While ostensibly a thriller about a family who move into a home whose previous occupants were murdered, it is also a commentary on the thriller genre itself.
At its best, postmodern fiction (or “meta” or however you like to categorize self-aware fiction) can be revelatory, telling the reader about herself, about literature or about society as a whole, all while simultaneously weaving an entertaining tale. At its worst, it can be cold, evasive and insulting to the reader, punishing her while also relying on her to turn the page. Broken River, the new literary thriller from J. Robert Lennon, is fortunately the former. While the novel is ostensibly a thriller about a family who move into a home whose previous occupants were murdered, it is also a commentary on the thriller genre itself. It’s self-aware, without viewing readers as plebeians, all while still functioning as an engaging mystery.
Broken River begins in dramatic fashion, with a young family attempting to flee their home in the small, upstate New York town of Broken River in the dead of night. While the basic plot of the opening could stand on its own as an appropriately spooky prelude, the most interesting element of the novel’s beginning is that it is told from the perspective of The Observer. The Observer is a mysterious presence who watches the family’s gruesome fate with detached curiosity, and continues to observe the home for years after, as it falls into the hands of vagrants, frisky teenagers, real estate agents and eventually a family of three who are leaving the city with hopes of a new start in Broken River.
This family unit consists of the moderately successful writer Eleanor, her philandering, struggling artist husband Karl and their daughter Irina, a precocious 12-year-old. Broken River is told in close third person, its perspective alternating between these three characters (and later a couple others) and The Observer. At first, The Observer seems to be a way for Lennon to introduce expository information while retaining this consistent point of view. However, The Observer grows as the story progresses, its sentience expanding to the point where it begins to have opinions in addition to its observations.
At first, the plot appears to be weirdly close to that of the first season of TV’s “American Horror Story,” right down to the ghostly observer watching the central family from within their own home. However, Broken River soon distinguishes itself as more of a dark (coal black) comedy than a tale of haunted house horror. The central mystery is interesting, with the delightful Irina and the put-upon Eleanor both investigating the fate of their new home’s previous inhabitants while man-baby Karl acts foolish in a variety of ways. The narrative loops back on itself as other characters are introduced, but Lennon resists the obvious, and the novel maintains its tension through the entirety of its 276 pages.
But the plot, however successful, isn’t the whole point. As The Observer’s perspective expands it continues to allow Lennon to take the wide view, but also allows him to comment on how and where a reader’s attention goes and on what is expected from a thriller. In Broken River’s final pages, Lennon’s Observer goes exactly where the audience wanted it to for over 200 pages, and the anti-climax is so profound that it will make even the most self-important of readers laugh at herself. It is, simply, brilliant.
While Broken River uses The Observer to excellent effect, its presence makes the moments where Lennon withholds too much all the more glaring. For a book so focused on sex and violence, there is surprisingly little of either. At one point, instead of plotting out a sexual encounter between two characters, Lennon summarizes, “they do all the stuff they do, and it’s finished after twenty minutes.” A similar approach is taken to much of the novel’s sex and violence, and it defangs what is an otherwise ferocious novel.
Still, Broken River makes its mark. The Observer shows how refreshing experimentation can be, particularly in a genre where plots often follow a distinct template. The fact that J. Robert Lennon incorporated this into a novel that is also entertaining on its own merits, functioning as a more conventional thriller and a meta one, is evidence that intelligent fiction doesn’t need to give readers the cold shoulder. Broken River is a novel that will pull most readers in, but make them think once they get there.