Art feeds on art in work of in­tel­lec­tual drama

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Wil­liam Hey­ward

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

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