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Archive for October 2014

ben lerner’s scapegoat

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At one point, quite late in Ben Lerner’s new novel 10:04, the narrator/protagonist has a meeting with one of his graduate poetry students. The conversation soon reveals that the student, Calvin, has become psychologically unhinged.

“Well, you said once that we shouldn’t worry about our literary careers, should worry about being underwater.” I must have been joking around in class— half joking. “And in any new civilization you need those who have a sense of usable history and can reconstruct at least the basic concepts from science. Also there is the literalization of all literature because the sky is falling, if you know what I mean— that’s no longer just a phrase. A lot of people can’t handle it, how everything becomes hieroglyphic. I lost my girlfriend over that. Body without organs, for instance. I can swallow but there is a cost to swallowing in the sense that I don’t have the same kind of throat. That’s a metaphor but it has real effects, which is what she couldn’t understand. What’s tricky is you want to test it, take poison or whatever to show how you can absorb it, but you don’t know in that instance if it will be symbolic or spider out.”

The college did not have good psychiatric services. He was twenty- six; no one could force him to get help or even legally contact his parents, whoever they were.

“Nobody thinks we’ve been told the truth about Fukushima. Think about the milk you’re buying from a bodega, the hot particles there, I mean in addition to the hormones and what those do. There are rabbits being born there with three ears. The seas are poisoned. Look at this”— here he pulled his hair back, maybe to indicate his widow’s peak; I wasn’t sure— “that wasn’t there when I lived in Colorado. And I know that some of the bone mass in my jaw has thinned, can feel that when it clicks, but I can’t afford insurance. And now there is this storm, but who selects its name? You have a committee of like five guys in a situation room generating the names before they form. The World Meteorological Organization’s Regional Association IV Hurricane Committee— I looked it up. And ever since I looked it up I can’t get service on my phone. Every call is just dropped.”

“I agree it’s a crazy time,” I said. “But I think in times like these we have to try to stay connected to people. And we have to try to make our own days, despite all the chaos. We have to focus on feeling comfortable in our own skin, and we need to be open to getting help with that.” I was desperately trying to channel my parents.

It’s a fairly convincing portrait of a graduate student, hopped up on Deleuze and Guattari and god knows what else, who has lost his bearings – and in particular, has lost his grasp on the relationship between personal events and global events. Calvin’s paranoia takes a particular shape: he is reading the matters of his own life as if they are directly related to their historical context, the apocalyptically-tinged context of our times. His difficulty swallowing has something to do with a failure of meaning that in turn has something to do with ‘being underwater’ – metaphorically as a cash-strapped student or literally given the climate change atmospherics of this work that runs from one New York City hurricane to another. Other illnesses have to do with radiation poisoning, with Fukushima, with international presumably-capitalist conspiracies. Hypochondria connects up with a political persecution complex; bad phone service becomes a symptom of living at the end of history.

Calvin more or less disappears from the novel after his cameo appearance; the narrator tries to check up on him a couple of times and later wonders if he should use some of his book advance to bankroll a run of therapy for him. 10:04 isn’t the sort of lock-plotted novel that forces readers to question a fleeting appearance or digressive encounter – there’s enough wandering and intermittency that Calvin’s scene doesn’t seem too discrepant in the general scheme of things.

But still, I think there’s something to be read in Calvin’s quick appearance in and subsequent removal from the novel. In a sense, isn’t Calvin’s psychopathology very similar to that of the novel as a form – and in a sense, of Ben Lerner’s two novels in particular. In his first, Leaving the Atocha Station, we follow the inconclusive experiences of a young poet-cum-pothead as he messes with girls and doesn’t do his fellowship work, all leading up to… the terrorist bombing of the main train station in Madrid, an event totally out of proportion and sync with the foreground pseudo-plot. In 10:04, the same sort of situation obtains: framed by the two hurricanes that struck New York City in recent years, the novel itself traces out relatively banal plotlines drawn from the everyday life of literary Brooklyn. Will the narrator impregnate his friend? And what will become of his incipient romance with another woman as he tries to? Will the physiological deformity discovered in the early pages become symptomatic? What will he write his novel about?

While both Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 are carefully self-aware about the non-correlation between the banal foreground action and the cataclysmic backdrops, the simple fact of the juxatpositoning of the two elements in each case still begs a question about the relation between plot and context. Of course, this is what novels do – what they have always done. A doctor and his wife have a hard time in the rural France of the Second Empire. A woman is planning a party in London in the wake of the First World War. Two men wander Dublin as the world lurches toward the war and the empire toward its dissolution. Foreground and background, character and setting, everyday life and the workings of history – the novel as a form forces us to consider the relations between these elements.

Lerner, as I’ve said, is very self-aware about these issues – the text never forces the conjunctions, even seems ironically knowing about the forced nature of such line of thought that could read, for instance, the reproductive decision-making dilemmas of gentrifiers as somehow tantamount to the the specter of climate change. But that doesn’t prevent Lerner from bringing this minor character, this trouble graduate student, on stage as a sort of scapegoat – loaded with the sins or at least symptoms of the novel in which he is contained, or perhaps even the novel as a form in general – only to shuffle him off again almost immediately. Lerner’s conjunction of the personal and the macro-political belongs on the bookshelf, while Calvin’s belongs in a mental institution, or so the novel implicitly tells us.

After the exchange that I quoted above, Calvin reacts wildly in response to the narrator’s suggestion that he might seek some psychological help.

“Okay, wow. Wow. You want to pathologize me, too. I guess that’s your job. You represent the institution. The institution speaks through you. But let me ask you something”— I sized Calvin up physically; he was taller than I was, nearly as tall as the protester, but thin, almost lanky; I involuntarily visualized punching him in the throat if he attacked me— “can you look at me and say you think this,” and here he swept the air with his arm in a way that made “this” indicate something very large, “is going to continue? You deny there’s poison coming at us from a million points? Do you want to tell me these storms aren’t man- made, even if they’re now out of the government’s control? You don’t think the FBI is fucking with our phones? The language is just becoming marks, drawings of words, not words— you should know that as well as anybody. Or are you on drugs? Are you letting them regulate you?” He stood up so suddenly I flinched, then felt bad for flinching. “Sorry for wasting your time,” he said, maybe holding back tears, and stormed out of my office, forgetting his legal pad.

In a sense, isn’t the ‘institution’ speaking through the narrator and the story that he tells us as much that of the ‘literary novel’ as a form as any that Calvin might be thinking of. A regulatory message, a message that keeps an ‘appropriate’ perspective on things – one that gets on with vivid interest in the conventional workings of conventional lives, even if as it solemnly acknowledges that the shit may in fact be about to hit the fan. I generally think Lerner’s a smart enough novelist to sidestep this ethically and politically perilous position. But then again, the reactions of some of his readers provide evidence more in line with Calvin’s response. For instance, at the end of her gushing review in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Maggie Nelson writes that upon reading Lerner’s new novel,

Far from despair, I felt flooded with the sense that everything mattered, from meticulous descriptions of individual works of art to kissing the forehead of a passed-out intern to analyzing our political language to documenting the sensual details of our daily lives to bagging dried mangoes to the creation of the book I was holding in my hand to my deciding to spend some time writing a review of it.

In other words, despite the apocalyptic overlay, 10:04 more than anything else gave Nelson a revivified vision of her own demographically-appropriate and seemingly already-quite-comfortable daily life.

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October 1, 2014 at 4:13 pm