Ben Lerner and the novel of detachment

Jon Baskin in The Nation:

ScreenHunter_1029 Feb. 25 13.32Although 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 AmericanHomo 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, Atochaachieved 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.

More here.