Book Review

Pieces for the Left Hand by J.Robert Lennon

Pieces for the Left Hand by J.Robert Lennon Let’s face it J. Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand is an utterly mesmerising book. The distance fashioned between narrator and reader in this sumptuous collection is ostensible throughout every page and it is this same esoteric detachment that gives each of the 100 stories contained in them their unique strength. Such remoteness lends the collection the serenity of a haiku or prose poem – each is sharp as a tack and crystal-clear in image but, somehow, soporific enough to sink into a large comfy chair and drift off into reveries of one’s own. Set in a small American town each of these fables is barely a page and a half long. This is a book of enchanting pithiness and I admire its soothing brilliance.

Lennon’s style is informal, anecdotal even and, to exemplify this, he litters the beginnings of each little yarn with warm personal phrases and references such as “One day in our town”, “At a local restaurant”, “Our dinner guest” and “Our ex car”. The reader is teasingly fed just enough to follow structure and place but not enough to cement them into recognisable reality. The reader, while not being left out in the cold entirely, is invited to observe only.

This, as reader, is our guided tour, our fleeting visit and it is up to us to take from it what we will. And there is a lot to take in. Whilst there we see the mistaken identity of personal pets, family bereavements, the posting of dead stranger’s letters, French tourists looking for toilets but getting directions to view the sun setting instead, cement mailboxes withstanding the test of time, a pair of twins who think they are twins but are not even related, old friends reappearing after ten years lost in the wilderness – pretty much every conceivable combination, twist and event. The collection is grouped into seven categories with titles such as “Town and Country”, “Work and Money” and “Doom and Madness”. Each, I suppose, conveying a certain sense of feasibility within the mordant intrigues of a small, leafy American town. Yet, although we are outsiders to Lennon’s town and its unpredictable inhabitants, we more than recognize the emotions held within them – and such empathy touches us deeply. Lennon’s sleepy American backwater serves as a warm allegory we can all relate to. We immediately see what lies beneath the white picket fences, not just beneath Lennon’s town but beneath and within us all. In possessing this human quality we see aspects of ourselves no matter how offhand and impersonal each story seems on the surface.

Pieces for the Left Hand is a world of odd-ball aloofness, everyday banality and unremarkable personal histories. All, however, are made the more remarkable by Lennon’s unassuming, sparse prose. Each story may seem a tad apocryphal at first glance but soon the undercurrent of deeper meaning, that otherwise would be blocked by flowery language, eventually seeps up to the surface revealing a collection of tenderness and cutting beauty - and the once distanced reader, at last, finds a connection and is left to witness this moment of literary satori with wry salutation.

We all understand place and belonging, life, love and death. Such themes are the conduit that connect us all and Lennon is the master craftsman who makes it all possible, his prose-style, as much as it is unsettling, is pure crafted brilliance; much like that of a master sculptor chipping away until eternally content and, once unveiled, we are finally left with a stunning, gleaming representation that makes perfect sense in its own right and does not need further elucidation. In short, Lennon’s vignettes speak for themselves. When Lennon writes about death of the author’s father in “Different” it is with freshness and fluidity and nothing more. The image is set in stone:

“My father died suddenly, before I had given serious though to his mortality, let alone my own…” (Pg135).

The crux of this opening sentence, and one that I feel fully illustrates Lennon’s meaning and style, is the personal “let alone my own” precisely conveying the troubled egotism that envelops the individual when confronted with death of a parent for the first time. In this short sentence we already begin to feel a sense of the author’s age and philosophical leanings without overt descriptive narratives and elongated deep-sea dives into the characters murky past in order to retrieve little trinkets and tit-bits that will help further illumination. Nothing else is needed, and Lennon, stylist that he is, knows this.

The final story “Brevity” is probably the most telling. It reveals the story of a novelist who took ten years to write her novel, based upon her small, sleepy, backwater American town, which on completion “added up to more than a thousand pages” (Pg 213). After sending it to a publisher it is sent back requesting that it is cut by more than half its size. Desperate to get published the novelist gets to work immediately and soon finds that where a single word could be cut a whole paragraph would be better. Eventually the novelist begins to cut whole chapters and after one year “she had whittled the book down into a short story” (Pg 213). She subsequently sent this short story to various literary magazines but the numerous rejection slips she received in return “drove her back to the chopping block, where she reduced her story to a vignette, the vignette to an anecdote, the anecdote to an aphorism, and the aphorism, at last, to this haiku:

Tiny Upstate town
Undergoes many changes
Nonetheless endures


"Unfortunately no magazine would publish the haiku” (Pg 213). The novelist spent the rest of her days handing out the haiku on bits of card in her local park to passers by. Our author owns, he tells us, one of these cards and has it pinned above his desk where he reads it often “sometimes with pity but always with awe” (Pg 213). So, go on, pick up this deft collection and I dare you to read just one of its tales then try to put the book back down – I bet you can’t, I bet you have to read another and then another until the whole book is finished. Go on. See, I told you so.
-- Reviewed by Lee Rourke on 12/06/2005

Further Information
ISBN-10: 1862077401
ISBN-13: 9781862077409
Publisher: Granta Books
Publication Date: 07/03/2005
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 192
URL: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/search?keywords=9781862077409&index=books&linkCode=qs&tag=marksbookrevi-21

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