Ben Lerner’s Novels

I recently read both 10:04 and The Topeka School, Ben Lerner’s second and third novels.  I read his first one, Leaving the Atocha Station, last fall.

Leaving the Atocha Station is a quick, light read, but its neurotic, inept, hipster narrator is so fey, so self-involved, and so irresponsible that he is hard to keep in the reader’s good graces.  The plot is as aimless as the narrator, but the book is blessedly brief, often witty, and always well written.  Geoff Dyer does this thing rather better—and Paris Trance seems the obvious forerunner, maybe even the direct model, for Lerner’s novel.

10:04 is a big step forward, although we still get the bumbling, self-absorbed narrator whose charm Lerner seems to overestimate drastically.  There is also the rather annoying fancy footwork between fact and fiction—so that novel (in Paul Auster fashion) is “about” writing this novel we are reading.  Too cute by half in my opinion.  But there is a lot more to chew on here, especially the narrator’s (Lerner’s?) reflections on various art works (most particularly, Donald Judd’s sculptures) and about the insane New York art market more generally.  The format allows for these mini-essays embedded in the story—and they enliven the book instead of detracting from it (mostly because “the story” is mostly negligible).

It turns out that Lerner just doesn’t do human relationships very well.  His characters interact to some extent, but he never really succeeds in getting the reader to “feel” the emotional struggles that he announces exist between his various characters. In that sense, the novels are rather diagrammatic, not “realized” in the ways you would expect from the “thick” portraits of character and of its unfolding that we traditionally receive from realistic fiction.  (Rachel Cusk’s trilogy—Outlines, Transit, and Kudos—is similarly “thin,” a series of monologues that give us vignettes but no revelatory action or character development over time.)

The Topeka School is both more and less interesting than the reviews had led me to believe. Less interesting insofar as it is not a novel that has much to say about contemporary American society; more interesting in that its ideas (as expressed by a number of intellectual characters who narrate different sections of the novel) are consistently thought-provoking.

The reviews had claimed that Lerner (from Kansas) was, in this novel, giving us an insight into middle America in general and the Trump phenomenon in particular.  In fact, the novel only addresses that complex territory obliquely.  Instead, we get a fairly intricate plot, dotted with interesting characters—a much more diverse tapestry of human types than offered by the first two novels.  Once again, however, the characters are mostly static, interesting because of their idiosyncratic views about a whole range of topics.  There is almost nothing in the novel—despite its framework of intense familial, friendship, and romantic relationships—that immerses the reader in the nitty-gritty of that intensity.

I guess the old saw about showing, not telling, is apposite here.  The analysis of what lies behind how people speak to and act toward others is so forefronted that we are very rarely given the concrete actions themselves or the raw feelings that interactions generate.  (There are some exceptions, like an intense interaction among parents in a New York City playground, but that is an isolated incident with no connection to anything else in the novel, and ends completely inconclusively with no aftereffects.)  That analysis predominates “fits” in the sense that the novel is preoccupied with psychoanalysis; the main character’s parents and his parents’ best friends are all psychoanalysts.

Lerner and Cusk are tremendous talents.  Neither writes a word that is not eminently readable.  But they are “cold” writers even as they write in the “warm” mode of the realist novel.  Both of them are self-consciously re-crafting the novel as a genre, but eschewing at the same time the irrealism of 1960s “experimental fiction.”  Their “meta-fictional” touches are light (heavier in Lerner than in Cusk) and it is not clear to me just what work those touches are meant to be doing.  Postmodernism as parlor tricks, I am tempted to conclude.  Meta-fiction is cute, but trivial, just another trick that can be pulled out of the bag.

Both writers are so intelligent, such interesting observers of contemporary life, that it’s the ideas they offer in novel form, rather than plot or character, that keeps me reading.  Cusk’s insights are almost all relationship-based, and almost exclusively focused on the romantic relations between men and women (with some side glances to parent-child and friendship relations).  That focus does begin to look like a limitation after three novels.  No one in her world has any money worries, or has anything that looks like a serious or troubled relationship to their work.  All the action takes place on airplanes or in comfortable restaurants, coffee shops, or hotels. The not-so-discreet (given her characters’ propensity to spill their souls) life of the bourgeoisie.  Her novels have no urgent news to offer; they begin to seem fairly frivolous by the end.

Lerner engages a wider range of concerns, but barely wanders outside the realm of bohemia.  Even his Topeka novel deals with an intelligentsia that has landed in Topeka because of the famous clinic there.  They live in Topeka, but are not really of that place. The novel features three of four native-born Topekans at the most. Which is why it was so odd that the reviewers thought they were getting some kind of insight into middle America.

The novel does offer one rich insight into America’s current mess.  I was a high school debater—and the novel’s main character is as well.  Apparently (I have no way of knowing if this is actually true, but the novel reports it as being the case), basic debate technique was altered dramatically sometime in the 1990s.  The new technique is called “the spread.”  The idea is to (rapid-fire) present as many possible arguments for your side in your opening speech—so many that your opponents cannot possibly respond to (refute) them in their rebuttal round.  Then in your closing summary, you can claim victory by referring to all the arguments your opponent did not contest.

“The spread” is a perfect description of Trump’s Twitter feed.  He floods the public sphere with so much stuff—and his opponents are driven to distraction thinking they must respond to every one of his tweets.  To leave even one of those tweets uncontested looks like conceding that point to him, while responding to every one of them drives the opponent crazy.  Futility either way.  The spread cannot be beaten precisely because it so fiendishly beats the opponent down.  It is impossible to ever raise one’s head above water as this flood of assertion, misinformation, outright lies, and outrageous proposals comes pouring down. Because there is no filter, no way to decide what is newsworthy or not, there is no way to keep Trump from flooding the channels of information/communication.  And we are all drowning in that flood.

I will write another post where I take up some ideas found in 10:24.

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