The Literary Icebreaker Complex and Ben Lerner

Sometimes I think it would have been easier to live in a much earlier time. However, for the same reasons that living in an earlier time would have been simpler, it would also have been far more difficult. Before cell phones, the Internet, before I could address an international audience with the click of a button, the world was slower, less stressful maybe. However it was far more difficult to communicate and to travel and learning was not as convenient (though they probably had more time for reading since they did not have BuzzFeed). Additionally, there were far fewer works of great literature for people to read. Two hundred years ago I might conceivably have gotten through all of the books I would like to. I often find myself so caught up in the great works of the past that I forget there are great works of the present. When I happen upon these I worry for future generations who will have an astronomical amount of reading to undertake. It’s much like that icebreaker name-game during which each person has to say his name as well as the names of everyone who proceeded him: mildly anxiety inducing, but it forces you to pay attention.

This is a very long-winded way of saying that I have just begun reading a wonderful modern work that I cannot put down; it has astounded me. My english class this semester  is called “The American Novel: From Dreiser to the Present” with Philip Fisher. The reading list features headliners like Salinger, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Cather, but there are several modern authors as well like Marilyn Robinson and Ben Lerner. It is Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station which has caught my full attention.

Set in Madrid, Leaving the Atocha Station, follows the narrator through his poetry fellowship and his struggle with barriers of many kinds. He relies on the language barrier to seem mysterious to his friends and to his girlfriend. He questions the power of art and his own competency as a writer. However, I am finding that in his efforts to seem genuine (rather than fraudulent, as he feels), he actually fabricates who he is. This corresponds with the larger idea of reinvention in an unfamiliar and temporary place, to which Professor Fisher drew our attention. Lerner’s narrator speaks to the uncertainty of identity that all people harbor, at some level, in addition to our curiosity about altering our identities. Half-way through this novel, the narrator is confronting the consequences of arbitrary reinvention. These human concepts are communicated with sentences like: “But most intensely love for that other thing, the sound-absorbent screen, life’s white machine, shadows massing in the middle distance, although that’s not even close, the texture of et cetera itself” (16). There are these lovely synesthetic aspects to the text that draw the reader’s focus and force him to reflect and really consider what is going on.

Perhaps more to come on Lerner; he has also just published a second novel, 10:04, which has been on my bookshelf since the summer. It probably will not be there for very long.

Read on and happy Tuesday,

P.S. Shoutout to BB.


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