An octopus, whether as sociable life-form, delicacy or mode of perception, is a recurring image in Ben Lerner’s second novel, a story within a story that tells the tale of its own creation in the overlapping realms of autobiography and fiction, where ‘everything is as it is now, just a little different’. The creature first appears as it is being eaten, head and all, by the unnamed narrator at a boozy lunch with his agent; they are celebrating the sale of a previously published short story that will soon become the book we are now reading (that story, ‘The Golden Vanity’, appeared in The New Yorker in 2012 under the name Ben Lerner; it shows up here as Chapter 2). A short time later ‘the author’ – let’s call him Ben – experiences his first instance of impaired proprioception: he loses track of his limbs in relation to his body, and of his movement in space. Put another way, he perceives his surroundings as an octopus might – a useful state, as it happens, for an American writer feeling his way around the twin pillars of David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen in the 2010s.
This inability to ‘read the realistic fiction the world appears to be’ frees him to experience it metaphysically, unbound by the restrictions of space, time and dominant narrative thread. What follows is a philosophically dense literary argument lurking behind semiautonomous and often engrossing tales that may or may not reflect the author’s activities over the course of the year or so in which the advance on this novel is cashed out: a fitful love affair with an artist, negotiating the desires of his closest friend’s wish to be impregnated by Ben’s sperm, a writer’s residency in Marfa, two epochal, tentacular storm systems. Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2011) and Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (1985) are touchstone works here, celebrated for their power to collapse time and invoke multiple storylines – indeed 10:04 is when lightning strikes the courthouse clock tower in the latter work, permitting Marty McFly to return to the present (now the distant past of 1985), this same clip appearing at the 10:04 mark in Marclay’s 24-hour work. Lerner can irritate at times with cleverness and overexplanation, a little surprising given that he comes to novels from poetry, but this story – these stories – quietly build in force as the author works his way ‘from irony to sincerity’, from life to art, such that the novel continues to grow in stature weeks after I returned it to my bookshelf.
This article was first published in the March 2015 issue.