This novel made me question my skills as a reader. I was pissed at it through the first hundred or so pages – what a self-indulgent putz of an author, I thought, making this novel so clearly a look at his own experience. I didn’t trust that reaction, so I looked online, and yes, this novel was “about” his own experience in Spain.
I got more pissed.
And he’s a poet, fer crissakes. The poets I respect are ones who relentlessly question themselves and their worlds in spare, often dire language that doesn’t have to be lyrical but that does have to be true. What a snob this Lerner is, I thought.
And then, I think, it hit me – he’s actually brilliant. In this novel Lerner mocks himself on more levels than I thought possible – as a writer, as a truth-teller, as a lover, as a man, as an American abroad. He takes all the macho bullshit of a Hemingway novel and turns it on its head, concerned less with finding Europeans decadent and corrupt and more with looking at the Spaniards he knows as essentially good people who feel and bleed and argue and love and live well but still try to make meaning.
These are all things Adam Gordon, his narrator, cannot do, and while his identity as a citizen of the U.S. isn’t necessarily a cipher for the rest of us, his position as a person of privilege is. He questions his own relationship to all kinds of things, and the jokes work on multiple levels (as well), as the horrendous lie he tells to try to evoke sympathy (and maybe get laid) is acknowledged later by the person he lied to as something she figured he did to get attention. Writer as truth-teller? Not so much.
Ah, and about that narrative voice…a NYT reviewer called Gordon Lerner’s “avatar,” and that description fits consistently with the narrator’s desire to lead an authentic life. Gordon calls the opposite of authentic ‘virtual,’ and that distinction, I think, is part of the joke – authenticity itself is nearly impossible, and yet it provides some sort of clarion call to young writers and would-be-experiencers-of-all-cool-things-European. The avatar makes especially perfect sense if we think of avatars as the pale, dim, barely three-dimensional figures that poorer users of Stephenson’s metaverse are forced to use by dialing up through cheap-ass public phone lines. All of that describes Lerner, and yet his narrative persona must be far more charming and hard working than he reveals, as he writes a novel and lots of poetry and never manages to completely disgrace himself in front of his Spanish friends.
And writer as man of experience (gender-specificity ftw!)? Not so much. Lerner clues us into at the beginning of the novel to the narrator’s attraction to trying to truly feel or experience art when he describes a man who walks into the same gallery as our narrator inhabits in a Madrid museum, breaks into tears, and then moves from gallery to gallery, staring and crying at vastly different paintings. Maintaining the intensity and depth of feeling necessary to be this true is tough, it seems…
Lerner does occasionally allow himself a political comment or two, but they’re at his own expense. In particular, as Spaniards are gathering to show their defiance to the terrorists who blew up the Madrid train, he notes that he’s just going to stay home to read his email (and even that gesture is half-assed, as he feels bad, leaves late, and then can’t find his friends at the rally).
There’s a lot more that can be done with this novel, and I expect I’ll devote more time to this style of writing in the next review, of Lerner’s next novel 10:04.