See You in Paradise by J Robert Lennon: These weird and wonderful tales are just heavenly

The mood of quiet strangeness is such that when you reach stories resisting any hint of oddness, you know better than to drop your guard

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The Independent Culture

American writer J Robert Lennon specialises in fiction that sounds realistic but which delights in veering towards weird and possibly metaphorical realms. More than a few stories in his enormously enjoyable second collection See You in Paradise begin with lines whose cheerfully down-to-earth tone belies the oddness to follow. “It’s been a few years since we last used the magic portal in our back garden, and it has fallen into disrepair” (“Portal”). “They figured out how to bring people back to life – not everybody, just some people – and this is what happened to our friend Dan Larsen” (“Zombie Dan”).

Lennon is equally adept at launching bursts of violence or the uncanny into mundane situations. “Five months after Philip and Evangeline were married, Philip dropped his briefcase and four folders worth of loose papers in a pedestrian crosswalk and was run down by an old woman in a large car…” (“Hibachi”).

The mood of quiet strangeness is such that when you reach stories resisting any hint of oddness, you know better than to drop your guard. Even an opening as unassuming as “Brant Call was a pretty nice guy” (“See You in Paradise”) quickly descends into a personal inferno that is two parts Stephen King to one part Evelyn Waugh. Our pretty nice hero enters into a Faustian pact to win a billionaire’s daughter, landing him in a world of isolation, internet pornography and messages left in human faeces.

Lennon comes across like an intellectual horror writer with a sense of fun. Genre commonplaces are frequently twisted into absurdist forms. “Zombie Dan” turns the undead’s taste for brains into an emotionally eerie story about confronting the past, a meditation on the soul (and/or conscience) and even the existence of God. In “The Wraith”, one unhappy woman’s addiction to self-harm is allegorised through a genuinely unsettling ghost story, by turns satirical and erotic.

Almost anything can trigger Lennon’s imagination  but he seems particularly inspired when dramatising family tensions: “Portal’s” cool portrait of inevitable disrepair as children grow up and adults grow apart.

His simple language and deft dialogue is elevated by his cunning ways with plot or his willingness to experiment. “The Accursed Items” is a collection of sketches investing ordinary objects with surprising emotional weight. “The orange toboggan whisking her to her death.” “Your signature, rendered illegible by disease.” As Lennon notes himself: “I guess the things that scare you the most are the things that are almost normal.” In a year rich in short stories (Swift, Atwood, Mantel), See You in Paradise is up there with the best.