Ben Lerner: “The Golden Vanity” from The New Yorker, 6/18/12

Paola Minekov: "Gaslight London" from the Cityscapes series

Paola Minekov: “Gaslight London” from the Cityscapes series

His problem was that the coffee required two hands, or at least he had taken it with two hands, one on cup and one on saucer, so as not to spill coffee or upset foam; he couldn’t return her wave. He felt himself scowling at this situation, realizing too late she’d think he was scowling at her. His solution was to look at the cup with exaggerated intensity, in the hope that she would understand his dilemma. He walked slowly, eyes fixed on the dissolving flower, to the seat beside the window, having ruined everything.

I so empathized with the character here in this opening segment – being a social klutz and overthinker myself – that I almost overlooked how well this scene introduces a major thread of the story: the image of the flower in the foam, and the dissolving of that image. Imagery, appearances, play a big part here.

A second major thread comes in a few paragraphs later in the same section, as he uses his therapist’s advice and tells the librarian he’s meeting in the coffee shop about his quandary in a humorous way, and she notes, “You sound like your novel.” The boundary between author and The Author – the only name we have for the protagonist – wavers throughout, and both author and Author are aware of it.

And third we have the folding over of time onto itself; objects, and the narrator himself, seem to be in multiple times at once, added to by the author/narrator blend and the use of memory. Come to think of it, memory is probably a fourth theme.

On its simplest level, the story opens with the Author meeting with a librarian in a coffee shop to arrange the donation of his “papers”; he’s just written his first novel and is considered “particularly precocious,” and this set-up is to assure he will entrust his “mature” papers to the same institution later. In a later section (the story is told out of order), he admits to his therapist that while this request is a bit puzzling, given his youth and the lack of any substance to his “papers,” he also finds it concerning, perhaps a premonition of his death. And, of course, flattering; he’s surprised, in fact, “that I want to have ‘papers,’ want to leave and be left those traces, that it would authenticate me.”

It’s a year following the discovery of a benign but inoperable neurological tumor, discovered during a routine x-ray for wisdom teeth extractions, that may or may not be causing:

Headaches, disordered speech, weakness, visual disturbances, nausea, numbness, paralysis. Prosopagnosia [face blindness], pareidolia [perceiving significance in randomness]. The softening sky reflected in the water. Silver appearing rose gold in that light. The momentary sense of having travelled back in time

These later impressions, of course, have already occurred in a section detailing a blind double-date, where he marvels at the view on his way to the bar, then has a singular experience:

On a small cobblestone street that dead-ended unexpectedly, some conspiracy of brickwork and chill air and gaslight gave him the momentary sense of having travelled back in time, or of distinct times being overlaid, temporalities interleaved. No: It was as if the little flame in the gas lamp he paused before were burning at once in the present and in various pasts, in 2012 but also in 1912 or 1852, as if it were one flame flickering simultaneously in each of those times, connecting them. He felt that anyone who had ever paused before the lamp as he was pausing was briefly coeval with him, that they were all watching the same turbulent point in their respective present tenses. Then he imagined his narrator standing before it, imagined that the gaslight cut across worlds and not just years, that the author and the narrator, while they couldn’t face each other, could intuit each other’s presence by facing the same light, a kind of correspondence.

I don’t think the choice of a gaslight as a trigger for this sensation was arbitrary, given the Hitchcockian overtones to the verb form of the word. But I could be suffering from a touch of pareidolia.

I like this story more with each reading. I’ve been working on it, re-reading, diagramming, notating, for almost a week now, and I’m still unsure how to talk about it. It’s something like the theme of overlapping time – a gaslight seems to flicker in three different centuries, a song through three generations – in that there’s no way to simultaneously raise all the points encountered in these seven pages, and I haven’t found a way to write about them that connects them. That’s what the story does, see? It flips back and forth in time itself, creating its own double-exposures of Author. It reminds me a bit of Robert Coover. But I’m at a loss as to how to present it; so just read it, rather than reading about it.

Which brings in another scene of particular note: In the neurologist’s office, Author imagines a discussion about the art on the wall: it’s not art, it’s an image of art:

“[T]hese images of art address the sick, the patient. It would be absurd to imagine a doctor lingering over one of these images between appointments, being interested in it or somehow attached to it, having his day inflected by it or whatever. Apart from their depressing flatness, their interchangeability, what I’m saying is: we can’t look at them together. They help establish, deepen, the gulf between us, because they address only the sick, face only the diagnosed.”

That this conversation is only imagined, adds to the double-exposure version of reality Author is experiencing.

It’s a story I’d call “clever” – a very smart story – as opposed to an emotional powerhouse, though for me, with my own social awkwardness and mild face-blindness, I squirmed throughout.

The title refers to a British folk song (lyrics and a lovely recording available online) which appears in a section detailing a vacation with family. I’m puzzled by its use as a bedtime story – it ends grimly with a cruel betrayal – but that’s part of the story, I think. Or maybe I’ve just forgotten what it is to be a kid, to see those things, like cartoons with anvils dropping out of the sky, less realistically than an adult would.

Lerner’s interview is terrific as well:

You could say the author is simultaneously confronting biological time, his mortality, and what you could call “archival time,” the prospect of some posthumous literary life, or the foreclosure of that prospect. I think these competing orders of temporality destabilize the author’s sense of time, of his present tense, and that the story both describes and enacts that temporal confusion at various points. Maybe this is another way that “the author” begins to feel both like a figure within the story and the person writing it—we’re both trying to figure out how he can continue.
I’m probably making this sound too much like some kind of abstract, meta-fictional exercise when in fact I’m talking about something intensely lived: how each of us is constantly striving to reorganize mere chronology into some meaningful pattern, to narrate our pasts in a way that makes a future thinkable. The part of the cliché “you’re the author of your own life” that I agree with is its implication that our identities are fictions. I think the author we encounter in “The Golden Vanity” is at a moment in his life where his fiction is breaking down.

I’m not sure if I want to read Leaving the Atocha Station, Lerner’s novel published a year ago (addendum: it was runner-up for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize of 2012 for debut work of literary achievement and great promise), however; I’m not sure I’d want to sustain this kind of energy over the course of a novel. Maybe. But for sure I’m glad I read this story. I just wish I could convey it better. Maybe that’s the sign of a really good story, though: when an image of the story won’t do it justice.

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One response to “Ben Lerner: “The Golden Vanity” from The New Yorker, 6/18/12

  1. Pingback: Holly Goddard Jones, “The Right Way to End a Story” from Tin House, Summer 2012 « A Just Recompense

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