Although he has only published two books of fiction, Ben Lerner has already earned a reputation as a literary bellwether. His first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), was praised by James Wood for featuring a “convincing representative of twenty-first century American Homo literatus,” while Gary Sernovitz pondered “What Leaving the Atocha Station says about America,” and Geoff Dyer proclaimed it a “comet from the future” of literature. Published by Coffee House Press, a small imprint in Minneapolis, and spurred by such reviews, Atocha achieved an unlikely success, which in turn helped secure Lerner a reported six-figure advance from Faber and Faber for a second novel, 10:04. Published last fall, Lerner’s newest effort has been serenaded by Christian Lorentzen in Bookforum for signaling “a new direction in American fiction,” and by Maggie Nelson in the Los Angeles Review of Books as “a near-perfect piece of literature, affirmative of both life and art.” On the jacket cover, Jeffrey Eugenides announces that “anyone interested in serious contemporary literature should read Ben Lerner.”
An award-winning poet and translator, Lerner is a talented stylist, capable of artfully conveying what he sees of Manhattan from Brooklyn Bridge Park (“the liquid sapphire and ruby of traffic on the FDR Drive and the present absence of the towers”), what a hurricane looks like from space (“an aerial sea monster with a single centered eye around which tentacular rain bands swirled”) and his sense of alienation upon encountering artist Donald Judd’s iconic boxes in Marfa, Texas (it was “inscrutable in human terms, as if the installation were waiting to be visited by an alien or god”). But there are reasons that reviewers of his novels tend to begin and end by listing their favorite descriptive passages. Lerner’s two novels offer little in the way of plot or secondary characters, and their subject matter can seem incidental, even arbitrary. The first is about an American poet in Spain, self-conscious and skeptical of those around him, who wastes time and flirts with girls to avoid the “project” (a long poem) he had been sent abroad to complete. Relatively speaking, the narrator of 10:04, a poet in Brooklyn working on his second novel, is less narcissistic than the narrator of Atocha; generally speaking, he remains remarkably self-obsessed and disengaged, intrigued by other people in the way a biologist might be by plant forms. That both books are told from such a limited and partial perspective cannot necessarily be counted against them; since modernism, we have known that a literary masterpiece can be made up entirely of a character’s conversations with herself. At the same time, given the budding consensus that Lerner’s novels indicate something about our current literary climate, it might be worth pondering what that perspective portends.
Lerner is the leading practitioner of the novel of detachment—an ascendant genre in contemporary American letters. What is the novel of detachment? As with any genre, the novel of detachment has forerunners. One line of its genealogy can be traced to the metafictional novels of John Barth, Donald Barthelme and William Gass, from which it inherits its inclination toward allusion, quotation and self-reference—though it does not share the metafictionists’ confidence in literature as a form of linguistic critique. Another line stems from W.G. Sebald, from which it has adopted, among other things, the incorporation of photography and the idea of literature as a form of collective mourning. But whereas for Sebald this mourning was related to the horrors of the twentieth century, the novel of detachment’s sense of grief or loss is free-floating and general—as untouched by history as it is by present-day affairs either foreign or domestic. The protagonist of a novel of detachment is distinguished from his forerunners in part by his isolation from—and cynicism about—any human community or politics. The achievement of a perspective governed by impersonality and distance—alternately known as “willed depersonalization” (Rivka Galchen), “estrangement” (Joshua Ferris), “solitude” (Teju Cole), even “sincerity” (Ben Lerner)—is the novel of detachment’s fate, if not always its aspiration. From there, at least, it is presumed that we may look gaily down on the modern world, acknowledging its fraudulence and corruption right alongside our own.