed but strangely unbreachable borders of the Subdivision, a little boy everyone assumes belongs to the narrator, and a shape-shifting demon, known as the bakemono, who reappears throughout the book.

“Do not fornicate with the bakemono,” Cylvia warns. When the bakemono corners our narrator, usually disguised as a handsome man, she enters into conversation with him obliquely, as if acting out scenes from another life. The little boy’s menacing coloring book depicts arguments between a married couple, and the pages of illustrated confrontations dissolve into the kind of specificity that should perhaps trouble the narrator, but does not.

When she acquires a job as a Phenomenon Analyst in a place called the Dead Tower, quantum physics grabs hold of the plot. Questions arise about the nature of matter, what matters and why. The bricks of a wall, the narrator observes, “appeared to me as collections of particles, bound by mutual agreement to form a wall, but susceptible to the right kind of persuasion. Just because they were a wall, it didn’t mean they had to be a wall at all times. Some of them, I could see, were open to not being a wall, for a little while.”

Is the Subdivision a place, an emotion or an event lodged in the back of the mind? Is it limbo, or a wall persuaded to shield us from the truth? Lennon is a masterly aggregator of dread. His refusal to neatly answer these questions allows for a bold, unsettling narrative to take shape. The main character’s memories have been fragmented, jumbled and reassembled in a district specifically zoned for her story. Every novel is a subdivision in this way: a plot of land, a land for the plot.

* * *

Lennon’s new story collection, “Let Me Think,” is like a fistful of those jigsaw puzzle pieces strewn across the floor. A few fizzle before they’ve begun, but at its strongest, the book is an indelible assortment of characters in flux, fighting, flailing, failing to communicate, and eating or not eating (or hate-eating) pie. Each of the 71 stories, some just a sentence or paragraph long, tackles the small and large disappointments, existential horrors and mundane joys of modern life.

A husband and wife reflect on the parts of themselves that are free or trapped depending on the opening and closing of their house’s many doors. A child’s fear looms large and grows unchecked, threatening calamity. Titles appear more than once as variations on a theme, as in Helen Phillips’s collection “And Yet They Were Happy.” Brief bursts of marriage — “Marriage (Love),” “Marriage (Fault)” and my favorite, “Marriage (Marriage)” — read as bright two-minute plays, brimming with glee and acid and rage. I like to imagine this collection as the prequel to “Subdivision,” a template for the life the nameless narrator cannot seem to recall. The shortest piece, “Death (After),” is a dose of morbid mirth: “I believe in the afterlife in much the same way I believe in the after-party: It may exist, but I’m not invited, and so will never find out.”

The “collective municipal memory” in the story “SuperAmerica” is not so distant from the Subdivision’s collective municipal amnesia. (The occasional crow pecks at the margins of these pages too.) “The Cottage on the Hill,” an operatic turn, epic in scope, spans four sections of the book and across a character’s lifetime. Richard visits the same cottage on different weekends years apart, finding himself and the landscape always irrevocably altered. Certain mysteries alight, and fade. “He does not expect any kind of epiphany,” Lennon writes, “he wants only to see.”

To see and be seen, to comprehend, to connect the dots. In the title story, a father implores his daughter to let him think, to give him a moment’s solitude, or just a moment for imagination. The plea appears throughout the collection, as much a prayer as an invocation: “Let me think,” Lennon’s version of “Let there be light.” In one of the most daring stories, “The Loop,” a woman named Bev relives the same day of furniture deliveries for an eternity, watching herself turn into the vortex of a cul-de-sac on repeat: “The first dozen cycles, the first hundred, she screamed silently at First Bev to wait, just wait, let me think, let me see.”

Toward the middle of the collection, “The Museum of Near Misses” presents an alternate reality in which Donald Trump was never elected president. His portrait hangs in the titular museum, a curiosity at best, but maybe also a warning, our own personal bakemono. At long last, the narrator crashes through the exhibit and into our timeline; he is cleareyed, awake, rejecting “a life of self-deception … dictated not by reality but by the seductive and shapely contours of fiction.” The puzzle and the loop and the riddle can only last for so long. Eventually, we get an invitation to the after-party. “The real world beckoned,” he thinks, and at last, life is upon him.