Book Review

Let Me Think: Stories is the prolific writer J. Robert Lennon’s third collection of short stories and eleventh book of fiction. Or twelfth; his newest novel, Subdivision, shares a release date with Let Me Think. The seventy-one pieces in this dexterous, surprising collection are often weird and unexpectedly weighty, particularly for such trim stories, like Lydia Davis by way of David Lynch.

Lennon is the rare writer who can write a story that stands on its own while also functioning metatextually. I was first introduced to Lennon’s work with his creepy, smart 2017 novel Broken River, which is a haunted house story functioning as commentary on haunted house stories or, more broadly, domestic dramas at large. It was also more than that, and Lennon writes with a freedom that suggests he is unencumbered by the shackles of genre. Which is not to say he leaps between genres; rather, his work reserves the right to surprise and intrigue by any means necessary.

Like Broken River, Let Me Think takes on a number of genres and themes with satisfying depth, and one key area of interest is marriage. Thirteen of the stories in the collection are titled “Marriage,” each with a parenthetical like (Fault), (Game), (Mystery), or (Dogs) accompanying it. While most of these wouldn’t qualify as great love stories, Lennon doesn’t take an entirely pessimistic view. Instead, he looks at the nature of the roles we play in marriage and also, at a higher level, how we read and write about the institution. Lennon seems to know that we as readers expect literary fiction about marriage to overflow with betrayal, infidelity, and existential malaise. This is particularly fun to read on the heels of watching a television show like WandaVision, which identifies the comforts we seek in pop cultural marital archetypes while also suggesting (with a Disney-approved light touch) that these archetypes are, of course, an illusion.

Lennon’s characters aren’t Wanda or Vision, but they do live out the kinds of marital scenes we expect from “marriage stories,” and the particular fun here is had in the moments when Lennon upends the expected scripts. That said, it is also fun just to read the barbs the spouses sling at one another, which are relatable even when tinged with the absurd. In “Marriage (Pie),” which reads like an R-rated Family Circus comic strip, a husband tries to cheer up his unhappy wife by baking her a pie. However, she determines that he is doing it wrong and bakes a pie for him, instead:

I brought your pie.
I don’t like pie, he says, his voice muffled by what sounds like a pillow.
Of course you do. Everyone likes pie.
I don’t like hot fruit.
You don’t like what? What kind of fucking phobia is that?
I didn’t say I was afraid of it, he says, more clearly now. I said I didn’t like it.

In another story, “Marriage (Drinking),” Lennon conjures up thought-provoking laughs by expressing how two people in a relationship can both be right while having feelings that are in complete opposition:

I’ve decided to try drinking, she says.
Drinking, he asks her. Why?
We’re complacent. Blandly happy. It’s time for a change.
We’re not happy at all, he says.
I’m sick and tired of everything being comfortable and easy, she says, taking a deep swig from the bottle. I’m shaking things up.
Things are very hard, he says. We live in an environment of complete emotional chaos.

While the quality of the stories is consistently high, one (or four) of the jewels in Let Me Think’s crown is the four-part series “The Cottage on the Hill.” Each part tells of a visit that a man, Richard, takes to a vacation rental, and the twists and turns of each subsequent trip are alternatingly melancholy and menacing. In the first story, Richard, his wife Evelyn, and their two children visit the cabin and have a nice vacation, but hints at something being off appear on the cabin’s walls, vaguely menacing photographs of previous cabin visitors and environments that don’t quite add up. In the next story, the cabin is still there, but its circumstances have changed drastically, as have Richard’s. Now the threat has moved out of the photographs into more tangible form, with Richard overhearing the cabin’s owners plotting in the night. I got shades of The Picture of Dorian Gray and even Annihilation from the foursome, but there is room within the stories for plenty of comparison and, perhaps, debate. Another standout is the collection’s longest story, “The Loop,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker. What begins as a Groundhog Day scenario spins off into something truly (and literally) transcendent.

While the “Cottage” stories and “The Loop” represent highs, there are no real lows in this collection. Several of the stories will do little more than warrant a raised eyebrow or a chuckle at the time of reading. But, to continue the Davis comparison, it was these seemingly lightweight stories that my mind would often continue to unravel, or that would pop into my head hours or days later. One of the collection’s smallest stories, “Nickname,” didn’t appear to have much heft on my first visit, but its sad message concerning our lack of understanding and empathy toward people with psychological and mood disorders has grown more salient as I’ve seen bullying run rampant on social media.

Though speculation and criticism aren’t the most delectable pairing, I’m going to take a risk and say that Lennon appears to be having fun here. Or at least we are, while reading. This is so refreshing as the book arrives on the tail end (one hopes) of a huge global trauma. The archetypical writer of literary short fiction seems particularly vulnerable to feeling burdened or tortured by their craft, while Lennon’s limber prose, enthusiasm for experimentation, and doubling down on what occasionally seem to be inside jokes, flies directly in the face of such somber stereotypes. This, once again, recalls Lydia Davis, whose words always seem to enjoy being on the page.

Let Me Think is another worthy addition in a fascinating oeuvre, and it is a particularly notable achievement when you consider that it is being released on the same day as Lennon’s ninth novel. These are stories that are considering themselves even as we consider them, and in this age of pedestals and pinnacles it is notable to find an author, particularly a cis male author, so open to interrogating his own work. Let Me Think is true to its title; it’s such a thoughtful collection, one that feels, at times, as if it is in direct conversation with its reader and with the world around us.

About the Reviewer

Like Sharon Stone and the zipper, Mike McClelland is originally from Meadville, Pennsylvania. He has lived on five different continents but now resides in Georgia with his husband, their two sons, and a menagerie of rescue dogs. He is the author of the short fiction collection Gay Zoo Day and his creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Boston Review, Vox, The Baffler, and a number of literary magazines and anthologies. He’s a graduate of Allegheny College, the London School of Economics, the MFA program at Georgia College, and is currently a PhD candidate in the University of Georgia’s creative writing program.