See You in Paradise by J. Robert Lennon Review

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<i>See You in Paradise</i> by J. Robert Lennon Review

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See You in Paradise is funny. Delightful. Fun to read.

It’s worth mentioning this up front. So many literary collections don’t aim to entertain. Not so with this charming, witty peek into Lennon’s imagination. Paradise runs the gamut from mystical portals to zombies, home hibachi grills to family vacations. In each case, the story challenges the limits of what can happen in our world—and Lennon highlights the things that make us most painfully human. Vulnerability. Our need to feel loved. Base desires. Anger.

The opening story, “Portal,” feels like the adult companion to childhood stories like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or The Secret Garden. A family buys a house that comes with a portal to other dimensions … only this portal’s broken, limping along like a dying jalopy. It reveals to the family their secret fears, and it sends things back from other dimensions with them—into the real world. Still, they can’t quit it.

“Problems don’t just go away, you know?” the father says. “Problems get bigger and bigger and before you know it they’re bigger than you are, and it’s too late to fix them.”

“Portal” asks whether or not the ability to transport oneself out of ordinary existence really is a good idea. By the time the family becomes addicted to using the portal, it changes them. It’s too late to return to that earlier, magical time when reality sated their appetites.

Like “Portal,” many of the stories in Paradise involve marital relationships or ideas of parental responsibility. In “The Future Journal” and “Farewell, Bounder,” children of divorced parents serve as a touchstone of hope for those parents and as inspiration for feelings of regret and guilt. In “No Life,” Lennon pits would-be adoptive couples against each other for the chance at one specific child. The turning point of the story involves a dark moment of betrayal, the crossing of an invisible line between the couples. Lennon’s insights into what makes parents think they want a child (and the means some use to get one) illustrate something he does repeatedly: He finds wit in the traits of humanity most repulsive to us.

“Zombie Dan” plays on the motifs of zombie fiction, exploring the ethical ramifications of raising the dead. Of course, Lennon does this with his trademark humor and quirky characters. The narrator tells us, “By and large, revivification was thought to be something weird rich people did, something along the lines of hymenoplasty or owning an island. It was impressive, but maybe it wasn’t exactly a great idea.” One character, Dan, comes back (“not quite himself,” as zombies are wont to be) and his circle of friends has to decide what to do with him. Ultimately, Dan becomes a problem, and Lennon makes us wonder: Where is the line for us when it comes to murder of the already-dead?

Lennon often uses his characters to place us at the border between pain and joy, understanding that these dual emotions have much in common. Both “The Wraith” and “Ecstasy” blur pain and pleasure. In the former, Carl’s melancholy, depressed wife cleaves herself in two creating a wraith—a ghost of a living person—that stays home each day with her Carl while she goes to work. Alone in the house, Carl discovers the wraith on his bed:

For a moment, as he recovered himself, he believed that it was her, that it was somehow Lurene. He knew her shape, the pattern of vertebrae, the curve of her neck and shoulders, and these were those. But as he steadied his breathing, as his eyes adjusted to the brackish light filtering through the curtains, he could see that this body wasn’t his wife’s. It was scarred, pitted, scraped. It was gray and battered as a sidewalk, and as lifeless.

Carl fears the wraith at first, but eventually he’s drawn to it, turned on. Sex with a darker, more complex version of his wife turns out to be more pleasurable.

In “Ecstasy,” a babysitter at work learns that her charges’ parents have died in an accident. She reacts by rummaging through the parents’ things, and by stealing a uniquely personal item from their home. That night, she dreams:

The memory of it sent a thrill through her. She shivered, as if with pleasure. It seemed wrong to be so excited; she tried to put the feeling away, to make herself feel the way she thought was appropriate, but the excitement persisted. It was all over her body, the feeling of getting away with something.

In both stories, Lennon brings the emotions of fear and excitement together, exploring a kind of overwhelming bliss to be found in feeling deeply. Paradise explores this connection as well as the desire we have to be engulfed by feeling.

In this same way, Lennon’s book straddles the line between pain and ecstasy, between sadness and great joy. The message of his stories seems to be that we have to be careful about what we let into our lives; getting too close to pain in pursuit of pleasure can undo us.

Heather Scott Partington is a teacher and book critic. Stalk her at @HeatherScottP.