Ben Lerner and the Beauties of Ugly Autofictionalism
In Ben Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, the narrator is trapped in a dialectic of inner vs. outer language. He is uncomfortable in his own thoughts, just as he is alienated from the language-world of Spain, where he—a stand-in for Lerner—has traveled on a poetry fellowship. Lerner’s stylistic innovation and tic is that his narrator always has to translate from Spanish into English. So much is lost in that switch, and the feeling of the loss maps perfectly onto the narrator’s inability to find his footing in life, or to hold an inner monologue without self-hatred; the dispersal of intention and meaning becomes an existential loss. The reader always feels that somewhere else, or from some other vantage, the meanings are sure, the translations are impeccable, everything is understood, but we’re trapped, reliant on the narrator’s imperfect Spanish.
In this feeling of an unattainable place where meanings are clear, Leaving the Atocha Situation is similar to Kafka’s The Trial. Constant miscommunication between the narrator’s English and the dialects of Spain causes an abstract, tentative mood—the feeling of being alone and rather strange in the world. In Kafka, everything is always transforming: leave your lover too long behind a door while you’re talking to a lawyer, and she has already decided something against you or learned false information about you. A profound loss of trust affects the physical reality of Kafka’s novel; things disappear in shadows much as they do in dreams, without another word. Lerner’s narrator also feels this loss of trust; his estrangement comes from being isolated by his hatred, resentment, and confusion. In both, a solipsism distorts the world of the story, such that a wonderful feeling of unreality develops. This has a magical element in Kafka—characters appear and disappear—whereas in Lerner it comes from the narrator’s inability to situate himself in the world of status and ambition without doubting his own worth. Lerner’s characters are always transforming without notice, like a dream tethered to realism. The narrator’s feelings about himself are like a magnet that moves across iron filings from afar; changes in his internal weather alter the characters around him. A shift in mood and they morph, unwitting residents of a psychic reality.
Leaving the Atocha Station is obsessed with the act of making art out of reality. It is narrated by an auto-fictional stand-in for Lerner presented as unlikable and then brutally satirized. The narrator-poet rails in an intelligent, idealistic, sometimes entitled way against the pretentious crowds of “art appreciators” who follow poetry superficially, demeaning it into vulgarity. At the same time, he hurts his own various lovers, though they seem to accept him regardless. He is full of unverbalized guilt. The novel’s emotional climax comes as Lerner slowly allows the auto-fictional narrator to realize and narrate his own flaws.
The narrator’s “hatred of poetry” for its alleged uselessness and pretentiousness is countered by his desire to defend it as sacred. Lerner’s own uneasy relationship to transcendence in art—the elitism of that idea—can be found in his Los Angeles Review of Books essay on the abstract painter Barnett Newman. In its core logic, we see Lerner’s powerful philosophical contradictions at work. Lerner presents himself in a museum, observing people who are themselves observing Newman’s canvases:
It’s easy to make fun of the tourists who unknowingly reduce the avant-garde to kitsch with a digital camera’s simulated click, but lots of people have posed in front of Abstract Expressionist paintings.
Like so many of Lerner’s sentences, this one relies on an astonishing number of hidden assumptions. His grammar assumes, first, that we, too, are inclined to such mockery.
“It’s easy to make fun of the tourists. . . .”
Lerner then guides us away from this thought. He wants us to stop making fun of the tourists, not because human beings are not generally to be derided, but because “lots of people” have posed this way—namely, geniuses have also posed in front of abstract canvases:
There are the many photos of Newman himself, and the photos of Pollock “in” his canvases that are perhaps as famous as the canvases; liquidating the figure from the painting just reinforced the figure of the painter as an anchor of authenticity and meaning.
It’s easy, Lerner is saying, to make fun of tourists for posing in front of abstractions and reducing the holiness of abstract expressionism by commodifying it. They don’t understand the artwork, though they want to associate themselves with its fame. But Lerner wants us to come alive to something beyond mere mockery: he gives us the aesthetic experience of watching tourists in a museum influence the abstract images themselves:
How easily the human figure, what Newman and others worked so hard to banish from painting, walks right back into abstract art.
Here are oblivious tourists, unaware of us observing them, each without proper reverence for art, desecrating the art by posing for a selfie, but all of this is made numinous, spiritual, by a turn of the eye—a transformed seeing. With this change in perspective, an aquarium-feeling takes over: the tourists wander across the scattered blues and reds like figures in the once-abstract painting. They are absorbed by Newman’s genius and become the subjects of his tapestry.
Now the tourists, instead of annoying us by failing to appreciate, paradoxically deepen the artwork by not paying true attention to it. The frame is widened. Our attention turns from easy annoyance to a sudden consciousness of our powers of imagination, of a spirit lingering in our ways of seeing, an enlivening of the banal.
This experience differs from viewing every object as art, and is in fact a level deeper, for now living beings are also seen as elements of art. Buried here is a very twisted proposition about the love of humanity.
Objects of art, no matter how sublime, can not turn to you (when you watch them in the museum) and ask, “Why are you looking at me?” Have you had the experience of people-watching, thinking of passersby as figures in a movie, only to turn away, afraid the people will notice you watching? In this self-consciousness, we lose the mediative pose of appreciation and assessment. Lerner’s way of looking, here, is predicated on the idea that the human beings who have merged with a painting won’t actually come to life.
Isn’t just this the task of the novelist? The writer observes people, breaks them apart imaginatively so as to look at their hidden mechanisms, then constructs from the stolen details his own range of characters. In observing people, the novelist turns them into objects.
Lerner’s stand-in, in Leaving the Atocha Station, attends a poetry reading. Look at the way he observes a fellow poet—dehumanizing him, regarding him with disdain, and finally depicting him as a work of art.
Tomás looked less like he was going to read poetry and more like he was going to sing flamenco or weep; he did not say thank you or good evening or anything but instead paused dramatically as if to gather his strength for what would be by any measure a heroic undertaking. He had shoulder-length hair that kept falling in his eyes as he arranged his papers and he kept smoothing it back with a gesture I found studied; he struck me as a caricature of himself, a caricature of El Poeta.
In the museum, Lerner lets people merge with abstract paintings. Here he observes the lesser poet Tomás becoming less human, a caricature, as if the only way to be relieved of the horror of Tomás’s aesthetic performance, the only way to ensure Tomás can be useful, is to represent him creatively. As Tao Lin (another novelist who shares Lerner genes) has a character put it:
“When I’m talking to someone I think ‘can I use this dialogue in a book,’” said Luis. “If the answer is no I try talking to someone else.”
The promotion of “noticing,” the specialty of writers from Flaubert to James Wood, has a cost, in that affected writers commit to noticing life rather than living it.
What is lost is the observer’s soul—for in treating people as if they were things to be turned into characters, in listening for dialogue or examining noses to see how they might be outfitted with comic similes, in becoming, in short, a noticing artist, the novelist forfeits a deeper involvement in the drama. Being habituated to viewing and interacting with people in that noticing way isolates the writer from unselfconscious involvement in life; they are stuck in the habit of bracketing off their souls—no longer connecting to people naturally but instead observing them nonstop and analyzing from a position of detachment. These writers are constantly memorizing their own feelings.
It sometimes seems that autofictional writers tend to write more unlikable characters. Perhaps the act of looking too hard causes disdain—the realist-writer who spends time examining, if predisposed to self-hatred, will inevitably loathe others, too. If a writer’s characters are all unlikable, it’s simply because this writer is looking at them, and we see with this writer’s eyes.
To enter into an aesthetic experience is also to enter into an inavoidable solipsism, in the sense that the contemplative posture makes other distractions, living people, disappear. Teju Cole critiques this in Open City. The narrator, Julius, is lost in aesthetic reverie, having left a museum “with the feeling of someone who had returned to the earth from a great distance,” and when he gets in a cab, he forgets to say hello back. The driver is displeased and says:
Not good, not good at all, you know, the way you came into my car without saying hello, that was bad. Hey, I’m African just like you, why you do this? He kept me in his sights in the mirror.
I [Julius] was confused. I said, I’m so sorry about it, my mind was elsewhere … [The driver] said nothing, and faced the road. I wasn’t sorry at all. I was in no mood for people who tried to lay claims on me.
Aesthetic experience, glorious to the person within its opiate ether, is irresponsible—it doesn’t say hello back.
But to cast ethical judgments on aesthetics seems dubious; the imagination is unchecked and plays freely, kicking aside any ethical framework imposed on it.
Hidden in Lerner’s intelligent sentence “It’s easy to make fun of the tourists . . .” is a contempt for the human world. Lerner’s phrasing assumes that our first reaction is to mock the tourists too. When someone begins a sentence “It’s easy to . . . ,” they want to instruct you toward some more interesting thought—their thought. And this is exactly what happens in the second half of Lerner’s next sentence:
liquidating the figure from the painting just reinforced the figure of the painter as an anchor of authenticity and meaning.
Taking away the traditional, representational subject (the human sitting for the portrait) and keeping only an abstracted background makes the painter the true focus. But what is going on in Lerner’s sentence? It sounds mysterious but doesn’t quite make sense. He doesn’t write simply “the painting of abstractions.” So who is liquidating the figure from the painting, and who reinforcing the figure of the painter? Lerner suggests that something interesting is going on within the painting itself, or as if the painter is doing something (“liquidating the figure”), when what’s going on is that Lerner is saying, “When a painter leaves out the figure, the painter himself becomes the focus.” Who put the focus there except Lerner, the critic? The painter hasn’t said, “I liquidate the figure so that I’m the subject or my personality is the point of the painting.” So who is doing this damn liquidating? And who gets to move around the anchor of authenticity? Read too closely and your mind will run in circles.
In the same essay, Lerner writes:
And didn’t all the talk of how the monumental scale and absorptive nature of a Newman or Pollock or Rothko defeated reproduction (Newman famously said that modern painting was a “struggle against the catalogue”) add allure to the reproductions? This is a photograph of something you have to be there to experience; this is a photograph of what can’t be captured by photography, the failure of one medium securing the other’s absolute presence.
You look at the picture in the catalogue: so small! The Newman has to be seen in person. Yet all the talk about photography’s failure makes the pictures in the catalogues more powerful—which is to say that Lerner found those images more interesting because they were said to be so thoroughly ineffective. There is, first, the original Newman, which can be seen in a museum. But there is also, as if a separate aesthetic object, the little photo in the catalogue.
The language is difficult to unpack here because it’s the language of hype, which is elevated above actual sense. Why say “the failure of one medium securing the other’s absolute presence”? Does he really mean that the photo has failed to represent the original? As if it were blurry or discolored? And what does it mean that this secures the big Newman’s absolute presence? Was the absolute presence lost? When one saw the painting in real life, was it previously disappointing, not seeming to quite assert itself enough? Lerner writes about being perpetually disappointed by art in Leaving the Atocha Station:
I was long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art. . . . I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed that a poem or painting or piece of music “changed their life.” . . . I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college. . . .
He goes on:
Insofar as I was interested in the arts, I was interested in the disconnnect between my experiences and actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf; the closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.
Like a lover who prefers his affairs unconsummated and ideal (Proust, Kierkegaard), Lerner’s only way of accessing the artwork without disappointment is to look at something that is supposed to be disappointing. He doesn’t feel he has to find something enormous, and the assured absence of profundity—it’s this he is able to experience as profound.
I tend to think of Ben Lerner, Teju Cole, David Foster Wallace, Kristen Roupenian, Jonathan Franzen, Tao Lin, Karl Ove Knausgaard, James Wood, and other related novelists as “ugly” autofictionalists. It should go without saying that they are strong, interesting, compelling writers, and that this ugliness—their use of unlikable characterization—is no sin. But in each novel by these writers, the main character seems to possess all the author’s powers, and yet the character is “ugly.” While seeming to speak with the Author’s Voice, the character is subject to the writer’s worst weapons of satire and loathing. At the same time, the author can force the character into situations that engineer self-discovery.
To her minor characters a genius dispenses only a certain dose of her power. But in the autofictionalist’s books, the author’s stand-in is given full-strength intelligence: a mind that constantly reflects on itself and is burdened with the labor of thought. These writers don’t think through stupid or comic characters. Doing so would be too slow: a writer becomes an autofictionalist in order to be able to think at full speed.
A passage from Leaving the Atocha Station shows this velocity:
I wasn’t capable of fetching coffee in this country, let alone understanding its civil war. I hadn’t seen the Alhambra. I was a violent, bipolar, compulsive liar. I was a real American. I was never going to flatten space or shatter it. I hadn’t seen The Passenger, a movie in which I starred. I was a pothead, maybe an alcoholic. When history came alive, I was sleeping in the Ritz.
This is Lerner’s poetic style. It is a “Song of Myself” inverted, full of dramatized, torrential self-hatred. Notice, as we see with Whitman also, the gravitational narcissism of the “I,” in which everything has meaning because it is sourced through the Lerner self. I was a real American. How that drips with self-loathing! As compared to Whitman (for whom America is the greatest poem!):
I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)
Every kind for itself and its own, for me mine male and female,
For me those that have been boys and that love women…
It is as if the grand self-assertion of Whitman’s time has altered terribly, inverted itself into something demonic—as if, thanks to a media landscape saturated with images of perfect, superior people, the contemporary Whitman must be a Lerner, no longer celebrating the self but bathing in an orgiastic self-loathing. In that sense, Lerner is a classic Christian. (I once went to a BDSM club, and the moans of the men being lacerated by the dominatrixes—it was “femdom” night—reminded me of the wild moans of ecstasy that I heard at the mass prayer meetings, of hundreds, in the Chinese church conferences I was taken to as a child.)
The payoff of these powerful novels with so-called “unlikable” protagonists comes from the thrill of reading the narrators where they are unable to read themselves—in short, in catching the narrators in their “unreliable unreliability.” The author makes an ugly mirror of himself quite consciously. He performs a mocking exposé in front of your eyes, a kind of artistic self-laceration, the fulfillment of a special self-loathing. This is the modus operandi: to let us see into the the author’s neuroses, aggrandizements, and self-delusions. For the ugly autofictionalists, Whitman’s “Song of Myself” has become the “Ugly Mirror of Myself.”
The strange “ugly” feeling of these novels, a feeling special to the genre, arises from the fact that however the author-narrators ridicule themselves, or critique their own failings, the self-mockery keeps representing itself in the process of representing itself, and is unable, by itself, to reach a world of new sincerity. When David Foster Wallace admits (in his author’s note) that he himself is “The Depressed Person” from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, this is laughably obvious, because—in the best sense—all of the hideous men were autofictions, reminders to himself not to be an asshole (as he put it). They are moral self-instructions by way of awful self-portraits.
Proust performs the autofictional role better than anyone, and the only reason he doesn’t qualify as an “ugly” autofictionalist is that—in his novels just as, reputedly, in person—Proust keeps on tactfully, demonically lying. He flatters, charms, he keeps up his social image. The author in Proust’s book is a supposedly authentic persona that communicates with the reader as if he were a real person, while withholding all the nasty stuff we read in Proust’s biography.
But he can only hide so much. A long autofictional novel tends to expose almost everything. If you read closely, the Marcel that emerges is obsessive, a manipulator and a pedophile, particularly terrible to servants, to the less powerful who get in the way of his art.
Compared to our contemporary autofictionalists, Proust is more intent on disguising himself, or writing so copiously that we forget the darkest passages. Our autofictionalists don’t aim to charm us. But probably they’re no more honest; after all, self-wounding is in style. If Proust were to come back and write a liturgy like those of the charmingly, disturbingly self-lacerating Lerner, it might begin: “I am a Harvey Weinstein, no better than Jeffrey Epstein, rich, powerful, corrupt; a genius through and through, but a manipulator no less—I am . . .”
Solipsism flowers wondrously, giving off the pollen of one’s inner world. The moment of inspiration is a lucid duration—no one but the author enters that transcendent loneliness, and if you tell me that what I wrote in inspiration was wrong, your mind belongs to a different universe. But, to speak in Mom-language:
You only keep drawing your own ugly face because there’s something wrong with your head!