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.

Some examples of novels of detachment include Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances (2008), Cole’s Open City (2011), Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (2014), Benjamin Lytal’s A Map of Tulsa (2013), John Haskell’s American Purgatorio (2005) and Out of My Skin (2009), and Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision (2005). These books, although they vary widely in style and tone, are bound together by a conspicuous interest in self-consciousness, a concern for the problem of social “performativity,” and an anxiety about the meaningfulness and even the reality of modern life. Julius, the narrator of Open City, spends his days attending photography exhibits and wandering imperiously around Manhattan, defending his person and company from anyone who might want to “lay claims” on him. Paul, the almost impossibly unaffiliated dentist who narrates To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, comes under the influence of a fantastical religion devoted to Doubt, a development that, besides adding to his sense of isolation, reinforces his suspicion that his “life, and the city’s, and the world’s every carefree, winsome hour, were perfectly without meaning.” Had they occupied the same novel, Paul might have been a good friend to Leo, the New York psychiatrist and “depersonalization” expert at the center of Atmospheric Disturbances, who begins to suspect, for no particular reason, that an imposter has moved into his apartment in place of his wife. Doubt, indecision, ambiguity: these are all godheads in the novel of detachment, where what other people call “reality” comes to feel, under the withering glare of the skeptical intellect, provisional, flimsy, possibly no more than the dream of the author in her Brooklyn studio.

* * *

“For as long as I could remember, I always already felt removed from my experience,” reflects Adam Gordon, the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station. “Happy were the ages when the starry sky was the map of all possible paths, ages of such perfect social integration that no drug was required to link the hero to the whole.” The confession of distance from one’s own experience, followed by the inflation of self-alienation into a generalized nostalgia for an earlier time when “we” could invest in something larger than ourselves—this is the novel of detachment’s paradigmatic sentiment. Almost as exemplary is the conclusion Adam draws from his diagnosis of our compromised condition: that if there are people who appear absorbed by the trivialities of contemporary life, they must be faking or “performing” that absorption, something he admits to doing nearly every day. Midway through the book, while Adam is sleeping at the Ritz on his parents’ credit card, a bomb goes off a few blocks away in the Atocha train station—a development that the reader expects might jolt him from his detached slumber. But as the Spanish take to the streets in sympathy and protest, Adam remains mostly bunkered in his apartment, and in the apartment of one of his love interests, checking his e-mail and devising ways to hide his apathy from his Spanish friends. “Leaving” is the most important word in the novel’s title. Adam’s attitude toward the people he meets and the places he frequents is that of one who will soon be departing; the only space he never “leaves” is the one between his ears.

At the end of Atocha, the protagonist speaks of his imminent return to America as a chance to “renew contact with the reality of my life,” theorizing that this “would be best for me and my poetry.” On its surface, 10:04 claims to want to make good on that promise—that is, to be something other than a novel of detachment. Thirty-three years old, a transplant (like Lerner) to Brooklyn from Topeka, Kansas, the unnamed narrator struggles to figure out what to write about in the wake of the unexpected success of his first book. For a while he plans a novel revolving around an author who “tries to falsify his archive,” forging letters and e-mails from recently dead writers, initially in hopes of selling them to a library, then because he realizes it satisfies his “inclination toward fabrication.” But, describing his plan for the book to a fellow author, the narrator of 10:04 loses confidence in the idea, realizing that he does not want to write “another novel about fraudulence.” The thought seems to surprise him, although it continues an internal conversation the novelist had begun with himself days earlier, when he had wondered (to be technical, he puts the question into the mouth of a purely hypothetical future daughter) whether he was really prepared to exchange “a modernist valorization of difficulty as a mode of resistance to the market for the fantasy of coeval readership.” His response: “Art has to offer something other than stylized despair.”

It is unclear if Lerner ever really believed in “difficulty as a mode of resistance,” or whether the phrase “coeval readership” should be taken as anything other than a joke about his narrator’s inability to complete a thought without recourse to scholastic jargon. What is clear, at least to this reader, is that Lerner’s latest novel cannot be considered an example of art that offers something beyond stylized despair. Repeatedly, the poet in 10:04 brushes up against the actual reality of life as it unfolds in New York City—the blackouts, the faltering economy, Occupy Wall Street—yet, as in Atocha, these encounters do little to divert his attention from a series of tiresome reflections on time, the relationship between fact and fiction, and, above all, the operations of his own intellect. In one scene, the poet volunteers his bathroom and kitchen (but not a bed for the night) to an Occupy protester. The thought that occurs to him as he cooks dinner for the protester: “nobody depended on me for this fundamental mode of care, of nurturing, nourishing.” The piteous realization leads him to wish, for the first time, that he had a child—but that eruption of desire is chased by a swift recoil:

So this is how it works, I said to myself, as if I’d caught an ideological mechanism in flagrante delicto: you let a young man committed to anticapitalist struggle shower in the overpriced apartment that you rent and, while making a meal you prepare to eat in common, your thoughts lead you inexorably to the desire to reproduce your own genetic material within some version of a bourgeois household, that almost caricatural transvaluation of values lubricated by wine and song. Your gesture of briefly placing a tiny part of the domestic—your bathroom—into the commons leads you to redescribe the possibility of collective politics as the private drama of the family.

The poet recognizes (and hurries to confess before the reader can even formulate the accusation) the perversity and self-indulgence of his personal appropriation of the “anticapitalist struggle.” But his language (“in flagrante delicto”!) also betrays a thrill in the act of unmasking his “ideological mechanism,” such that it becomes hard for the reader to know how to take what he is saying. Is Lerner’s narrator having a serious thought, which we as readers are meant to take seriously? Is he having a serious thought, which we are meant to think is frivolous? Or is he having what he knows to be a frivolous thought, which we should not pay any attention to? The answer is all of the above, which is perhaps intended as yet another sophisticated wink to the reader about the indeterminacy of meaning, but really just lets protagonist and author off the hook; in the novel of detachment, such questions are always both sincere and ironic at the same time, and they are unlikely to have answers.

Moreover, nothing of consequence seems to hinge on the questions being answered. In this case, having completed this flight of self-criticism, Lerner’s poet simply ceases to consider the question of whether or not to have a child—nor, though his volunteering of his house would indicate some sympathy with the anticapitalist struggle, do his reflections tempt him to join the demonstrations. Accompanying his guest on the subway back to Manhattan, he remarks: “it felt strange and unsettling to stay on the train as the protester got off and the doors closed, to continue uptown toward a center for the performing arts, but I never considered altering my plan.” It is not just that, in the face of a new set of concerns brought about by his interactions with the protester, the poet beats back the desire to join the protests. Despite supposedly being “unsettled,” he makes a point of telling us that he “never considered” altering his plan.

This is not to criticize Lerner or his characters for failing to be sufficiently political; good novels are not required to address politics. Lerner’s academic distance from politics is significant because it is indicative of his studied distance from everything—and of the studied distance that is a keynote in the novel of detachment. Secondary characters (and all characters are secondary besides the protagonist) in both Atocha and 10:04 are instruments or occasions in the same way that politics and current events are instruments and occasions. Instruments and occasions for what? For the narrator to reflect on his own inability to react to them as anything but instruments and occasions! This is what accounts for the fact that, notwithstanding Lerner’s explicit claim to the contrary, he has written in 10:04 another book about fraudulence. Nearly every sequence in the two novels terminates in some variant on the solipsistic meditation that comes at a climactic point in Atocha:

My distress about Isabel and Teresa, coupled with my guilt about my parents, opened onto larger questions about my fraudulence; that I was a fraud had never been in question—who wasn’t? Who wasn’t squatting in one of the handful of prefabricated subject positions proffered by capital or whatever you wanted to call it, lying every time she said ‘I’; who wasn’t a bit player in a looped infomercial for the damaged life?

The tossed off theory-isms (“prefabricated subject positions”; “capital or whatever”) are characteristic of the novel of detachment. Adam has been involved with two women for the balance of his time in Spain, yet those relationships are subjugated to what he considers “larger questions” about his own fraudulence. This too is characteristic of the novel of detachment, as is the implicit conflation of cynicism and intellectual sophistication. But what is most striking about this passage is how the narrator’s skepticism, initially self-directed, diffuses outward, almost instantly permeating the entire world. Late in Open City, Julius asks a similar set of questions, also presumed to be rhetorical: “Who, in the age of television, hasn’t stood in front of a mirror and imagined his life as a show that is already perhaps being watched by multitudes? Who has not, with this consideration in mind, brought something performative into his everyday life?”

The reader is free to interpret such questions—and their implied answers—as projections, chiefly revealing of the narrator’s bookish and somewhat morbid consciousness. But, given the privilege of place they occupy in these and other novels of detachment, it seems unlikely that we are meant to take the suggestion that we are all “performers” and “bit players” as mere projections. By that I mean it is not the opinion of the novel that its protagonist has only confused a personal obsession with a social plague.

* * *

There are those who would say that the novelists of detachment are simply mediocre writers, whose pedigree and status (they come from good MFA programs; they are mostly, though not all, white and male) garner them more attention in literary circles than they deserve. But there are reasons more complex than pedigree or privilege that these novelists have been so consistently praised by the kind of people who tend to read and review literary novels. Their novels reflect a mood in the country at large, or at least some aspects of that mood that are germane to the literary left. That they so faithfully reflect this mood accounts in large part for the interest they continue to generate among critics, and it is also why it is worth considering, in greater detail, what this mood signals.

What is the mood? If we stick, just for a moment, with politics, the novel of detachment seems to speak to a reluctance, or an ambivalence, that educated, privileged people now seem to feel about engaging passionately in political life. Liberals sometimes bristle when President Obama is criticized for being “detached,” but, if one understands this less as a reproach than as an objective appraisal of his orientation with regard to the social obligations of his office, it would be hard to dispute that Obama is the most detached president in recent memory. Much was made, back in 2008, of the notion that Obama was going to make politics “cool” again—but whereas the Kennedys, for instance, made committing to politics seem cool, Obama’s coolness flows in part from the distance at which he holds politics, even while he is participating in them.

If many liberals do not mind (or even see) the president’s detachment, perhaps it is because they share it. Even a brief glance at the media personalities that now make up our firmament of stars on the political left—Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow, Ezra Klein—reveals skepticism and irony to be our preferred mode of engagement, with objectivity and intellectual rigor taking precedence over passion or commitment. Why might this be so? The novel of detachment implies this answer: today, to be educated and sophisticated is to know that politics and society are fundamentally compromised and fraudulent, and therefore entities that should be held at a distance, so as not to contaminate what we see as our true—that is, our “private”—selves.

But the problem of fraudulence, as the novel of detachment attests, does not stop with politics. There exists a tradition of American literature (its patron saint is Thoreau) that considers society inimical to an authentic private life; but a distinctive feature of the novel of detachment is that its protagonists are just as skeptical of their friendships and romantic relationships as they are of their country and culture. In 10:04, the narrator has two relationships: one is a casual sexual liaison with a flaky conceptual artist; the second is with a single female friend, Alex, who asks him to be her sperm donor. He agrees, with some reservations, and later they have sex, also with some reservations (their first try is stalled by an eruption of ambiguous laughter). In this respect and others, Lerner’s books rehash the tepid approach to love and sex that was the main subject of Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (2013). Like Waldman’s Nate, Lerner’s protagonists are cold, analytical, profoundly self-involved. Adulation by women is important to such characters insofar as it bolsters their fragile self-regard (for the narrator of a novel of detachment is nothing if not insecure), but they are rarely moved by care, passion, even lust. Indeed, the only feeling that truly threatens to overpower them is jealousy—and, once the relationship has ceased to feed their vanity, an obscure and useless guilt.

The novel of detachment doesn’t endorse this way of acting toward politics, women or the world. Implicitly, many of these novels contain a critique of their protagonist’s hesitancy or egotism. Teju Cole’s Julius, like Lerner’s Adam, is intermittently aware of the costs of his self-involvement, while the “intellectuals” in Nathaniel P. are so baldly obsessed with their literary and social status that it is questionable whether Waldman has written a novel of detachment or a commentary on the kind of people who read and admire such novels. For Benjamin Kunkel, indecision is supposed to name the problem his novel confronts, not an ideal it recommends. Galchen’s Leo and Ferris’s Paul are certainly not advanced by their authors as models of a healthy mental outlook. At the same time, by failing within its pages to represent a way of living that is not “always already” compromised and corrupted, the novel of detachment gives the impression that—at least for the demographic it represents and is read by—there is no alternative to detachment. Precisely because it tries to be a different kind of novel, 10:04 ends up proving the rule: when novels of detachment are not about detachment, they are about nothing at all.

* * *

In his New York Times review of 10:04, Dwight Garner dubs Lerner “a young Brooklynite version of the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard. That is, in his books, little happens, yet everything happens.” The comparison is telling, but not in the way Garner thinks it is. It is true that neither Lerner nor Knausgaard write traditionally plot-driven novels, that both write dramas of consciousness, and that in both of their major works the author and his protagonist are more or less interchangeable. But there the similarities begin and end. My Struggle is the furthest thing from a novel of detachment. In fact, the intensity with which Knausgaard relates his experience—the intensity with which he seems to us to experience his experience—provides an instructive counterpoint to the genre.

In May, Lerner wrote a review of the third installment of Knausgaard’s six-part novel for the London Review of Books. The riddle Lerner gives himself to solve in the review is how Knausgaard’s writing can be so addictive, given his stylistic flatness, his reliance on clichés, and his tendency to devote several paragraphs of prose to fixing his morning bowl of cereal. The article includes some worthwhile insights about Knausgaard’s project, but what is most revealing is the way Lerner answers his riddle: we enjoy reading Knausgaard, he suggests, because Knausgaard’s all-inclusive approach to experience “evokes both childhood and drugs.” “Childishness,” Lerner observes, “involves a susceptibility to absorption and enchantment that we associate with intoxicants in adults (when we don’t associate it with a mental disorder). ‘The child sees everything as a novelty,’ Baudelaire wrote, ‘the child is always “drunk.”’” What My Struggle successfully conveys, for Lerner, is an inebriated or childish infatuation with life—such that what is experienced by the reader “isn’t a story so much as an immersive environment.”

For all his appreciation for Knausgaard’s achievement, there is an unmistakable note of condescension in Lerner’s praise, as if, to the refined poet, Knausgaard were little more than a circus performer, his novel a wild but ultimately unsustainable act of aesthetic seduction. There is another way to account for the Norwegian’s appeal, even granting for the sake of argument that Knausgaard is not half the craftsman of sentences that Lerner is. To a reader uncorrupted by Lerner’s high-modernist scruples (that Baudelaire quote is a tip-off), it isn’t a mystery why one might remain invested in the story Knausgaard is telling, even when it diverts into impossibly detailed descriptions of cereal or tea—not to mention unwieldy digressions into Dostoyevsky and Heidegger, or the difference between Norwegian and Swedish political personalities: Knausgaard takes life seriously. At every moment, his prose is charged by his manic energy and conviction; the character he has created, to some extent coextensive with its author, is appetitive, lustful, impulsive: in his friend Geir’s eyes, what distinguishes him from other people is chiefly his extremity. The reader understands that the title of Knausgaard’s book is more than an allusion to Hitler’s autobiography; the book is about the struggle to become a writer and also to be a husband, and a brother, and a father, and a son, amid the corrugating (if often comic) uncertainties of the modern European welfare state. And beyond that, there is the struggle of existence—that is, the struggle with time and therefore with mortality—the subterranean terror of which haunts the novel from its opening pages, when Knausgaard remembers his young self confronting the reality of death for the first time:

A fishing smack sinks off the coast of northern Norway one night, the crew of seven drown, next morning the event is described in all the newspapers, it is a so-called mystery, the weather was calm and no mayday call was sent from the boat, it just disappeared, a fact which the TV stations underline that evening by flying over the scene of the drama in a helicopter and showing pictures of the empty sea…. I am sitting alone watching, it is some time in spring, I suppose, for my father is working in the garden. I stare at the surface of the sea without listening to what the reporter says, and suddenly the outline of a face emerges. I don’t know how long it stays there, a few seconds perhaps, but long enough for it to have a huge impact on me.

Although this memory comes from childhood, nothing in Knausgaard’s whole opus undermines its daunting intensity and pathos. Nor does Knausgaard ever outgrow his capacity to be overwhelmed by the people and places he encounters. We know this as readers not because he tells it to us, but because we can sense the intensity with which it infuses everything he writes, even his description of his breakfast.

How Should a Person Be?, by the Canadian writer Sheila Heti, might also, on its surface, encourage comparisons to novels of detachment. Heti’s title has struck some readers as a variant on Hannah Horvath’s narcissistic notification to her parents in the first scene of the television show Girls: “I am busy trying to become who I am”—which would be a fitting epigraph to any novel of detachment. But the grammar doesn’t quite fit. Heti is not concerned with becoming who she is, or she is concerned with it only insofar as it bears on what she takes to be a different and more significant question. “How should a person be?” is not the same question as “Who should a person be?” The emphasis is not on the development or protection of an inner self, but on how the self might be projected, and shaped, by its relationships with others. Accordingly, other people do not disgust but fascinate Heti: “I noticed the way people dressed, the way they treated their lovers—in everyone, there was something to envy.” Here Heti articulates a sentiment almost diametrically opposed to the novel of detachment’s suspicion and misanthropy; her novel might be described as a study in how consumed we can be with social life—that is, with other people. If, in fully inhabiting the roles she imagines will fulfill her, Heti often ends up unfulfilled, this only underscores her courage at novel’s end: “If there can be no escape from who I am, then I ought to reach my end honestly, able to tell myself, at least, that I have lived it with all my being, making choices and deciding, walking the whole way.”

Some readers will classify Knausgaard and Heti as narcissists (as one critic did of Knausgaard in these pages ); like the novelists of detachment, their chief subject is themselves. But what matters to those of us who are convinced by their novels is that they do not get hung up in the gap between their ideas about themselves, and the ones that others might hold of them. We sense that the subject, were it raised in their presence, would bore them. It would never occur to Heti or Knausgaard to equate enchantment with childishness, much less inebriation (a condition that has far darker connotations for Knausgaard, at least). We sense that life—and not just mental life—is for these authors a series of enchantments, followed by disappointments, followed by more enchantments—which is exactly what enchants we always already alienated Americans.

* * *

One way of describing what marks a novel as “experimental”—and Lerner declares himself an experimental writer—is that to account for what is good about it, we have to first discover what the author considers to be good about art in general. When Lerner describes what he thinks is good about poetry (the description holds for novels, which he implies are becoming more like poetry), he offers up criteria by which to judge his own work:

If I was a poet, I had become one because poetry, more intensely than any other practice, could not evade its anachronism and marginality and so constituted a kind of acknowledgment of my own preposterousness, admitting my bad faith in good faith, so to speak.

Whereas Sartre, not to mention Tolstoy, presumed that art was a place where we could overcome our own “marginality,” for Lerner the criterion of good art, which he also discovers in the poetry of John Ashbery and the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, is that it be about itself—namely, about its own inauthenticity or fraudulence. Judged according to this criterion, Lerner’s novels are successful. To read them is to be made continuously aware of the novelist’s own hesitancy and failure of conviction—of his “bad faith.” Why would we want to be made aware of that? One answer could be: because it makes us aware of our own bad faith. Another: because, in this our age of detachment, it is only on the mutually acknowledged ground of our “preposterousness” that we can meet and know one another at all.

Knausgaard, Heti, Roberto Bolaño, Thomas Bernhard: these are also experimental writers. In an extended essayistic digression during the first volume of My Struggle, Knausgaard complains that “contemporary art…the art which in principle ought to be of relevance to me, did not consider the feelings a work of art generated as valuable”; the artwork has become “a spectator of itself.” The details of Knausgaard’s aesthetic theory are not always coherent, and sometimes he directly contradicts himself. But it is not just his explicit statements but the spirit of his work as a whole that testifies to Knausgaard’s preference for intensity over analysis, engagement over observation. “That was my only parameter with art, the feelings it aroused,” he affirms, as if in conscious rebellion against the novel of detachment. “The feeling of inexhaustibility. The feeling of beauty. The feeling of presence. All compressed into such acute moments that sometimes they could be difficult to endure.”

Accordingly, the international authors who have found an audience in America in recent years have not tended to flatter our detachment; rather, they have set themselves, by the force of their sentences and their sentiments, against it. In Bernhard, there is plenty of alienation and contempt; but “detachment” would be far too weak a word to describe the hatred—inextricable from love, or the possibility of love—with which he regards his world. In Bolaño, art is a force that brings men together rather than isolating them; his characters commit to more in a page than do the protagonists of the novels of detachment in their entire lives. These international authors regard detachment, spectation, a fascination with one’s own intellect, unequivocally as a sickness or a vice, the signal of a spirit deficient in courage if not in insight. This isn’t because they don’t care about authenticity, but because they regard authenticity as the product of an engaged life in society, as opposed to a detached one. (If one has to retreat from social life—some of Bernhard’s misanthropic creations have done so—they will at least show you how to do it with conviction.)

Though they measure success by different criteria, this doesn’t mean it is impossible to adjudicate between the novel of detachment and other trends in contemporary literary fiction. I’m sure my preference is clear. “A wise and hardy physician will say,” wrote Emerson in his great essay “Experience,” “Come out of that, as the first condition of advice.” What Lerner calls “fraudulence” does not indicate the failure of modern society but the condition of its possibility. We show different parts of ourselves to different people; there is a gap between our inner lives and our public “performance”; at times, it is incumbent upon us to assume roles that may feel artificial to us, or to hide what we are feeling from those closest to us. So what? We have been acknowledging such facts for some time now; perhaps we are ready for an art that will accept them, and keep walking.