J. Robert Lennon’s Castle begins innocently enough, as Eric Loesch returns to his rural hometown and purchases a rundown house and 612 acres of adjoining forest. Loesch buys the land on an impulse and begins the process of restoring the property and presumably settling in to familiar surroundings. However, the familiar quickly becomes dangerously unfamiliar.
Loesch is something of a handyman and methodically restores the dilapidated property and begins exploring his densely forested land. For the most part, he keeps to himself, but when he does interact with residents in nearby Gerrysburg, insults and misunderstandings abound. Loesch has a knack for alienating everyone, including his older sister when she drops by for a visit.
Loesch is obsessed with a giant rock in the center of his property, and when exploring the woods he becomes horribly disoriented and fascinated with a pure white deer. When the title to his property arrives, he discovers that the rock and a small surrounding parcel belong to an owner whose name has been obliterated. Eventually, he discovers the identity of the ownera former professor at nearby SUNY Milan who disappeared years ago.
A series of bizarre events and threatening omens ensue, and Loesch is convinced someone has invaded his privacy and is threatening him. During one of his explorations, he discovers that a castle has been built adjacent to the giant rock. While investigating the structure, he is knocked unconscious, and he awakens to find himself incarcerated in a cage at the hands of a septuagenarian professor.
At this point, the novel oscillates between incidents from Loesch’s childhood, when he was used as a subject for personality experiments by the bizarre professor, and his present adventures in the woods. Details of his troubled childhood, his parents’ dreadful marriage and deaths, and his recent past overwhelm Loesch. Some of the mysteries about his unsociability are explained, as he comes to terms with his past.
The novel’s title invites comparisons with Franz Kafka’s last, unfinished work, Das Schloss (1926; The Castle, 1930), and although the two novels are markedly different, they do share a surreal similarity. Lennon’s novel appears straightforward on the surface, until Loesch attempts to plumb the mystery of the anonymous owner of the adjacent property. When he receives a letter bearing only the name Doctor Avery Stiles, the narrator remarks that “the sight of those words caused my stomach to turn over” (93). This remark comes with no context to explain it.
Other surreal occurrences gradually mount until readers realize that the seemingly straightforward narrative is no longer so straightforward. In his few encounters with locals, Loesch reveals himself to be thoroughly inept socially. In response to their affable, inquisitive remarks, the protagonist is defensive and downright confrontational, and his responses are utterly inappropriate. Still another odd occurrence involves the appearance at key moments of the mysterious white doe that guides Loesch to safety. These scenes are simply inexplicable, as are the strange noises, half-opened doors, and shadowy presences in and around the house. Along with Loesch’s fear of his basement, these episodes provoke questions that are never conclusively answered. Furthermore, the shifts between the present and past and the series of flashbacks that gradually predominate the story create an unsettling lack of narrative stability. These odd dislocations, however, appear to be Lennon’s point. The past and present merge in the text, and a clear division between reality and fantasy is never established.
In many respects, Castle can be read as an inverted bildungsroman wherein the gradual movement from youth to maturity is displaced by a tracing...
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