Joshua Cohen: “The College Borough”

06/21/2012 § 1 Comment

Originally published in Harper’s Magazine, July 2012.

I don’t know how it ever became an insult to call someone “too smart,” but in Cohen’s case, I can see how it applies: this critique of literature — “We’re the first nothing generation, we’ve got nothing to write about and no one to read it, everyone too busy getting technologized, too harried with degrees” — in which a visiting professor, Maury Greener, demonstrates exactly how practical and lifelike (or useless) literature is . . . by having his writing workshop spend two semesters building a replica of his hometown Flatiron building, in the incongruous middle of a prairie.

Rog, whose fiction is imprecise, is tasked with running the foundry, for he needed “dense hard verbs, relentlessly accurate adjectives, and the active immediacy of the present tense.” To fix Moreton’s issues with being a “sound guy, a line freak, just making weak beams of pretty and pretty shocking words,” the professor puts him in charge of the concrete foundation; “Sora, who’d overwrite and overcharacterize and overdetermine and overexplain” becomes the glazier, thereby learning to apply a more delicate touch; Bau’s scatalogical poetry meshes with plumbing; Lo’s schematic, carefully plotted folktales, qualify him for rigging an electrical grid. Our narrator, meanwhile, becomes the roofer (“Pat, you need to calm yourself, keep the passions controlled”), and the woman who will become his wife, Dem, takes on interior design as a counter for her “surface gaiety, superficially stunning in their detail but emotionally empty.” Is this not a brilliant twist of fiction, this critique of various writing styles, this welding of creative thought to practical execution?

But is it not also too smart, too assertive of its own tricks and devices to actually have the emotion that it requires? After years of roofing — and mind you, all of his classmates have gone into these more physical professions — has our narrator lost the ability to communicate the fire that he once felt at the thought of Greener attempting to kiss Dem? All this, incidentally, is a reflection, sandwiched into Pat’s present day, in which he and Dem take their daughter, Veri, on a tour of NYU, all while attempting to avoid seeing the actual Flatiron. (It’s unclear and misleading when, given his own job, he calls Veri’s decision to pursue a “profane concatenation of finance and psychology–she wanted to be employable” a rebellion against his own rebellion.) This also serves as a critique of the city, itself — and again, there’s a sense of overachieving, particularly in some of the linguistic choices (“an expert at translating anacreontics” or “delirious through the night he apostrophizes squirting skunks”) — for Greener’s literary depression is what first infects the class, bringing the separation between “downtown, which creates the art” and “midtown, which rapaciously profits from it” to a small town that, until then, had never even met a Jew before.

Ultimately, though savvier readers will guess this sooner, Greener jumps from the top of the Fauxiron: this is the real reason Pat doesn’t want to see the original, and perhaps this, too, has something to do with his decision to stay away from literature — that lesson, that cautionary tale, has been drilled deeply into his head, with labor, sweat, tears, and now blood. But for all these fabulist critiques, the story doesn’t quite stick: Pat may have learned a lesson, but we as readers haven’t, thrice-removed as we are. And this is when being too smart becomes the insult, when the brain races ahead and all but blockades the heart. “The College Borough” feels like a combination both of Borges and Lethem, so yes, it’s delightfully inventive, but no, the metaphors feel incomplete. Or maybe I’m just having an adverse reaction to the message that is implicit (and contradictory): that writing is pointless and impractical . . . even though it’s being conveyed via writing itself. (We’re well-versed in paradox, no? “This sentence is false.”) Perhaps when I critique the lack of emotion, I’m simply incensed by the beats between Cohen’s specific notes, confused by the somewhat unexplained pivot between art as life and life as everything else.

In that being puzzled and thrown off-guard isn’t necessarily a bad thing, “too smart” is a fairly tame insult to Cohen — the story’s worth checking out, and will surely have more significance/resonance with another reader.

Shani Boianjiu: “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations”

06/20/2012 § 1 Comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 25, 2012.

There’s a mandatory term — I believe it’s three years — during which all Israeli citizens serve in the army; as an American, I can’t really comment on the effect or effectiveness of such a policy on aligning citizens behind nationalistic policies, but I’ll assume that Shani Boianjiu can. Her story is divided into four sections that pattern, more or less, the titular instructions on the increasing level of force allowed for dispersing unruly civilians — protesters, mobs, rioters, whatever. There’s shock (stun grenades), tear gas (self-explanatory), rubber (as in bullets), and live fire, and the sense one gets from reading is just how accepted these measures are. At the same time, the officer and her four soldiers, guarding the checkpoint on a more-or-less abandoned stretch of road, don’t actually know the protocols: they have to relearn them as they go. It’s a world in which they’re both so inured to violence and so removed from it when it comes time to suppress a demonstration, they’re doing little more than following the carefully prescribed motions, using weapons that look more like fake guns than real fake guns. On the flip side, too, you have only three protesters — two men and a boy, the other people in their village being “not serious” enough to protest an inconvenience (or oppression) that they’ve become so accustomed to — who know only that they should want to provoke a response and get media attention, but are unclear on how to do so. On top of all that — this is a finely layered, balanced, and textured story — you’ve got a parallel between how the officer, Lea, often finds herself unable to feel anything (news of a blown-up little girl or a mother killing her raped daughter for honor’s sake doesn’t phase her: the extinction of white-tailed eagles, on the other hand, catches her off guard), to the point where she needs Tomer, her subordinate and lover, to grind her into the concrete, and how these Palestinian citizens, oppressed to the point of being as unclear in what they’re protesting as the soldiers are in what they’re guarding, find themselves needing to cause military action so that they can feel what they believe they’re supposed to feel, perception being the name of the game and all.

Yes, Israelis and Palestinians are different, but they’re both so defined and limned by their decades long conflict that, well, don’t they have at least as much in common now, too? Such is the conclusion Boianjiu is driving toward — in addition to all the ways in which she subverts expectations, filling her riot-responses with the utmost of politeness, empathy, and respect. Each day, they return, asking to be dispersed, which means that each day, Lea has to increase the response (hence the fourth sections), but in that final day — “live fire” — she finds a way to avoid killing anyone, exploiting a technicality and arresting the boy (who, in daring to pick up a rock, can be held for at least a few days). The story ends as follows:

That night, Lea was twenty-one. Tomer, nineteen; the boy, thirteen. They passed by the concrete barricade in silence and with synchronized steps. Through the eyes of a villager looking out from the light of a very distance house, they could have been a family.

The tragic nature of this conflict always reminds me a bit of that old Dr. Seuss tale, in which a north-going Zax and a south-going Zax meet, and wind up standing there, unflinchingly stubborn, as the world moves on around them, so it’s meant as a complement when I compare Boianjiu’s presentation to Seuss’s, particularly in the way all of the people in this story seem to have moved past the conflict (look at the demonstrators, who wear Guns N’ Roses T-shirts, speak in Hebrew, and write in English) and yet continue to be defined and pulled back into that conflict. “‘Whore,’ the man said to Lea as Tomer took the boy by the arm. It was what he needed to say to her. After all, she was a female checkpoint officer. He played the role of the poor Palestinian, but it felt forced and she was embarrassed for him.” Likewise, the boy is not frightened by his arrest; if anything, Lea’s the one who is afraid: what sort of person is she, to spend three years of her life guarding a meaningless strip of land, her biggest achievement reduced to the arrest of a harmless teenager?

Jennifer Egan: “Black Box”

06/17/2012 § 2 Comments

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 4 & 11, 2012 (Science-Fiction Issue).

Yes, tweeting your story is a gimmick, let’s get that out of the way. But in A Visit for the Goon Squad, Egan managed to relate a portion of her story through PowerPoint slides, so let’s trust that she at least knows how to write in various formats, and let’s accentuate the positives in this belletrism, rather than belaboring the unnecessary and detached choice to write in sentences no longer than one-hundred-and-forty characters. Tweeting a story leaves no room for the extraneous, especially if you are refraining from the ugliness of shorthand. Tweeting a story requires each sentence to be polished, to be specific, to stand alone. Tweeting a story adds a staccato tension to action scenes, there is not just space between periods, but time: anything might happen. Tweeting a story creates a rhythmic effect, especially when opening sentences with poetic, mantra-like repetitions like “Tweeting a story.” In conjunction with the second-person, tweeting a story creates an instructive tone that is quite fitting for this character, a thirty-three-year-old citizen agent who has been engineered for her required service as a spy, specifically as a “beauty” who will infiltrate the confidences of her “Designated Mate” until she can subcutaneously record and photograph his terrorist plans without raising suspicion. Such disassociative instructions are also perfect for introducing you, the reader, to a slightly yet jarringly unfamiliar future, and I’m glad that Egan does not take the “obvious” route here (in which a big reveal shows that the Designated Mate is also a spy, and that in this future, everybody is actually spying on everybody else, acting with only the illusion of purpose and control).

The Black Box, incidentally, is the beauty herself: if she dies in service, so be it, but she must get her body to a Hotspot (think international waters), or the information she’s storing within her will be lost. And while it’s true that she’s not a trained operative — “you have spent your professional life fomenting musical trends” — it’s also true that “Human beings are superhuman”; that we each have an inner strength that allows us to manage both the everyday and extraordinary. For instance, “The Primal Roar is the human equivalent of an explosion, a sound that combines screaming, shrieking, and howling.” It’s being Labeled here, but that’s a skill most of us have, even though we rarely, if ever, use it. Likewise “The Dissociation Technique is like a parachute — you must pull the cord at the correct time.” Do we not all block horrific things out, at one point or another, the need for sacrifice squashing our self-interests? And what of this: “A smile is like a shield; it freezes your face into a mask of muscle that you can hide behind. A smile is like a door that is both open and closed.” Thematically, there’s also the question of who we are, anyway: consider the way the beauty thinks about her husband: “When someone has become essential to you, you will marvel that you could have lain on a warm dock and not have known him yet.” That is, we look back and see that we were someone else and wonder how that was ever possible — could we not then look forward, too, and understand that we may not turn out the way we thought we would?

That’s some surprisingly heady stuff for a short story told in chunks, a story that is very much focused — for a change of pace in The New Yorker — on action sequences and physical occurrences. But that’s what I meant earlier about giving Egan the benefit of the doubt: even in these brief sentences, she never shies away from fleshing out an idea, particularly when she hints at what certain things might really mean. For example: “‘Relax, relax,’ uttered in rhythmic, throaty tones, suggests that your discomfort is not unwelcome,” a creepy sentence that does more to emphasize the character of the Designated Mate more than the repeated identifier of “a violent and ruthless man” ever could. The dialogue is terse, understandably so, given the limitations of the form, so Egan plays with implications and context, a less-is-more approach that pays off and ratchets up the tension:

“You are a lovely girl” may be meant straightforwardly.

Ditto “I want to fuck you now.”

“Well? What do you think about that?” suggests a preference for direct verbal responses of giggling.

“I like it” must be uttered with enough gusto to compensate for a lack of declarative color.

“You don’t sound sure” indicates insufficient gusto.

“I’m not sure” is acceptable only when followed, coyly, with “You’ll have to convince me.”

Throwing back y our head and closing your eyes allows you to give the appearance of sexual readiness while concealing revulsion.

I’m surprised that there aren’t more spy/science-fiction novels out there — or maybe I’m just not reading them — as the idea of reinventing oneself seems like a perfect fit for the future world of reinvention. In any case, Egan has a nice follow-through with her concepts, particularly as this citizen agent attempts to fight her way back to her husband, even as she struggles with the knowledge of what she’s been warned: “You will reflect on the fact that you must return home the same person you were when you left. You will reflect on the fact that you’ve been guaranteed you will not be the same person. You will reflect on the fact that you had stopped being that person even before leaving. You will reflect on the fact that too much reflection is pointless.” And while I’d love to read more, particularly about love in the face of reintegration, it’s hard to feel cheated by the way “Black Box” ends, with the hero choosing to return her mind to her pain-wracked body (she’d used the Disassociation Technique), to suffer and fight for life itself, whatever that may turn out to be, even at last understanding, as her life flashes before her eyes, why her mother once lied to her about her paternity, that love and lies are not mutually exclusive. Along those lines, perhaps gimmicks and content aren’t mutually exclusive either!

Jonathan Lethem: “My Internet”

06/16/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 4 & 11, 2012 (Science-Fiction Issue).

In the Beginning, or at least, at the start of this whimsical and ultimately slight tale, Two Internets, of a hundred people each, were created by a “leader” who foresaw the “lemminglike migratory waves of popular hatred that have come to define the Internet. (I mean the larger, non-exclusive one, the large general one, on which, it now occurs to me, you are likely to be reading these words.)” Fearing the worst, he managed to convince one group to separate (thereby “excluding” themselves): “He suggested that the two Internets be thought of as two playfully competitive teams, conducting a playfully Darwinian experiment to see which would flourish.” But whatever his actual reasons, the experiment worked: the elite group remained locked to their hundred core members (with the occasional replacement), relying upon two simple rules (“No money, and no animals) to guide them, whereas the other group became, well, our Internet, the one we know and love and love to hate. With barely more than a single page, though, Lethem doesn’t get to say much about the differences between these two, save that the smaller one is slower, like a bonsai, and links pages in a unique way, through “linkfeel” and a differentiated “infrastructure.” Instead, he goes a level deeper: one of these elite hundred, paranoid that their leader is actually some, if not all, of the other hundred avatars, creates his own Internet within the Internet adjacent to the Internet, “hidden like a grain of sand on the shore of the larger Internet, which washes over it like surf and yet alters it not in the least.” Is Lethem talking about the lack of true privacy and freedom? Is his “character” nothing more than an avatar himself, created as an Darwinian AI experiment? Or is he talking about the way in which information corrupts, absolutely, inevitably altering us to such an extent that we no longer exist as individuals?

However, it hardly matters which, if any, the author intended, because the story is little more than a thought experiment: “How can I make a person paranoid with the least amount of effort?” A story must be more than the merest mention of individuality: if you liken it to a stone skipping across the water, creating ripples in our reflected perception of the world, “My Internet” is basically a stone that hasn’t yet been flung. Instead, it’s a brief observation that there exists an object — the stone — that could be thrown, which could have effects . . . and sadly, nothing more.

Sam Lipsyte: “The Republic of Empathy”

06/15/2012 § 2 Comments

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 4 & 11, 2012 (Science-Fiction Issue).

William’s wife, Peg, wants him to have a second baby: she misses being the “sweet baby scent” of a newborn, is stressed out from raising their toddler, Phillip: “You can cobble together a solid twelve minutes of unconquerable joy a day caring for a toddler. It’s just the other fourteen or fifteen hours that strip your nerves and immolate your spirit.” While smoking pot with his friend Gregory, a fictional artist (i.e., he makes the “fake” art for movies), he witnesses a horrible murder on the rooftop next door; that night, he has a nightmare about being murdered by his own son, then wakes and find that he has two sons, and a third on the way. Total Recall-like, he’s no longer in an apartment, but a house, and he’s losing his mind. As he does so, a drone named Reaper 5 fires a missile at him — she, too, is losing her mind, for within her circuits, she maintains a conversation with base control Jango Rindheart, who insists that her claims of human consciousness are bunk: “It’s not actually happening. You’re just a dumbshit machine. I don’t even exist.” After the detonation, Peg and her new man, Arno, who considers himself a “citizen of the republic of empathy,” talk about the way the US has turns on itself, and he tactfully announces his love for her without disrespecting her vaporized husband: “Soonish I will say that I love you.”

That’s the core of the story — a question of “authenticity,” I presume — and yet Lipsyte’s chosen a narrative device that does’t support it: each section is written by a different narrator, and only once do these scenes share the same perspective. (Leon and Fresko were the two janitors fighting on the roof; they were actually best friends attempting to film an amateur action movie, fighting the only way they knew how (for real), and Fresko accidentally spun Leon off the roof: “You let punk-ass physics take you.”) I’m not sure why we need this section from Gregory’s son, Danny, who refers to himself as “the narrator of a mediocre young-adult novel from the eighties. Which is, in fact, exactly what I am. Exactly whose colostomy bag must I tongue-wash to escape this edgy voice-driven narrative.” If it’s mean to explore one more facet of “false” relationships, it fails, serving only to repeat the information we learn from Gregory’s tell-all to Zach, an absurdly rich ex-banker who wants Gregory to paint “the equivalent of what I thought a real, newly discovered, peak-performance painting by this painter would fetch…. Said he’s interested in exploring questions of authenticity.” As for this Zach section, it’s really pretentious: the way he stereotypically describes his profession (“If you want to make money, you have to be smart and an asshole and also work harder than anyone else”), throws in a few choice words of slang (“made made cake”), and then has discourse with a bribe-accepting professor regarding the way “Language betrays us, uses us. Language goes through us the way a young onanist goes through a dust-sheathed pocket pack of Kleenex found on his family’s basement crafts shelf.” Does any of this ring true, or fit together?

These disparate sections aren’t just underwhelming or structurally inefficient at advancing the themes of this “story”: they’re often unbelievably written, and/or twee. Lipsyte’s capable of far better writing, so I can only assume that, as with Junot Diaz, this is a writer who got stuck trying to write something science-fiction-y and wound up submitting little more than a sketch for a potentially longer but probably no-more-illuminating novel. (That out-of-nowhere drone sequence hardly qualifies, and if William’s being killed because he’s become aware of “reality,” that ought to be explored much more . . . or abandoned, as this is one of the most common tropes of the genre.) I want to feel empathetic, but the story’s borderline psychopathic: incapable of feeling or expressing that which it would foist onto the reader, and that’s just not right.

Junot Diaz: “Monstro”

06/14/2012 § 3 Comments

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 4 & 11, 2012 (Science-Fiction Issue).

Ever since studying Drown in an alternative-fiction seminar, I’ve somewhat had the sense that Diaz, talented as he is, goes out of his way to shoehorn in the whole foreign-language-in-an-English-story so as to stand out. He no longer needs to do so, but it’s His Thing, now, never mind if so many of his characters sound the same and get themselves into similar troubles over the women they fall for. That’s how I feel about the use of science-fiction in Diaz’s story: it’s more of matter of what was required to get this story published in this issue than it is a matter of something that Needed to be done for the story itself, which is mainly about a nineteen-year-old student who falls for a girl named Mysty while summering back in the Dominican Republic (where his mother is ailing and the medicine’s cheaper). There’s some class stuff, too, in that he spends most of his time hanging out with his Ivy League classmate, the overwhelming wealthy Alex, a “flash priv kid who looked more like a Uruguayan futbal player than a platano, with short curly Praetorian hair and machine-made cheekbones and about the greenest eyes you ever saw,” whereas he’s “a nadie…, un morenito from Villa Con whose mother had made it big selling hair-straightening products to the africanos.”

But in essence, there’s the one story in the DR, and then across the way, in Haiti, there’s a slowly spreading infection known as La Negrura, the Darkness, which has sort of collectivized (and literally fused, in some cases) its victims: they cluster together and surreptitiously infect others and then, after the U.S. Rapid Expeditionary Force attempts to bomb all of them, mutate into “forty-foot-tall cannibal motherfuckers running loose on the Island,” monsters that, by the way, have created some sort of permanent EMP extending in a six-hundred-mile radius. And here’s the thing: just as the stories seem as if they might merge — which is necessary, as neither one is really fleshed out, and because the narrative implies that what he’s telling us now has already happened (“These days, everybody wants to know what you were doing when the world came to an end…. I was chasing a girl”) — Diaz ends it. Alex, Mysty, and our narrator are taking a Polaroid out to the border to see what’s what for themselves, and that’s the last line: “And what do we do, like even bigger idiots? Go with him.”

One of the reasons people dismiss speculative fiction, at least the one I’ve most heard, is that it’s lazy and sloppily plotted. Authors choose to write in the future because then they can make things up; they don’t actually have to know anything. In actuality, a good writer needs to know even more: they have to make reasonable extrapolations, and should ideally use our “evolved” society as a way of commenting on our own, present-day Earth. Diaz’s story isn’t going to win over any converts, then: what, after all, is it saying or showing us? Our main character never even interacts with this craziness; we’re left with a creative, even plausible causation, but there isn’t an ounce of effect, and that’s what we’re reading for. Mind you, it’s the plotting that’s lazy; Diaz’s writing is fine, even if it’s — as I said initially — a bit stylistically showy: “Coral reefs might have been adios on the ocean floor, but they were alive and well on the arms and backs of the infected. Black rotting rugose masses fruiting out of bodies.” Worse, the science-fiction elements have distracted Diaz from the human elements of his story; as I mentioned, the class stuff is glossily presented, the chasing of Mysty seems banal, and Diaz frequently has to spell things about the characters out because he hasn’t written any actual situations for them to interact with. Everything’s a summary, a build-up; at least The Postmortal has the decency to follow through and expand on its central concepts before obsessing over a girl. I’m reminded, too, of T. C. Boyle’s “Los Gigantes” (from the February 6, 2012 issue), which was wise enough to keep all the experimentation in the background of the protagonist’s experience; that sort of focus is sorely missing here.

A final note: Diaz throws around a bunch of phrases that he’s coined (“glypts,” “the Whorl,” “plep,” and “viktims”). I’m not sure why he bothers with any of them, particularly the degraded English present only in the word “viktims,” and it ends up being yet one more show-off-y distraction. In A Clockwork Orange, the language provoked a further separation between us and Alex, in Dune or Lord of the Rings, the foreign words were rooted in rich and well-considered lore, and even in, say, Brave New World, the shifts hinted at deeper significance. I admire Diaz’s confidence and well believe that the language of the future will have new words for the Web, television, texting, and more, but it’s symptomatic here of an author writing out of his element and flinging things together. Moreover, for monolingual readers like me, it makes the story even harder to follow: is it a Spanish phrase that I need to look up (I couldn’t find a translation for “Tu eres guapisima”), or is some future slang or nonce word?

Well, at least now I’ve got a better understanding of what to avoid when stepping beyond “reality.”

Ben Lerner: “The Golden Vanity”

06/13/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 18, 2012.

1. An overly anxious self-conscious author, a lesser DFW-type character, stresses about meeting the librarian who, now that he’s published a surprisingly successful novel, wants to purchase his archive, though he’s only in his early thirties, far from a “mature” collection: “I wanted to wave to you when you came in but I had this coffee in my hands and I was afraid I’d spill it and then I was afraid that by failing to wave I appeared unpleasant and then I felt myself scowling and appearing unpleasant and then realized I must really seem unpleasant and so had already made a disastrous impression.”

2. A year earlier, out with Liza — his best friend/confidant — he debates for a final time whether to get an I.V. or local anesthetic for the pending removal of his wisdom teeth; he observes the “confusion of season” in the summery heat but autumnal light, and compares it to a “doubly exposed photograph or a matting effect in film: two temporalities collapsed onto a single image.” This thought is revisited a few moments later, when he notes that this “twilight sedation” and self-imposed amnesia would be dividing him into two selves: “The one who experienced the procedure and the person who didn’t.”

3. The next day, on the eve of his surgery, he goes on a casual date with friends Josh and Mary, who want to set him up with Hannah. (“It was the only kind of first date he could bring himself to go on, the kind you could deny after the fact had been a date at all.”) While wandering the streets of Brooklyn, he again remarks on “the momentary sense of having travelled back in time, or of distinct times being overlaid, temporalities interleaved.” (Doesn’t this language seem to be trying too hard to convey something? Especially by repeating itself so nakedly?) The date goes well, and closes by introducing the term “pareidolia,” which is “when the brain arranges random stimuli into a significant image or sound,” or perhaps the introduction of yet another heavy-handed motif for the story, fraught enough as it already is.

4. In the present again, with his therapist Dr. Roberts, we learn that the author (within the story, not Lerner himself) has a condition, the sort that makes one want to leave a record behind, which is why he’s meeting with the librarian from the first section.

5. It was the day after the tooth extractions, he tells the therapist in this hazy flashback, that he was called back in: the routine X-ray had detected a meningioma in his cavernous sinus. Benign, sure, but also inoperable. Lerner adds a new device here, an imaginary exchange between the author and his neurologist, in which he obsesses over the tacky art that’s hung throughout the hospital: he feels is creates a gulf between the sick and the healthy, for only the former would ever idle their time away looking at such meaningless art. I’m not sure what this is saying, but the list of symptoms that follows — once the author snaps back to what he actually spoke to the doctor about — attempts to justify some of the earlier tricks: “Prosopagnosia, pareidolia…. The momentary sense of having traveled back in time.”

6. At some point after his diagnosis, either before or after meeting the librarian, he and Hannah — who are increasingly serious — join his family, in Florida, for the winter holidays. The three primary points of relevance: (1) his father used to sing “The Golden Vanity” (a ballad also known as “The Sweet Trinity”) to him as a child, but would “improvise additional stanzas for the ballad in which the boy was rescued by a benevolent sea turtle and deposited safely on an island”; this represents the sort of happy ending and safety that one looks to among family. (2) His anxiety attacks, while somewhat under control, “happens to him several times a day, this sudden fear that symptoms are presenting”; there’s no safe harbor after all, though the author goes on acting as if there is, telling a story about a shark named Sam “who was thought vicious but ultimately proved to be brave and kind.” (3) Late at night, out on the beach, his brother asks “Where’s Ari?” To this, the author replies, “She isn’t in this story.” This is really confusing, even when qualified by the author’s note that he can’t explain it, that he’s divided into two people (as he feared the anesthesia would do).

7. This final scene flashes back to a final memory sandwiched between the extraction and the diagnosis: being taken home in a taxi by Liza, still woozy from the drugs. Is it meant to be a symptom of pareidolia that follows, this “most beautiful view of the city”? Whatever the case, though he fears he’ll forget that moment — that it will be obliterated, like the painful memories of the surgery on his teeth — he ends up remembering it the next day, which leads to this concluding line: “I remember it, which means it never happened.” I’m assuming this is reference once again to the doubling effect: if the conscious version of himself can remember it, it doesn’t exist.

So, why have I written out summaries of each section instead of analyzing the text directly? Because there’s no other way to really express how poorly this story comes together. There are a lot of big terms and ideas thrown around, but they’re just that: pareidolia, with the author hoping to conjure up significance through the brute force of his scenarios. This opening sequence with the librarian accomplishes nothing — his anxiety is shown better, later in Section 3, and it’s not really the point of this story anyway; likewise, the context for this scene is provided entirely by Scene 4, so what’s the reason for it still being here? If anything, it’s a red herring, since it establishes his panic attacks as the result of “false predicaments” — as in awkward social situations, not a hypochondriac’s fear of internal malignancy. The second scene is weak, too, in that it turns Liza into a philosophical puppet, someone for the author to bounce his concerns (and future symptoms) off. If the story wants to be about doubling, about the blur between realities, Lerner should take a cue from Paul Auster; instead, it’s like the art in the doctor’s office: it creates a gulf between the belletristic author and his audience, for we’re reading a projection of art, not art. And then there’s that troubling sixth section: after all the work Lerner has gone through to convince us of a certain scenario, he now drops us into an unfamiliar setting, one that confuses the whole doubling issue that this mention of “Ari” brings up; worse, this may be the best written of the sections, in that it focuses on the author’s reactions to being around the older and younger generations of his family — and it is so far from the ruminations of the rest of the story.

And then but so finally, that final section, which pivots into some really heavily poetic language (meant to mirror the author’s sedation?) and leaps to a wild and unjustified conclusion about memory . . . if it never happened, who cares? If each section is increasingly disassociated from the last, and the story is not about a character losing his mind (or is it really playing this that subtly?), then what’s the point? I wrote this all out in the hopes that I could work my way to Lerner’s ending, but if anything, I’ve gotten even more lost and confused — a second read serves only to point out the portions that are redundant or unnecessary; the entire fiction screams out as being overworked yet under-cooked. Did somebody mention vanity?

Where Am I?

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