Is This Man the Next Philip Roth?

What happened to Roth after 'Portnoy’s Complaint' is now happening to Ben Lerner, at a time when reality TV and social media have thoroughly muddled our sense of what's real.

Matt Lerner

“10:04,” by Ben Lerner, Faber & Faber, 256 pages, $25

Call it the “Zuckerman effect,” after Philip Roth’s most famous fictional alter-ego: A young writer breaks out with a smart, entertaining novel that allows or even encourages his readers to confuse its fictional protagonist with its author. Then comes a follow-up, which plays even more forcefully with the line between fact and fiction, both because it is natural for the writer to examine his newfound condition using the tactics that made the first book a hit, and also because the literary market is prepared to pay him handsomely in the hopes that his celebrity, such as it is, represents potential sales.

In other words, what happened to Roth after “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and to many other writers both before and since, is now happening, writ relatively small, to Ben Lerner.

Lerner had established himself as a critic, journal editor and poet – his collection, “Angel of Yaw,” was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award in poetry – when his first novel, “Leaving the Atocha Station,” became a sensation in 2011, when he was 32. The book follows a Lerner-like poet on fellowship in Spain, worried that he is “incapable of having a profound experience of art,” speaking bad Spanish, getting lost, and thinking expansively about what’s real and what’s virtual.

Critics lined up to top one another’s praises: In The New Yorker, James Wood extolled the book’s “beguiling mixture of lightness and weight,” and the “wonderful sentences and jokes on almost every page,” while Lorin Stein, in The New York Review of Books, called it “one of the funniest (and truest) novels by a writer of [Lerner’s] generation.”

The book appeared on just about everyone’s best-of-the-year lists, and won awards, too. These included the $25,000 runner-up purse of the 2013 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, awarded by the Jewish Book Council, even though there’s no explicit reference to Jewishness anywhere in the novel and, as one blogger noted, it “didn’t show any of the usual signs of being part of Jewish literary discussion.” That may seem strange – why give a Jewish book award to a book that doesn’t mention any Jews? – but if there’s one quotation that characterizes Lerner’s oeuvre, it’s an aphorism from “Angle of Yaw” that could work equally well as a Steven Wright one-liner: “The right to have it both ways is inalienable or it isn’t.”

Offering up the pleasures of both fiction and memoir, of pretentious critical theory and broad comic storytelling, “Leaving the Atocha Station” earned its acclaim because of its ability to be one thing completely – and also its exact opposite. So it’s entirely in character that the book has been read as at once both Jewish and not Jewish at all.

The same can be said of Lerner’s new novel, “10:04,” which bears an epigraph about how “the Hasidim” purportedly conceive of “the world to come”: “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” That reference might seem unmistakably to signal a Jewishly informed perspective – except that Lerner takes pains to remark that the quotation’s source is the (non-Jewish) Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben (who was quoting Ernst Bloch, who may or may not have been accurately quoting Walter Benjamin quoting Gershom Scholem).

It isn’t easy to summarize “10:04,” but just as some of the extraordinary books Roth wrote in the wake of “Portnoy” indirectly puzzle out how a writer named Nathan Zuckerman came to write his books, Lerner’s follow-up describes its own origins. It begins with a pensive moment after the “outrageously expensive” meal the book’s unnamed narrator shares with his agent, to celebrate the “competitive auction among the major New York houses” for his as-yet-unwritten second novel. The auction comes on the heels not just of “the unexpected critical success of [his] first novel,” but also of a short story that appeared in The New Yorker – IRL, under Lerner’s name – and which reappears verbatim as Chapter 2 here.

This all may sound like standard-issue literary self-reflexivity, and it is. But Lerner’s play with the autobiographical and the fictional derives freshness from our moment, when reality TV and social media have thoroughly muddled our sense of the real, when publishers’ celebrity worship means that the name on the cover of a book matters more than what’s inside, and likewise from Lerner’s perspective as a poet writing prose.

“Part of what I loved about poetry,” the narrator muses, “was how the distinction between fiction and nonfiction didn’t obtain, how the correspondence between text and world was less important than the intensities of the poem itself.” This is, of course, by no means a unique property of verse – Henry Miller’s prose fits that description perfectly, for one example – but it does offer us a way of understanding how Lerner’s approach to chronicling his literary celebrity differs from, say, Roth’s.

Like “Leaving the Atocha Station,” “10:04” meanders much more than a Roth novel typically would, following thoughts and conversations through a logic of rhythm and repetition rather than narrative causation. Lots happens — hurricanes Irene and Sandy buffet Manhattan; the narrator is tested for a genetic disease and for fertility; he works a shift at the Park Slope Food Coop, meets with one of his student advisees, and takes a fellowship in Texas to write poems — but mostly the book functions anthologically, curating stories and anecdotes on linked themes, stringing them together, and interspersing them with photographs, à la W. G. Sebald. Some of the anecdotes are related in dialogue, others are recounted by the narrator, a few are contained as texts-within-the-text. These gathered stories, rather than plot or characters, constitute the meat of the novel.

Comic leavening

One of Lerner’s themes is the unreliability of memory and the strangeness of discovering that experiences we remember never took place. “Like most Americans who were alive” in 1986, he says, “I have a clear memory of watching the space shuttle Challenger disintegrate seventy-three seconds into flight.” But, he goes on to say, “The thing is, almost nobody saw it live unless you were watching CNN” (as opposed to any of the broadcast networks, which were much more popular then) “or were in one of the special classrooms” equipped with NASA satellite feeds – “you didn’t witness it in the present tense.” You just remember it that way.

Another example, of a dozen or so contained in the novel: The narrator tutors a Brooklyn eight-year-old, and they focus their energies on researching the history of the Brontosaurus, the naming of which was an early paleontological error that will not go away. As the narrator puts it, “one of the two iconic dinosaurs of my youth turns out not to have existed.”

These unintentional deceptions perpetrated by science and memory may seem trivial; has harboring misinformation about the Brontosaurus harmed any kids’ lives? But then the novel also tells tales suggesting that even the central facts upon which one bases one’s most important choices – a girlfriend’s cancer diagnosis, a father’s identity – can be equally untrustworthy.

The novel juxtaposes that sort of insecurity – let’s call it epistemological – with stories about the instability of art and its value. This is an issue that would perhaps inevitably be on the mind of someone, like the narrator, who has been offered hundreds of thousands of dollars for a novel that he has not yet written. (What, one imagines him thinking, have I just sold?)

The most compelling scene that develops this line of thought takes place when the narrator becomes the first visitor to the Institute of Totaled Art, modeled on the real-life Salvaged Art Institute of Elka Krajewska (whom Lerner wrote about in Harper’s last year), which displays artworks declared legally valueless after they have been damaged and a claim for their full value has been paid out by an insurer. What follows is a fascinating series of reflections about “the tyranny of price” under which our art and culture operate, alternatives to which remain almost unimaginable.

If all this seems heady – questions about the value of art, the deceptions of memory, and the precariousness and contingency of the future being the sort raised either in a philosophy seminar or in a dorm room after pot has been smoked – “10:04” leavens it with comedy that’s almost sophomoric.

The novelist and critic Joshua Cohen called Lerner’s first novel “avant slackerism,” and several of the new novel’s set pieces – awkward masturbation at a fertility clinic; the narrator’s ineptness caring for the kid he tutors; a scene in which characters confuse one drug for another and then react rather badly; recurring references (including the title) to an icon of 1980s American pop culture, the movie “Back to the Future” – would fit in any dumb frat-boy comedy, and certainly on an episode of “Girls.”

And just as Sheila Heti’s excellent 2012 novel “How Should a Person Be?” took as a model the MTV reality show “The Hills,” the narrator of “10:04,” by turns socially awkward and vehement, hypochondriacal and clumsily protective of his privilege, could be a younger version of the Larry David character on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

But “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” even if it similarly blurs fiction with non-, could not present long passages of poetry sincerely, as Lerner does, nor would it introduce a work of contemporary art as anything but the premise for a joke. Lerner’s seriousness is just as sincere as his comedy; he really does play it both ways. Because of that, “10:04” conjures the same feelings as “Leaving the Atocha Station”: It’s disarmingly clever, unstintingly intelligent, and intensely a product of our contemporary moment, if also profoundly narcissistic and a little ridiculous.

Now that he has found his voice, method and audience, what’s terrifying, electrifying, to contemplate is how much of a certainty it seems that Lerner will be spinning out a series of these fictions, Roth-like, for the next half-century or so, into our otherwise uncertain futures.

The writer is academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, visiting assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author, most recently, of “Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.”