My boyfriend, whom I have converted back into being a reader, bought both of Ben Lerner’s books at the Brooklyn Book Fair a few weeks ago. He read them both in a matter of days, and recommended them highly to me.
I was more than happy to take his recommendation, especially as the name Ben Lerner has been circling around the online literary scene for a while. I’d seen his name all over the various sites I frequent and I thought it would be nice indeed to read something contemporary and hip. I was excited, looking forward to it, and expecting to like it.
Ben Lerner can certainly write. Before writing this novel, his first, he’d published several poetry collections according to his bio. Indeed, Leaving the Atocha Station seems to be a fictionalized version of Lerner’s own experience as a Fulbright Scholar in Spain. The book’s main character and narrator, Adam Gordon, is also a poet, is also in Spain on an unnamed research-based fellowship, is also a graduate of a university on Rhode Island (i.e. Brown). Possibly also like Lerner – but here I’m speculating – Adam Gordon thinks he’s basically a fraud.
Adam Gordon is also an incredibly unreliably narrator, which could be interesting in theory, but ends up being profoundly dull. I had sympathy for him, to an extent – he is depressed and medicated for it, his self esteem is buried under the floorboards, he seems to be acting out his life out rather than living it – but I also found him extremely obnoxious. He treads the same ground that so many have gone over before, and is leaving no new footprints in his wake.
From Henry James to Henry Miller to Earnest Hemingway, the insecure white privileged male living abroad has been explored ad nauseam. James was an innovator in his deep exploration of our minds and moods, and Miller, much as I hate him, at least managed to be interestingly offensive in his obsession with douching prostitutes and lecherous men. Hemingway I personally regard as a writer who misunderstood himself and perpetuated his personal myth to the point where he is believed to be more of a misogynist than Miller (c’est impossible!). The thing about Lerner is that he’s none of these, and nor is Adam Gordon. There is a wrap-around kind of logic to his character – Gordon’s fear of being a real poet, a real artist, is curbed by his own belief that he is a fraud, which as a result makes him even more of a real poet, and a modest one at that. The irony underlying every word he utters is mirrored in the prose itself. And while I do live in Manhattan and do enjoy small and trendy coffee shops, I have also grown truly sick of the hipster urge to take irony to its outer limits and beyond.
The indulgent, ironic self-hatred that Gordon is constantly experiencing becomes exhausting and dull. He is both detached from and profoundly inside of himself, and even in his most miserable moments, there is a self-congratulatory tone, as if he’s actually quite enjoying be so tortured and complicated.
Let me stress – it’s not that Lerner isn’t a good writer. He very clearly is. Some of his shortest, simplest sentences convey a vast amount of emotional information:
Without texture, time passed.
The cities were polluted with light, the world warming.The seas were rising. The seas were closing over future readers.
Ben Lerner is clearly a poet. Maybe he has come to terms with that by now and maybe not. My question, as a reader, is why did he need to transmit his own learning curve in this way? Seeing him lust after or sleep with all the women he knows, smoke weed and drink to excess every night, and not take his own work seriously even while everyone else does – it all gets pretty boring and repetitive. Not to mention a bit infuriating. Adam Gordon gets everything, apparently without trying. Is this the lie we’re supposed to recognize? Is he, in fact, making an immense effort when living in Spain on his fellowship’s funds even while not doing the research he went there to do? Or are his anxiety and depression enough to make his laziness understandable, admirable even?
Most writers will tell you that writing is hard work. Lerner’s return to the whimsy of effortless poesy coupled with obsessive anxiety and self-scrutiny are not particularly fetching, mostly because they’re so clinical and automatic. There is so little feeling in the book – except that of Adam for himself – that it ends up seeming like a grand experiment in narcissistic (and ironic) self-hatred.
Maybe it’s just that I went to college with people like Ben Lerner and that I experience them still, living in New York. Maybe this book hits too close to home in the need for validation that is hiding behind its fake humility. Whatever the reason, the result is the same. To my mind, Lerner’s sentences are beautiful, his prose cleanly rendered, but his impact on me was close to nil.