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Posts from the ‘Ben Lerner’ Category

The Correspondence Artist by Barbara Browning

Correspondence Artist

In The Correspondence Artist, Barbara Browning’s debut novel, Vivienne has a paramour whose identity must be kept secret. But since Vivienne seems to want to tell us all about him or her, she invents a handful of personas to stand in for her lover: a world music rock star from Mali, an Israeli novelist, a Basque revolutionary, and a Vietnamese artist. Vivienne moves the story deftly back and forth between her fantasy lovers, telling us about their trysts and sharing their discussions on film, contemporary art, jazz, literature, Jacques Lacan, and other topics familiar to the international art intelligentsia. In the hands of many other writers, conversations like these often come off stilted or speechy, but Browning lets Vivienne talk directly to the reader in a natural, comfortable, almost chatty manner that is totally convincing. She asks us questions and worries, for example, that we might not be following her explanations of Lacan. “Am I losing you?” she asks us as she attempts to summarize Lacan’s observations on the various meanings of the word “letter.”

The Correspondence Artist declares its ambitions and establishes its roots through two recurring literary references: the mostly long-distance romance between Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren as seen through the posthumous publication of her letters to him and as depicted in her novel The Mandarins, and the Edgar Allan Poe short story “The Purloined Letter,” but as seen through an explication of the story offered by Lacan (see his Seminar on “The Purloined Letter). Browning, who has a PhD and teaches at NYU’s Department of Performance Studies, is among a growing number of academics who have set up camp in the forest of fiction as a way of breaking free from the traditional model of academic writing. She moves seamlessly between critical theory and pop culture and I will confess that I rather liked getting my dose of Lacan this way.

Woven into her narrative of love, sex, and miscommunication are emails to and from Vivienne’s various lovers – hence the book’s title. But, with the exception of her spam filter,which has a habit of arbitrarily snagging important messages from her view with unfortunate results, email fares no worse than old fashioned snail mail in its ability to stir up misunderstandings between separated lovers.

On my way home I wrote Djeli from the airport a pretty heartfelt message about our time together, how close I’d felt to him, and because I was feeling that close, I made the mistake of raising the subject of a couple of moments of seeming miscommunication in our sex. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about – this kind of thing happens to everyone once in a while. Of course it’s best just to let these situations pass. The worst idea is probably to touch on it, however tenderly, in an e-mail.

Vivienne is one of those post-modern narrators who knows she is writing a novel. She is so eager to make up fictional characters for our amusement that it isn’t surprising when she ultimately tells us she has “gotten attached in different ways to all of the characters in this novel.” Fiction, like letter writing, can be a form of love-making. In something of an echo of the movie Groundhog Day, Vivienne regales us with incidents that recur over and over with slight variations with each of her lovers. Her blend of worldly sophistication and guileless honesty even leads her to this admission:

It’s probably pretty evident that this novel was constructed out of some fairly questionable knowledge gleaned from Google, a small, arbitrary stack of library books, a few Netflix DVDs, and my bin of sent e-mails. I’m clearly not an expert in Israeli political fiction, Basque separatism, experimental digital art, or Malian pop music. I know a little about all of these things, but not a lot.

As I finished The Correspondence Artist I couldn’t help but compare Browning’s book with another that I just read – Ben Lerner’s over-hyped and nearly insufferable novel 10:04, which I found only marginally better than his first one, Leaving the Atocha Station. Both have hyper-smart narrators who are anxious to show off their knowledge while telling us about the novel they are writing and which we are reading. But Browning effortlessly and entertainingly manages to juggle her metafictions while Lerner only manages to suck the life out of his.

Browning is also much smarter about the inclusion of embedded photographs in her book than Lerner, who can’t seem to think beyond literal illustrations. Here’s just one example from The Correspondence Artist. Early on, Vivienne tells us that Binh, her Vietnamese lover, has sent her an email that consisted of  “just an embedded image, beautiful, innocent, saturated with color: a split beef heart on a piece of chipped china.”

Browning Heart 1But near the end of the book, she explains that she was being deceptive and she shows us the photograph again, but this time uncropped. “That’s my hand, of course. I’ve already told you that I’m the one who’s been sending digital images as attachments all this time. So it really should come as no surprise that I, not Binh, was the one to proffer my heart on a plate.” It’s a bit like the magician who repeats her trick a second time, telling us to watch carefully and she will reveal the secret. Instead of becoming deflated and disillusioned with magic, this member of the audience gained new respect for the tools with which the magician performs and swore he will be more attentive the next time.  Good lessons for any reader.

Browning Heart 2

Barbara Browning, The Correspondence Artist. Two Dollar Radio, 2011. Browning extends the fun of The Correspondence Artist to a playful website of the same name, where, among other things, she answers the all-important question “How I Came To Write this Novel.”



Vertiginous Links for February

At the University of East Anglia’s #NewWriting website, former Sebald student Luke Williams has posted his article A Watch on Each Wrist: Twelve Seminars with W.G. Sebald, which originally appeared in the anthology Saturn’s Moons: W.G. Sebald – A Handbook.  Williams’ vivid recollections of Sebald, the professor, provide wonderful and insightful reading. His essay gets its title from the fact that he would observe Sebald apparently wearing two wrist watches in class.  “Why two watches? Why one digital and one analogue? Why was the analogue watch turned face down? I didn’t know.”  The answer, which I found quite quite surprising, is revealed at #NewWriting in the comments section.  So, click here to make your way over there and read Williams’ piece.

At the always-worth-reading Los Angeles Review of Books there is an essay called Imperfect Strollers: Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, and W.G. Sebald, and the Alienated Cosmopolitan by Michelle Kuo and Albert Wu. I’ve written about both Lerner and Cole.

What ultimately drives Sebald’s narrator is not doubt, but desire: to believe in a shadow world; to find evidence of it in the wondrous impossibilities of the natural world; to tell stories of metamorphosis, and therefore to imagine the indestructibility of soul, being, or spirit. Through these desires, we escape the mourning that we each have equally inherited. Thus, unlike Cole and Lerner, Sebald does choose a position from where his narrator speaks. In grief yet also in wonder, he invites us to observe alongside him. What certainties arise from his observations? The history of our world, for Sebald, is like a thread of a thousand yards woven by silkworm. Our recent past has broken it irrevocably.

Melilah 2 front copy

Melilah: Manchester Journal of Jewish Studies 2012 Supplement 2 is devoted to Memory, Traces and the Holocaust in the Writings of W.G. Sebald, edited by Jean-Marc Dreyfus and Janet Wolff.  (Yes, the official title given at the website and on the magazine title page doesn’t match the title shown on the sample cover.)  At Melilah’s website, the entire issue can be downloaded as a PDF for free. Here’s the list of contents:

  • Memory, Traces and the Holocaust in the Writings of W.G. Sebald by Jean-Marc Dreyfus and Janet Wolff
  • ‘And So They Are Ever Returning to Us, the Dead:The Presence of the Dead in W.G. Sebald by Carole Angier
  • Kindertransport, Camps and the Holocaust in Austerlitz by Jean-Marc Dreyfus
  • The Peripatetic Paragraph:Walking (and Walking) with W.G. Sebald by Monica B. Pearl
  • I Couldn’t Imagine Any World Outside Wales: The Place of Wales and Welsh Calvinist Methodism in Sebald’s European Story by Jeremy Gregory
  • Utter Blackness: Figuring Sebald’s Manchester by John Sears
  • Max Ferber and the Persistence of Pre-Memory in Mancunian Exile by Janet Wolff
  • The Uses of Images: W.G. Sebald & T.J. Clark by Helen Hills
  • Novel Crime, Hunting and Investigation of the Trace in Sebald’s Prose by Muriel Pic
  • Notes on Contributors

Finally, to continue the Manchester theme, I’m going to make a link to something I wrote in 2011.  I was invited to submit an essay to the French magazine Ligeia: Dossiers Sur L’Art for an issue devoted to “Ruines, Photo & Histoire.”  My essay The Silent Catastrophe: Sebald’s Manchester, was published as La Catastrophe Muette, translated by Zaha Redman.  I’m putting the previously unpublished English version up on Vertigo here.

Walking Away from History

I felt like a character in The Passenger, a movie I had never seen.

Adam Gordon, a young American poet from Kansas, has received a fellowship to spend a year in Madrid, writing poetry.  Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press, 2011) is his account of that year.  Adam is self-centered, petty, and compulsively dishonest.  He defames his parents, assumes the worst motivations in everyone he meets, and is pretty much disgusted with himself.    He hides behind a wall of deliberately constructed misunderstanding where he abuses alcohol, drugs, and “designer medicines.”  Although the novel is less than 180 pages long, spending that much time with Adam Gordon was painful.

Leaving the Atocha Station drifts murkily and ambiguously through big topics like language and translation, art and its role in society, and the limits of communication.  The central event in the book is the horrendous terrorist bombing at Madrid’s Atocha Station on March 11, 2004.  Adam follows the stunned crowd to the station moments after the blast, but soon walks away, seemingly unmoved.  Goaded into going to donate blood, Adam feigns illness and the nurse kicks him out of line.  “I said to myself that, by that point, they didn’t need blood for the injured anyway.” Like Adam, his poetry also stays away from the political, historical world.  “Poems aren’t about anything,” he insists repeatedly.

If I was a poet, I had become one because poetry, more intensely than any other practice, could not evade its anachronism and marginality and so constituted a kind of acknowledgement of my own preposterousness, admitting my bad faith in good faith, so to speak.  I could lie about my interest in the literary response to war because by making a mockery of the notion that literature could be commensurate with mass murder I was not defaming the victims of the latter, but the dilettantes of the former…

Adam knows he is a fraud and cannot comprehend why no one else sees his the same way.  “Maybe only my fraudulence was fraudulent,” he worries.

Ben Lerner, who has published several books of poetry, has some exceptionally talented writing skills.  Every time I despaired of being condemned to listen to whiny, self-justifying Adam Gordon for one more page, I was compelled to keep going because of Lerner’s subtle prose.  He assembles sentences like a poet, sentences that resonate with his own apparent love of language.  So it’s truly odd that Lerner has chosen to create a book utterly infused with cynicism about language, literature, art, and our personal ability to communicate.

As we walked through the Reina Sofia, I would offer up unconjugated sentences or sentence fragments in response to paintings that she then expanded and concatenated into penetrating observations about line and color, art and institutions, old world and new, or at least I imagined these expansions.  To photograph a painting –, I said with derisive mystery as we watched the tourists in front of Guernica, and then I observed her face as this phrase spread out into a meditation on art in the age of technological reproducibility.  I would say, Blue is an idea about distance, or Literature ends in that particular blue, or Here are several subjunctive blues; I would say , To write with sculpture–, To think the vertical–, To refute a century of shadow–, etc., and watch her mouth the phrase to herself, investing it with all possible resonances, then reapplying it to canvas.  Of course we engaged in our share of incidental talk, but our most intense and ostensibly intimate interactions were the effect of her imbuing my silences, the gaps out of which my Spanish was primarily composed, with tremendous intellectual and aesthetic force.

Leaving the Atocha Station has five Sebald-like photographs of works of art, historical figures, and historical events embedded within the text.  Each image comes with a caption that is a pull-quote from the text.  The twist is that the images and captions appear somewhat randomly scattered throughout the book rather than on the pages to which they directly refer.  The photograph on page 11 has a quote from page 113; the aerial photograph of the bombed city of Guernica and its accompanying quote on page 52 come from a discussion that occurs about ten pages earlier; and so on.  Is this a weak attempt to triangulate between disparate moments within the book or does it represent a kind of editorial arbitrariness?  Is Adam Gordon lazy or is Ben Lerner a brilliant puppetmaster?  For me the puzzle at the core of Leaving the Atocha Station is authorial.  Are we reading Adam’s recollections or Ben’s novel?  Yes, I realize that part of the answer is that we are reading both at once.  But to the extent we are reading Adam’s text, then we are simply locked into the brain and behind the eyeballs of an insufferable, drug-addled narrator.  And in that case my interest wanes pretty quickly, because I couldn’t wait to part ways with him.

Lerner does seem to realize that his choice of narrator forces us into the uncomfortable state of not having anything stable thing to hang on to.  I say this because Lerner occasionally has Adam momentarily rise up out of his stupor to deliver complex, articulate theories.  Whether Adam’s expositions are brilliant or just brilliantly confusing may not be the point.  In this example,  Adam expounds on his favorite poet, John Ashbery.

The “it” in an Ashbery poem seemed ultimately to refer to the mysteries of the poem itself; in the absence of any stable external referent, the poem’s procedures invested its pronouns, and the “you” devolved upon the reader….

The best Ashbery poems, I thought, although not in these words, describe what it’s like to read an Ashbery poem; his poems refer to how his reference evanesces.  And when you read about your reading in the time of your reading, mediacy is experienced immediately.  It is as though the actual Ashbery poem were concealed from you, written on the other side of a mirrored surface, and you saw only the reflection of your reading.  But by reflecting your reading, Ashbery’s poems allow you to attend to your attention, to experience your experience, thereby enabling a strange kind of presence. 

Setting aside the dizzying circularity and mock academic style of Adam’s rather narrow understanding of Ashbery, what seems to be going on here is that Lerner is hinting that he sees Leaving the Atocha Station as a prose version of an Ashbery poem.  He wants to convince the reader that it’s a noble undertaking to be sent off untethered, with no stable external referents, so that we can better attend to our attention and experience our experiences.  Some readers are going to find this a rather meager reward, all sound and fury and of little significance.