Art feeds on art in work of intellectual drama
By Ben Lerner Granta, 256pp, $27.99 THE narrator of Ben Lerner’s is, if not identical to, then at least a close variation of that of his previous novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. Both men are young writers who relocate — one to Madrid on a fellowship, the other to Marfa, Texas, for a residency — to write, but do not, or at least not what they intended. Both describe frustrated romantic experiences.
These narrators belong to recognisable archetypes. But if there is anything commonplace about them, this is redeemed many times over by the intense intellectual sensitivity and analytical authority they bring to bear on a bewildering world.
“Ben” — Lerner doesn’t bother to give his fictional alter ego a different name, as he did previously with Adam Gordon — is an author who had unexpected success with his first novel. His agent is promising a “strong six-figure advance” for his second novel (a phrase that becomes something of an ironic mantra), an important sum of money, not so much because it will free him to write but because he has decided to conceive a child with his best friend, Alex, and been diagnosed with a potentially terminal but largely asymptomatic (apart from the acute awareness of mortality it provokes) neurological condition.
The novel is composed of five sections. It traces, with surprising optimism, Ben’s progress from his diagnosis through to the conception of his child. Other significant parts: Ben’s relationship with Roberto, a Salvadoran boy without documents whom he tutors; his admiration for Bernard and Natalie, two older writers; bunkering down with Alex during Hurricane Sandy; and the consequences (one being the impending sale of his second novel) of having published a short story in The New Yorker, a story that itself is woven into the book’s narrative. There
October 18-19, 2014 are occasional grainy black-and-white photos, which are handsome enough but do not really inform or illuminate the text.
There’s a lot self-referential material here, but the novel’s most brilliant moments are not the result of the culmination of Lerner’s metaplot, but instead discrete, quotidian episodes — Ben packing fruit in the Park Slope food co-op, or attending dinner with a famous writer who only wants to talk about himself — that glow with fantastic, intricate verbal, social, and intellectual drama.
At the co-op, a tentative, socially mandated conversation about the benefits of unprocessed food for children unfurls into something much larger when a co-worker recounts how she discovered that the man she had always thought was her biological father was not, and how this sudden realisation upended her understanding of herself as the child of a Lebanese immigrant. All the while Ben waits for the results of his own fertility test on his phone, so that he might donate sperm and, biologically, father a child.
This heady combination of larger social questions and an awareness of the potential for drama in seemingly innocuous interactions is one of the things that distinguishes Lerner’s fiction. But his preoccupation with the ethical implications of living in a crowded, globalised world, is not merely a form of political correctness: it’s a mentality that aligns with his acute sensitivity to artistic tradition. Lerner in this novel constantly used and critiques other writers and artists, especially Robert Creeley and Donald Judd, to dramatise his narrator’s mind.
One of the book’s most delightful moments takes place when Ben visits a Judd installation, an experience “like visiting Stonehenge, something I’ve never done, and encountering a structure that was clearly built by humans but inscrutable in human terms, as if the installation were waiting to be visited by an alien or god”.
Lerner’s art feeds on art, and the sense that the world is almost used up, that what is left must be preserved and cared for minutely, seems not just environmentally but artistically significant. He doesn’t set out to record perceptions, but to give form to relations between people and ideas. The superior feature of his writing is its sheer concentration of meaning. It’s fascinating to witness him analyse the world.
Ben’s identity isn’t an aspect of the narrative but the narrative itself. Lerner’s sentences, at their best, have the same universal, effortless dramatic quality of those of Javier Marias in the way they expand and contract, moving from the general to the specific, from the abstract to the concrete, and from the grand to the trivial, all in the space of a handful of words.
is wonderfully intelligent, full of intricate formal devices, literary references and various hidden repositories of meaning — things that will delight certain readers and enervate others. It is also a tentative, tender, and achingly uncertain story of man becoming a father.
A Donald Judd installation; the book contains a delightful description of a similar artwork