Author: john mcgowan

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.

Hannah Arendt’s Peformative Politics

I had an odd experience yesterday.  Via email I received the copy-edited version of an essay that I have absolutely no memory of having ever written.  Admittedly, I wrote it (apparently) over four years ago–but I don’t remember being asked to contribute to the volume in which it will appear (some day!).

In any case, it is an overview of Hannah Arendt’s understanding of “the political”–specifically, in relation to her prioritizing the way in which politics enables action, as contrasted to anything substantive we might want politics to accomplish.

The essay is, I think, a pretty clear explication of some key Arendtian themes/ideas–so I have posted it in the “Public Essays” section of this blog.  Just click on “Public Essays” on the “about” page and you will find it readily enough.

Crisis of Conscience in the Arts and Humanities

The current crises (multiple) in the US and the world has generated a very specific crisis of conscience among practitioners in the arts and humanities.  From the Mellon Foundation’s shift in funding priorities to my daughter-in-law’s small theater company and the anguished discussion on Victorian studies listservs about justifications for teaching/studying Dickens, those practitioners are agonizing over how their work (which they enjoy and want to continue doing) contributes to social justice.  “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem” troubles people of good will with special urgency in the current moment.

Retirement is a time for reflection.  I think of what I have done with my life, of the choices I made.  Those choices were, in one way, quite haphazard.  I did not have a plan; I was opportunistic.  I knocked on the doors that presented themselves and walked through the ones that opened. I almost never turned down an invitation to do something—and one thing led to another.  All of it, however, was within the structures of an academic career, and constituted advances along fairly clearly mapped out career paths.  Once having secured tenure, the choices I made were all safe ones.  I never put myself at serious risk in terms of financial and career security, even as I did not stick to a field or a discipline.  I was more of a free-floating intellectual, but within an institutional place where that carried no significant risks.  In that sense, I was less “careerist” than many academics, but my being a bit of a maverick came at no cost and was hardly anything like significant rebellion.  I maintained a steady distaste for, even contempt of, much academic business as usual, but let my colleagues go their way so long as they let me go mine.

What did I accomplish besides garnering my fair share of rewards?  Not much.  Tops among the rewards was working with students—and enabling some of them to go on to their own successes.  When the fairly obvious paths for a career began to close down, making the possible way forward to students increasingly murky, much of the joy of my work began to dissipate.  I couldn’t justify what I was doing in terms of the ways it provided opportunities for my students to advance.  And while the scholarship itself (as evidenced by this blog), my engagement with ideas and arguments, continued (and continue) to interest me, that pursuit seemed more and more like self-indulgence.  It does no good to anyone—a fitting way to spend my retired time if I wish, but hardly an activity that society should feel any need or responsibility to support.  I am cultivating my own garden, which seems a betrayal of our needy world.  But I can’t figure out where my efforts could be better directed.

All of this as a long preamble to an email I recently sent to a former student, now a professor of Victorian studies, when she wrote to me about the current discussion on those listserv about reading/teaching/studying Dickens.  Here’s what I wrote back”

 

“As for studying Dickens, I share your inability to think straight on the topic.  I have two fairly recent posts on my blog–the titles include the terms “cakes and ale” so searching that way will get you the posts–that are relevant.  I think people will keep reading Dickens in the wider world no matter what the academy does, whereas I think some authors–Smollett, Oliphant, Meredith–would disappear altogether if there weren’t scholars reading and writing on them.

But whether the academy should devote resources to scholarship on Dickens and have courses where students are made to read him is a much tougher question.  I do think it highly, highly likely that Victorian studies will slowly fade out of existence–and I do think that’s a mostly bad thing even though I also understand that Victorian studies does little, if anything, to address the massive problems that our world faces.  That’s the dilemma my posts try to address: how to justify activities and scholarship that are not necessary in the sense of not directed toward issues of social justice.  “Not directed” meaning that, even if that scholarship talks about social justice, it is not doing anything concrete to bring social justice about.

My advice for you remains the same.  Play the game by the rules that currently apply.  Get tenure.  And then, with that security obtained, consider what work you can do with a good conscience, making you feel you are contributing toward something you can affirm.  For me, that mostly meant helping my students make their way forward in the world while writing and reading about things I felt germane to articulating a vision of what we should want a democratic society look like.

But all that definitely often felt very removed from making the world a better place.  The helplessness of looking on, and the guilt of doing that looking on from a secure place, did often make me accuse myself of cowardice.  I should have been putting myself on the line and doing something direct instead of pursuing my very pleasant indirect path.

There is a question of temperament here–although it can also seem a question of selfishness.  I have worked in political campaigns since I was 18, and I find I am not suited to it.  I believe much of what campaigns do is futile make-work (phone banks and canvassing, of which I have done a fair amount without any sense that it is effective) and I also find the focus on winning the election at the expense of much investment in what one is winning the election to achieve troubling.  Finally, in my one experience dealing with Congress (I was part of a team trying to influence the writing of a legal aid bill), the compromises we had to swallow and the pettiness and ignorance of the representatives we had to deal with was a massive turn-off.  The political process–no surprise–is very broken.  So a retreat back into academia, where at least I could control my relations to my colleagues and students, and act in ways I could affirm toward them, was a huge relief.

More than you wanted to hear doubtless.  But how to make one’s way through a life lived in a corrupt and cruel society is a real dilemma.  How to maintain self-respect and some sense of investment in what one is doing day in and day out even as you bemoan the state of the world and feel you should contribute to making it better.  Not a trivial problem. “