'life's white machine'
A book from a small press seemed to make a very big splash over the pond in last year's book roundups. Ben Lerner's debut novel (he is previously published as a poet) is published by Coffee House Press in Minneapolis and it seemed a lot critics, bloggers and readers were rather impressed. Now I don't want to bash a small publisher before I've even started (don't worry, I'm going to say lovely things about the book) but the book itself looks horrible. The design above is pretty inoffensive you're thinking but it comes with the high gloss cover that you tend to see on self-published books and so it all feels rather cheap. And it wasn't. Not for a reader over in the UK at any rate (If I'd been a little more patient then I could have picked up Granta Books edition available from Thursday of this week). This needn't be the case. Small independent publishers like Pushkin, Peirene and newbie Notting Hill Editions regularly produce beautiful books without charging the earth so there's no need for them to look awful and in an age where e-readers are everywhere and some people don't even think they should have to pay for the content they download to them, physical books need to make sure they earn their place on the shelf. It may not be enough any more to say that it's the content that really matters.
Anyway, I digress. And rather appropriately, because this novel, a little like Teju Cole's Open City, is another novel with minimal plot, an almost diarised narration, and plenty of intelligent, witty and entertaining digression along the way. Maybe calling it digression isn't quite right, this is an investigation of sorts, by a man keen to probe the limits of words, of genuine communication, of engagement with the modern world. Adam Gordon is an American poet on a fellowship in Madrid around the time of the bombings in 2004. His research is supposed to be on the country's civil war but under a cocktail of prescription drugs, alcohol and spliff smoke his fellowship has been sidelined by his 'project,' his enquiries into the validity of poetic expression, his own validity as a poet, a lover, a man, and the grand question of where he goes next.
In the 'first phase' of his research for example he has developed a little routine: wake, make coffee, roll spliff, drink coffee, smoke spliff, shit, shower, take white pills, get dressed, go to the Prado and stand in front of Descent From The Cross by Roger Van Der Weyden where coffee, spliff and sleep can compete within his system. One day however when he arrives to take up his usual position in front of the painting there is another man already there. This upset to his daily routine is completed when the man bursts into tears and Adam can't help but wonder whether he is having 'a profound experience of art.'
When the man recovers only to lose it again in front of another painting Adam then contemplates the fate of the museum guards, sworn to protect the paintings from crazies, kids, 'or the slow erosive forces of camera flashes' but also presumably in a job whose only prestige comes from dwelling amongst cultural treasures designed to provoke this very reaction. What a dilemma: take the man aside to assess his mental health and risk ruining a profound experience, or leave him be and risk endangering one's employment. Adam is far more moved by this than he has been by anything he's looked at in the gallery.
This scenario is typical of the way in which humour and insight combine from the most unlikely situations. Adam is an exposer of the phony but a compulsive liar himself. At one point he tells Teresa, the Spanish woman who will translate his poems and for whom he has a fancy, that his mother has died. This lie has a wonderful effect: sympathy, physical contact, further conversation and connection. It works so well in fact that he uses it again with Isabel, the Spanish woman with whom he begins a relationship. In fact his whole relationship with Isabel is based on not-quite truths, a relationship not lost in translation but created and sustained by it, by the gaps in between what Adam says and what Isabel thinks he says.
Except for our most basic exchanges. . . our conversation largely consisted of my gesturing toward something I was powerless to express, then guessing at what referent she had guessed at, and gesturing in response to that. In this, my project's second phase, Isabel assigned profound meaning, a plurality of possible profound meanings, to my fragmentary speech, intuiting from those fragments depths of insight and latent eloquence, and because she projected what she thought she discovered, she experienced, I like to think, an intense affinity for the workings of my mind.
This is a great example of the way in which Adam is a narrator we are both repelled and charmed by. He is happy for example to pretend to be inspired by something in front of Isabel, because it fits into her conception of him as an American poet, but the idea of actually being one of those poets 'constantly subject to fits of inspiration' repels him and when he catches himself doing just that he feels shamed and we laugh along with him. He is disparaging of his own talent as a poet, his proficiency in Spanish (throughout the novel there is a hilarious distance between what Adam can understand and communicate and what actually might be being said and done around him), his status as a man but in the same breath he makes unambiguous his belief in art and artistic expression.
I tried hard to imagine my poems or any poems as machines that could make things happen, changing the government or the economy or even their language, the body or its sensorium, but I could not imagine this, could not even imagine imagining it. And yet when I imagined the total victory of those other things. . . the total triumph of the actual. . . I realized that, in such a world, I would swallow a bottle of white pills.A quick word about pills and medication. Adam is a proficient self-medicator whether that be tranquillisers, alcohol or spliff and the danger with drugs, or talking about them, is that frankly they're not nearly as interesting as the people taking them think they are. Adam manages to avoid most of the pitfalls by not taking them too seriously as an aid to creative expression (although he comes very close) and focusing on the comedy. Those white pills for example don't seem to work for him the way they're supposed to: 'I always felt a few strains of rumination away from full orchestral panic', but then he does drink and smoke 'in a way that made tracking the specific effects of the white pills difficult.' The ritual of taking them however, the 'Eucharistic rite of self-abnegation' is important 'because they were a daily reminder that I was officially fucked up.'
He does describe the different effects on the creative process between his prescribed and non-prescribed drugs, but far more interesting are his ruminations on the ordinary engagement with art, the way for example, in which real time and the time of prose can merge when you read Constance Garnett's translations of Tolstoy on the train so that reading instead of removing one from the world can intensify one's experience of the present. This also connects with his appreciation of the poet John Ashberry in particular (who returns the compliment by providing a nice cover quote for Lerner), whose Collected Poems are never out of Adam's bag and whose work, or Adam's thoughts on it, provide the key to Adam as a character and possibly the experience of this novel as a whole.
The best Ashberry poems, I thought, although not in these words, describe what it's like to read an Ashberry poem; his poems refer to how their 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 Ashberry poem were concealed from you, written on the other side of a mirrored surface, and you saw only the reflection of your reading, Asberry's poems allow you to attend to your attention, to experience your experience, thereby enabling a strange kind of presence. But it is a presence that keeps the virtual possibilities of poetry intact because the true poem remains beyond you, inscribed on the far side of the mirror: "You have it but you don't have it./ You miss it, it misses you./ You miss each other."
This goes back to Adam's experience in the Prado and his general way of observing life, the way in which he has maintained the disconnect, not just through medication but by culturing his status as an observer. Even when the bombings occur and people march in the street in their wake, when 'history came alive', Adam is sleeping in the Ritz after another failed attempt to play a role. But Adam's rejection of himself, of his talent, of his seriousness is challenged by the other characters around him so that towards the novel's end he is forced to accept that others at least think that he is real, that he has a place amongst them and genuine artistic merit. I'm still not sure about the way the book concludes and I am certain that plenty of readers will be put off enough by Adam as a narrator not to care about what happens to him, never mind what he pontificates about throughout the novel. I found lots to absorb along the way, particularly about the way in which we engage with art and to see a novel from a little publisher getting lots of attention (and a tasty printing over here) is always an encouraging thing. Maybe it is the inside that counts...