A Fortnightly Review of
by Ben Lerner
By NIGEL WHEALE.
Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.
‘lachrymal events and bouts of depersonalization’
THE NEAR-COINCIDENT author-Ben/persona-Ben is on a writing residency in Marfa, Texas, one of those terrifying vacancies where what confronts you is what has to be confronted. His rental also confronts the house whence the poet Robert Creeley had been taken to his final hospitalization, Spring 2005. Our unreliable author/narrator had already fabricated a correspondence between Creeley and himself, writing in Creeley’s voice to yet another version of himself. Under the duress of his contract for text, self-condemned to Marfa, the writer, who may be, but we must hope isn’t, him, had been diagnosed as Marfan, Marfanoid, by the second page of his novel: ‘A doctor had discovered incidentally an entirely asymptomatic and potentially aneurysmal dilation of my aortic root that required close monitoring and probable surgical intervention.’
Marfan syndrome, consequence of malfunctioning glycoprotein in connective tissue, potentially affecting the lungs, heart valves and aorta. Your main blood-downpipe may blow, any time. 10:14 is a poignant, hilariously wise countdown-text writ under the sign of imminent closedown of all kinds, but seeking openings, futures, from simultaneous yet diversely present times. Asked by his agent how he will expand his contract proposal, the Ben of the fiction cites as talisman Chris Marker’s documentary essay, Sans Soleil (1983) – a film that obsessed me throughout that decade: here was something really new (Adam Curtis continues the work). Ben replies, quoting the film-text, it will be like Sei Shonagon’s ‘list of things that quicken the heart’. Somewhat drunk, after a dinner with his agent to celebrate his six-figure contract, at which they enjoy neonate cephalopods (baby octopus) that had been massaged to death with unrefined salt – DBC (‘Dirty But Clean’) Pierre would so approve – he proclaims, ‘I’m going to write a novel that dissolves into a poem about how the small-scale transformations of the erotic must be harnessed by the political.’
INSCRUTABLE LIGHTS HOVER around Marfa, Texas; search them out, virtually. The poet-novelist watches them, arguing with Walt Whitman and his impossibly true embrace of the so many and so much, and with Robert Creeley too. On the viewing platform to witness the delusive ‘ghost lights’ of Marfa, our writer feigns a radical, though not original decision: ‘Say that it was standing there that I decided to replace the book I’d proposed with the book you’re reading now, a work that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them; I resolved to dilate my story not into a novel about literary fraudulence, about fabricating the past, but into an actual present alive with multiple futures.’
Dilation, exactly the word. Expansion of the life-bearing vein, the writing vein, therefore putting so much at a total risk. Cervantes, Sterne, Proust and so many other feigning authors have written to the same, tricksy contract. The infolding of the notion of the writer to the narrative itself, but who is and is not, cannot be, coincident with the text that they create. Their words consequently put to question their own truth status, at every word. But that is a bland theorism of such a reading experience; Ben Lerner’s second novel is this, and way more beside.
Ben’s closest relationship seems to be with Alex. They met in ‘a dull class about great novels’ at college, and felt ‘an instant and mutual sympathy’. They are not lovers, they have only occasionally been sexually intimate together, what they have most closely shared is the experience of walking through their neighbourhood around Brooklyn, such that Alex has become ‘inseparable from my sense of moving through the city’. They depend on each other for consolation in response to family tragedy, or their ineffectual attempts at romance – with other partners; the pair would appear to any onlooker, ‘conjoined’, both less and more than a couple, as such. Ben admires ‘the overcast-sky quality’ of Alex’s eyes, her ‘dark epithelium and clear stroma’; he can be counted on to hate and actively discourage any hopeful boyfriend who starts to hang around her. Their closest – yet still at a distance – exchanges may be when they gaze, in parallel, at paintings. Ben and Alex would seem to be ideally suited, so attuned, co-dependent, helping each other through trauma and difficulties, not ‘living together’, yet sharing all the intimacies of life, except that one, closely confirming activity. Enduring, non-romantic friendship between young women and men is rarely portrayed or explored, among all the current variants on heterosexual life choices. These kinds of friendship ‘across the frontier’ may be much more common than we allow; it is as if these relationships can’t be tolerated, are considered as some kind of masquerade, they must always be open to doubts, even suspicion. Is this aberrant relationship really about ‘commitment issues’, are either or both of the individuals deluded, possibly wrestling with unspoken, unresolved questions of sexual orientation, their gendered identity? Why can’t they just surrender to the overpowering, conventional behaviours of young, supremely eligible flesh?
WHILE COMMUNING TOGETHER in front of a particular canvas during one of their regular, weekend visits to the Metropolitan Museum, Alex puts a proposal to Ben – she is thirty-six, ‘single’, at the moment unemployed but with banked health insurance, and she craves a baby. “I’m that cliché. I want my mom to meet my child.” So she asks Ben if he would be willing to donate sperm – “Fucking you would be bizarre” – they can work out the nature of his commitment to any consequent child as they go along. The painting they look at is Jules Bastien-Lepage’s ‘Joan of Arc’, from 1879, which Ben likes partly because the Maid’s features remind him of Alex. It’s a strangely mixed work, a bucolic naturalism in the manner of Millet, but with somehow superfluous spirit wraiths – St Michael, St Catherine, St Margaret – hovering behind Joan, who is very much the farm girl, as she abstractedly responds to her ‘voices’. Her figure seems to be moving out of the picture, to her left, her arm outstretched, apparently gathering leaves from a bush. The image is caught between naturalism and a disembodied symbolism, both in genre and content. Other commentators note this anomalous, unsettling mixture of conventions in the painting, and the generic irresolution plays specifically to one of Ben-character / Ben-author’s obsessions: ‘as if the tension between the metaphysical and physical worlds, between two orders of temporality, produces a glitch in the pictorial matrix; the background swallows her fingers’.
10:04 is one of those novels that obsess about our experience of temporality, in creative ways: 10:04, because that is the timed moment when a bolt of lightning struck the courthouse clock tower in Back to the Future, ‘crucial movie’ of Ben’s youth, permitting Marty to return to his present from 1955. Chris Marker (Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve) his Sans Soleil, begins with a group of young children walking away from camera, in Iceland, a shot that becomes out-of-time, as Marker seeks to find a narrative context for this poignant image, that opens and closes his globally ranging documentary argument.
In Don DeLillo’s Point Omega (2010), the nameless narrator returns obsessively to Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993), which runs Hitchcock’s movie at two rather than twenty-four frames per second, so detaining its audience for exactly twenty-four hours, rather than the 109 minutes that the control-freak director intended. Ben and Alex have been trying to book seats for Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010), a day-and-night-long collage of time moments, clocks, watches, occasional bells tolling, synchronised precisely to the time at which they are shown and being observed. Marclay’s documentary melange can induce a trance state in audiences, the present reality of the hours and minutes can recede as you are taken into all the phases of life that come and go under the conventional signage of time. Beginning at midnight, the solitudes and anxieties of the small hours, dream landscapes, waking, reluctantly leaving a warm bed and your loving partner, then commute, lunch excitement, longeurs of the afternoon, the charms of oncoming evening, the approach of climactic, punctual moments, high noon and chimes at midnight. ‘Marclay had formed a supragenre that made visible our collective, unconscious sense of the rhythms of the day’. The Clock becomes a bricolage remake of Man with a Movie Camera (1929), by ‘Zhiga Vertov’ (‘spinning top’) David Kaufman, or earlier, of Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). All these works surprise and delight with the paradoxes they create out of our lives under time – a friend recommended I read Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (2011), for another fiction that explores memory and identity across lifetimes. But no, the pallid, prim naturalism of uninteresting, self-deluded character, flatly narrated as if within character – there is no comparison between this achieved provincialism, so insupportably ‘English’, and the flair, wit, ambitions of Lerner, DeLillo, Marker, Marclay, new creativities in a quite different league.
Timefulness, the splicing of simultaneous times from different moments, is one of the games played in Lerner’s time-based art text. Watching The Clock, so taken over by its conceit, Ben glances from the screen to his watch, to check the ‘actual’ time, and this simple yet profound confusion suggests to him that ‘a distance remained between art and the mundane’. He resolves to write a fiction, he sketches the changes he will make from his own experiences to that of the fiction. We then read this text, as accepted by The New Yorker, after some callow dealings with them over proposed cuts.
In ‘The Golden Vanity’ (see Child Ballad 286) the authorial voice is not first- but now third-person, Alex become Liza, distanced one more time from us by another fictional make-over, among other sleights and feignings. A short story called ‘The Golden Vanity’ was indeed published in The New Yorker, 2012/06/18, its author, Benjamin S. Lerner. When I googled this, I truly felt a frisson – the fiction I am compulsively inhabiting really does have another dimension, does connect with … our real, just as Ben needlessly checked his watch while watching The Clock. What other cross-overs into current reality might there be? Natali, ‘a mentor and literary hero of mine’, and Bernard, ‘an equally important figure’, are clearly a devout homage to Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop, whose Burning Deck Press, Providence, has since 1961 nurtured great new, edgy poetry in the US.1
And so the text unsettles. On Whitsun Eve, Saturday 21 May 1904, Leopold Bloom borrowed a copy of Conan Doyle’s The Stark Munro Letters from the Capel Street Library, Dublin. In the penultimate episode of Ulysses, identified as ‘Ithaca’ in the covert Homeric framework of the novel, Bloom notices this book, before he leaves home to meet Stephen, which has been on his conscience all day because he knows he must return it, now thirteen days overdue. There is no remorselessness to equal that of a true Joycean, and sure enough, one scholar/scholiast visited the archived records of Capel Street Library to discover that The Stark Munro Letters had indeed been taken out on that date … and never returned. Leopold Bloom still walks the streets of Dublin, accumulating a library fine, through the reality of Joyce’s all-seeing text.
BEN LERNER IS a poet, and now two-times a novelist, and 10:04 is so engaging, partly because it is ‘a poet’s novel’, in the best senses: finely tuned to strange, sensuous, beautiful moments, ‘sensible’ in that full eighteenth-century meaning, open to the qualities of any instant. 10:04 therefore morphs between prose fiction and lyric intensity, presents poems as integral to the production of its text. On his funded residency, ‘Ben’ finally gets to work, but on the wrong thing – that way in which literary production maddeningly eludes the writer’s best intentions; Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence (1997), tells this kind of story so well. Lerner’s Ben writes:
Instead of fabricating the author’s epistolary archive, earning my advance, I was writing a poem, a weird meditative lyric in which I was sometimes Whitman, and in which the strangeness of the residency itself was the theme. Having monetized the future of my fiction, I turned my back on it, albeit to compose verse underwritten by a millionaire’s foundation … part of what I loved about poetry was how the distinction between fiction and nonfiction didn’t obtain, how the correspondence between text and the world was less important than the intensities of the poem itself, what possibilities of feeling were opened up in the present tense of reading.’
And the poem is good, making exactly the effect that the fictional author describes so well here, a removal of meaning from the prosaic contexts of merely fictional worlds, as Sir Philip Sidney also argued in his Apologie, ‘So in Poesie, looking but for fiction, they shall use the narration but as an imaginative groundplat of a profitable invention’. During these residency days, Ben reads Whitman compulsively, and not so much the poetry, but Specimen Days and Collect (1882), Whitman’s extraordinary post-stroke, late-stage review of his own life, apparently informal, but in truth highly crafted. He reads the poet’s prose in the canonical ‘Library of America’ green-cover edition, that charmingly nineteenth-century enterprise, so ‘American’ in a belated idealism – who could imagine ‘The Library of Britain’ Cabinet of Works, these days? But then … these days. Whitman’s Specimen Days is a chronological series of prose paragraphs and short sections, each titled, which self-shape the writer as formed by all kinds of context – family, history, but also natural and even geological influence; as in Leaves of Grass, the genius of Whitman is his dissolution of self into the subject of the poem, through his utterly original diction and perspectives, which seemingly sprang fully formed, from almost nowhere:
In me the caresser of life wherever moving, backward as well as forward sluing,
To niches aside and junior bending, not a person or object missing,
Absorbing all to myself and for this song.’2
LIKE MANY READERS of Specimen Days, Ben is most taken with Whitman’s account of the Civil War, and of his care for the wounded, of both sides, in various hospital wards. The dispassionate quality of Whitman’s narrative is remarkable, ‘A Glimpse of War’s Hell-Scenes’, for example, so well demonstrating the horrendous barbarities that any conflict quickly descends to. Just as 10:04 is a deft manipulation of novelistic convention, moving between poetic and prosaic registers, plying imagined time and real event, demonstrating how self emerges from occasion, Whitman’s Specimen Days was as original as Leaves of Grass, creating a quite new form of autobiography framed within history, such a ‘modern’ work:
If I do it at all I must delay no longer. Incongruous and full of skips and jumps as is that huddle of diary jottings … the resolution and indeed the mandate comes to me this day, this hour … It will illustrate one phase of humanity anyhow … May-be, if I don’t do anything else, I shall send out the most wayward, spontaneous, fragmentary book ever printed.’3
One of Ben’s most Whitmanesque intuitions, visitations, hits him when he is gazing across the East River, from his home side, Brooklyn, to the vision of lower Manhattan across the water:
Only an urban experience of the sublime was available to me because only then was the greatness beyond calculation the intuition of community. Bundled debt, trace amounts of antidepressants in the municipal water, the vast arterial network of traffic, changing weather patterns of increasing severity – whenever I looked at lower Manhattan from Whitman’s side of the river I resolved to become one of the artists who momentarily made bad forms of collectivity figures of its possibility, a proprioceptive flicker in advance of the communal body. What I felt when I tried to take in the skyline – and instead was taken in by it – was a fullness indistinguishable from being emptied, my personality dissolving into a personhood so abstract … discovering you are not identical with yourself even in the most disturbing and painful way still contains the glimmer, however refracted, of the world to come, where everything is the same but a little different because the past will be citable in all its moments, including those that from our present present happened but never occurred.’
After undergoing this highly compressed, W. Benjamin-fuelled enlightenment, our hero ‘Benjamin’, consuming ‘an irresponsible quantity of unsulfured mango’, suffers ‘a mild lachrimal event’, and no wonder. A moving and compelling ‘Defence of Poesy’ from Lerner’s first novel that complements this experience, is Adam’s conversation with some of his audience after a routinely dismal poetry reading in Madrid, which miraculously takes off as a compelling event, both for the poet and his listeners. Following this ‘absurd ritual’, the poet is seized with the prospect of ‘the triumph of the actual’ over even flawed attempts such as this evening, and comes to a negative defence of the poem:
I intuited an inestimable loss, a loss not of artworks but of art, and therefore infinite, the total triumph of the actual, and l realised that, in such a world, I would swallow a bottle of white pills’.4
10:04, like Ben Lerner’s first novel, is also a work of text-with-images; these become visual poetry, striking graphic interventions that punctuate, contradict or develop the fiction narrative, again at a different level of meanings. In Leaving the Atocha Station, the second image is the celebrated, chilling photograph of the husks and shells of tenement buildings, roofless and burned out, at Guernica, after the German Condor Legion bombing, 1937, an image shocking enough in itself, but also beyond its time, prescient of so many more destroyed-city panoramas of the wars to come, and for which this was a try-out deed (Göring intended it as a birthday present for the Fuhrer, though it was delivered, from the air, six days late). A caption beneath the illustration reads, ‘I tried hard to imagine my poems or any poems as machines that could make things happen.’ The context for this appalling, disjunctive image is a conversation between Adam Gordon and Isabel, one of the two Madrileñas with whom he is desperately trying to develop a relationship, though his sense of the two young women is so perfunctory that they are hard to distinguish apart in his text. His Spanish is inadequate, so he poses as a profound poet, scribbling notes while he and Isabel visit the Cathedral at Toledo. He struggles to achieve a genuine kind of profundity in what he writes and in his desperate attempts at real conversation with Isabel, while relying on his fractured Spanish to suggest more than it could actually convey through enigmatic pauses, silences. He panics, reaches for a yellow tranquilliser. The gap between the mute testimony of the Guernica outrage, where some 200 civilians died in the bombing, and the callow, foundation-assisted poet’s earnest, utopic desire for his poetry to ‘make things happen’, is grotesque. But not dishonourable. Ben / Adam / ‘Ben’ return consistently to this paradox, as to just what supremely marginal creative activity actually ‘does’ these days. The disjunction between this testimony to the outrages of the Spanish Civil War, and the comfortable lives of the young, middle-class flaneurs of affluent Madrid, also implicates so much that still remains unspoken, unspeakable, in contemporary Spanish culture. Adam and Isabel’s failure to understand each other is another symptom of Spain’s tortuous attempts to address the nation’s internecine past, blanked by Franco’s 36-years of Falange tyranny.
AND THEN, SOMETHING does happen, on 11 March 2004, ’11-M’ in Spain, three days before general elections, Goma-2 backpack bombs, explosives obtained from Spanish miners, kill 191 commuters entering Atocha station, 2050 injured. The ‘authorship’ of the event is still fiercely disputed. Adam is about ten minutes’ walk from the outrage; he goes to observe, but his response is more to the ways in which the event is mediated, constructed through myriad discourses, than through any kind of direct intervention. ‘I overheard conversations about the role of photography now, where “now” meant post-March 11. A “post” was being formed, and the air was alive, less with the excitement of a period than with the excitement of periodization.’ He fails in his attempt to donate blood, which was his mother’s suggestion: he thought about how ‘blood from my body might have been put into the body of someone injured by History.’
10:04 is an advance on Leaving the Atocha Station, you might say, even though the first novel was already brilliantly original, smart in the same vein as its successor; the interposed graphic moments seem more nuanced, less blatant kinds of intervention, in the second book. I admire these novels so much because they seem to be making a new kind of factual fiction, poetic narrative, but as always, they are a part of some larger wave. W.G. Sebald’s Die Ringe des Saturn: Eine englische Wallfahrt (1995; trans 1998, The Rings of Saturn: An English Pilgrimage), was startling in the way it took an actual ‘chorography’ (1610), a walking-writing through selly Suffolk, what could be more bucolic, but via actual encounters with ‘real’ persons, for example the poet and translator Michael Hamburger, and a kind of morbid, antiquarian passion, then connected this most English landscape to some of the darkest places, moments, of modern history. Sebald’s mournful riffing can come to seem lugubrious, even self-parodic, but like the incongruous photo of the gutted buildings of Guernica in Leaving the Atocha Station, it is also a principled attempt to set in relation a current banality with the past ruinations on which contemporary lives have to be lived.
Lerner’s ‘Ben’ is afflicted by this kind of intuition. He works with an eight-year old, ‘undocumented’ — ‘sin papel’ — Salvadorean boy, creating ingenious projects to develop the boy’s English and engagement with his new life in North America. This merely tutorial relation is a gift for comical, agonised incidents where Ben’s profound lack of self-confidence exposes him to traumatic episodes – losing the child on a museum visit, or inducing a nut allergy crisis – ‘I was seized with animal terror; I imagined having to open his windpipe with a pencil’. But the would-be tutor and his pupil share deep apprehensions, exactly Sebald’s elision of daily life with larger, threatening contexts, histories: ‘the intuition of spatial and temporal collapse, or, paradoxically, an overwhelming sense of its sudden integration, as when a Ugandan warlord appears via YouTube in an undocumented Salvadorean child’s Brooklyn-based dream of a future wrecked by dramatically changing weather patterns and an imperial juridical system that dooms him to statelessness; Roberto, like me, tended to figure the global apocalyptically’.
And so, I took a deep breath and sought out Ben Lerner’s poetry, online. I only sampled a few texts, mostly on the PoetryFoundation site, and … They seem at first brush less interesting, to me, than his prose-poetic frictions. I may be wrong, but the novel texts for this reader have more angles, they seem way smarter, they are even more, well, poetical. You can think further, through them. For instance, in 10:04 there is an intermittent, embedded essay on Christa McAuliffe, and what befell her and her six colleagues, on 28 January 1986. This was the Challenger space shuttle tragedy, and fictional Ben improvises around his memories of that moment as an account of when and why he decided to become a writer. You can almost certainly bring to mind the broadcast footage of that catastrophic launch, one of our globally shared moments; the news of the death of President Kennedy was my first, l was bored with Latin homework; but then so many others, most vividly, during a coffee break in an interminable meeting, the monitor displayed an airliner swallowed within the upper stories of a huge tower, surely an accident, how could it not be – but then another, and the day stopped there, exactly as a new catastrophist period, ‘post 9-11’, began to take shape.
Perhaps I’ve started from the wrong place, reading from novel to poetry, but Lerner’s poems from this perspective read like try-outs for the more developed arts of the two novels. Though The Lichtenberg Figures (2004) got me going, so I will try again, for sure. Lerner’s novels are also much more interesting statements of his (very apposite) argument, ‘On Disliking Poetry’5. Is Ben Lerner actually a terrific novelist, who began as a quite interesting poet? Can’t wait for the next story.
Nigel Wheale is the author of Raw Skies: New and Selected Poems (Shearsman 2005) and The Six Strides of Freyfaxi (Oystercatcher 2010). His academic texts include The Postmodern Arts (Routledge 1995) and Writing & Society: Literacy, Print and Politics in Britain 1590-1660 (Routledge 1999). He lives and works in Orkney. His comments on De Lillo and Lerner, written for the Fortnightly, may be found here.
- burning deck books 1961-1991, (Burning Deck, Providence, 1991); Burning Deck. One Score More. The Second 20 Years of Burning Deck, 1982-2002, Alison Bundy, Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop (eds), (Burning Deck, Providence, 2002). ↩
- Whitman, Song of Myself, 13; ‘The negro holds firmly the reins of his four horses’, Leaves of Grass (1891–2), in Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, selection and chronology by Justin Kaplan (‘The Library of America’, 1982): 198–9. ↩
- Ibid., Specimen Days, ‘A Happy Hour’s Command’, 689–90. ↩
- Leaving the Atocha Station (Granta, 2011), 45. ↩
- ‘On Disliking Poetry‘, London Review of Books, 18 June 2015. ↩