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?

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