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The Art of Humblebrag

Ben Lerner’s ‘The Lights’ is a collection of auto-fictional poems from a master of self-validating ambiguity

Marco Roth
September 26, 2023
A Wandering Jew
Marco Roth on literature and culture in exile.
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Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Let’s get this out of the way: As my own literary ambitions stalled—mostly due to poorly handled and occasionally crippling episodes of depression and anxiety, along with a poor aptitude for managing my career—I became increasingly jealous of Ben Lerner’s success. At the kind of hangouts in the Brooklyn literary demimonde, where youngish, aspiring writers and critics gather over drinks with older scenester types like me, whenever asked my opinion of his work, I’d say something like, “How many writers my age had to die just so Ben Lerner could write thinly disguised autobiographical fiction about looking at paintings and guilt about eating perfectly tenderized, grilled octopus with his agent?” As soon as the words would leave my mouth, I’d feel ashamed. Rather than attending to the work, I was surrendering to the pseudo-culture of personality that largely consists in coming up with spurious ad hominem reasons to vent valueless opinions. I was doing my bit to feed the cycle of resentment, hype, hyperbole, and backlash that I’d once experienced from the other side. Wasn’t my real problem that my agent had politely washed her hands of me in 2013, while taking me out for the $24.95 sashimi lunch special at Japonica? There were two thin slices of raw octopus, firm and not too chewy, but no second book contract.

What I really felt about Ben Lerner—when people asked me that question at parties—was that he lived in a world free of shadows, somehow—almost inexplicably—marked out for glory. My remark, petty as it was, was crafted out of several beliefs that kick around in the basement of our current cultural unconscious about what makes writers successful or unsuccessful. The first of these is that timing matters as much if not more than hard work, self-belief, thoughtfulness, or the qualities of one’s prose.

There’s an element of truth about the lotterylike nature of book publishing and artistic success in general that can effectively blind a person to their own limitations: At the turn of the millennium, a young writer trying to fashion himself as an American version of W.G. Sebald, (complete with photographic illustrations)—the way Lerner appeared to do with his first novel about the ironic complexities of a young American poet in Madrid on a Fulbright fellowship (we’ll return to this question of awards later) who then witnesses the aftermath of the March 11, 2004, al-Qaida attack on the Spanish commuter rail system—would have struggled to find the kind of critical reception that greeted his 2010 book Leaving the Atocha Station. The field in the late 1990s for young, secular, Jewish male writers interested in Europeans, aesthetics, and European history—both intellectual and not—had been narrowly defined by Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, a work of high kitsch.

I wasn’t wrong that my peers and I had suffered under this anti-intellectual climate of our late 20s, a period when many of the most talented and thoughtful fiction writers I knew abandoned their work for Ph.D. programs in the humanities or law school, or gravitated toward scriptwriting or journalism. Lerner, five years younger than my cohort, was then an undergraduate, at free-thinking Brown University, no less! By the time he was ready to deliver his antidote to Foer’s existential Dramamine into the hands of those who make and break the hopes of promising young writers, tastes had shifted in a more skeptical direction. The parent-pleasing faux-naivete of the callow young person’s debut novel had made way for something closer to knowing decadence.

No fan of Foer’s, the critic James Wood favorably compared Lerner’s narrator to Alexander Herzen and a litany of great 19th- and early-20th-century “superfluous men.” America was no longer “post-historical,” or “post-tragic.” Many of its youth were serving again in wars in foreign lands, brought there by the eruptions of grievances in the form of bombs that ripped apart lives. American mainstream publishing, too, seemed at least momentarily open to works of greater complexity.

The culture that was ready for Lerner had not been ready for certain other writers and tendencies that prefigured him, and his success is to some extent their redemption as well. In the deep background, there’s one of Lerner’s great influences, Allen Grossman: “We used to call him Ursa Minor, as opposed to Ursa Major— Harold Bloom,” the poetry scholar and critic William Flesch recalls. The minorness wasn’t sought or cultivated, it was just an aspect of a certain steadiness and commitment to things being elemental in an age that favored more grandiose pronouncements and movements—Grossman, who wrote and taught poetry at Brandeis and Johns Hopkins was, after all, only six years younger than Ginsberg. Although he always had fans and appreciators, Grossman’s late redemption has come about through his students and devotees from my generation, who include one of its most thoughtful public intellectual literary critics (Michael Clune), its best literary editor (Lorin Stein), and Lerner himself.

There were also honorable failures, more rough-edged precursors to Lerner’s interest in a kind of shared, collective consciousness that runs alongside his more recognizable autobiographical writing. The outsider novelist Evan Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook (1995) used a pirate-radio inflected stream of consciousness style to portray experiences that are both felt individually and shared across a commons in the aftermath of a Midwestern town’s destruction by an industrial accident. Like Leaving the Atocha Station, it was published by a reputable small press—having won a prize judged by William Vollmann, Mark Leyner, and Jonathan Baumbach. But for a host of reasons—coastal bias, Dara’s total commitment to authorial impersonality (Dara is a pseudonym and the real person has never been identified) and sheer length and unevenness of prose—the novel did not catch on.

Lerner was both alienated and at the same time refreshingly normal. He offered DeLillo without the paranoia, David Foster Wallace without clinical depression, wrapped in the more accessible, easily consumable package of an apparently stable, high-functioning first-person narrator.

In a more general vein, Lerner’s clipped, abstracted, yet at the same time highly personal style offered a neat update to the much greater length and more cumbersome apparatus of the systems novels—in which individual characters come to understand the breadth and depth of large impersonal forces arrayed against them—that had dominated quality American lit since the early 1970s. Above all, Lerner was both alienated and at the same time refreshingly normal. He offered DeLillo without the paranoia, David Foster Wallace without clinical depression, wrapped in the more accessible, easily consumable package of an apparently stable, high-functioning first-person narrator.

So timing certainly matters but is far from the only factor in determining which writers are anointed generational talents, borne aloft from book to book by prizes, genius grant awards, and plum appointments in university departments, enjoying the eager attentions of agents, editors, and publishers while others toil through versions of ye olde “silence, cunning, and exile,” midlist obscurity, adjunct MFA appointments, and unanswered emails in the hopes that some future New York Review of Books Classics series will rediscover them after they’re dead.

Another factor worth considering in Lerner’s case is parentage, or rather parenting. Readers of Lerner’s autobiographical novel The Topeka School (2019) will be familiar with some of the best (perhaps only) “good enough” parents in Jewish literary history: Harriet and Steve Lerner, both clinical psychologists, Harriet known for The Dance of Anger, a bestselling contribution to relationships dynamic theory that mostly urged women (though men too) to attend to their anger and figure out how to use it productively within and outside their marriages. Her son was clearly a beneficiary of this technique: More than any other “white male” writer of recent vintage, Lerner has found a way to keep a spark of incandescent rage alive in his work without appearing to do so. He wields his anger well, never against himself, and almost always toward the right objects. No small accomplishment and a subject really deserving of its own essay.

Lerner’s parents figure in other ways throughout his work. In The Hatred of Poetry—a slim but powerful contemporary riff on the classic “defense of poetry” genre (published by FSG as a standalone volume, almost a chapbook)—Lerner, as many poets before him, locates the poetic impulse in early childhood acts of naming or creative misnaming:

If you are five and you point to a sycamore or an idle backhoe ... or to images of these things on a television set and utter “vanish” or utter “varnish” you will never be only incorrect; if your parent or guardian is curious she can find a meaning that makes you almost eerily prescient—the backhoe has helped a structure disappear or is glazed with rainwater or the sheen of spectacle lends to whatever appears onscreen a strange finish. To derive your understanding of a word by watching others adjust to your use of it ... I think that’s poetry.

The second-person pronoun along with the hypothetical syntax casts a nice penumbra of doubt over any autobiographical provenance, but even if Lerner was not this exact child, he was someone very like this child.

The last clause I find especially fascinating, partly because Lerner just leaves it there, believing it requires no additional explanation or commentary. “To derive your understanding of a word by watching others adjust ...” implies a relationship between language and power that subtly, but neatly restates a core tenet of avant-garde literary modernism—“The Poet is a little god” is Peruvian modernist Cesar Vallejo’s memorable epigram. But here, the little god arrives swaddled in the softer, subtler guise of a half-century of American psychotherapeutic culture. Crucially we learn to be poets not by imitating others, or imitating nature, but by attuning ourselves to the reactions of others as we, the child at the center of the world, produce sounds. The poet comes into being when he understands that he may occupy just such a center of benevolent attention.

We should all be so lucky. “Entitlement,” which our culture has taught us to believe to be a disadvantage to overcome, synonymous with “privilege,” is in fact the birthright of the well-parented. In Self-Reliance, Emerson reminds us that “the nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner ... is the healthy attitude of human nature.” For “dinner” substitute “loving attention” and you will understand the comparable rarity of this state of health.

Parental attention is central, too, in “The Chorus,” a prose poem in Lerner’s new poetry collection, The Lights (someone really needs to properly theorize Lerner’s love of the definite article). Importantly, the piece marks one of Lerner’s few explicit acknowledgments of his Jewishness. More personal essay than poem, “The Chorus” begins with an anecdote about young Ben, as the lone Jew in his elementary school class, being tasked with introducing the single Hanukkah song in the winter “holiday” concert, “I wasn’t a shy kid, but this task absolutely terrified me, and I worried about it for weeks in advance.” The terror derives from separating from a crowd, the chorus. When he tries to beg off, his parents encourage him, “Benner ... you always do great ... it’s important to participate.”

The essay then swerves abruptly—something you can do when you call your essays poetry—to a scene from Lerner’s Little League baseball team: “incredibly competitive, overserious. Our games were rituals in which sons were reduced to tears by fathers ... But not me, my dad would applaud no matter what.” This sounds great, but Lerner is quick to explain that this public display of unconditional love in a competitive context “humiliated me, marked me as different.” Instead, it’s the pitching coach who comes to Lerner’s aid as he melts down before an audience of his wildly cheering, supersupportive extended family, in town for his brother’s bar mitzvah. “Benner, I am going the way of the earth and you should strengthen yourself and become a man.” One suspects that these might not have been the coach’s exact words, the sage advice prefigures a shift in the poem’s register, as Lerner layers the experience of singing, both alone and in chorus, with baseball as a rite of passage, the pitching mound as bima, and with an intergenerational conversation among this family of ambivalent, assimilated mid-American Jews.

It’s worth pausing over this poem because, like all good poems (and, definite articles aside, this is a good poem) “The Chorus” teaches you how to read it as well as shedding light on other works by the author. In its small way, it contains an entire poetics. The moves here are complicated and also self-contradicting: Lerner both speaks about his anxiety at stepping out from the choral group and at taking the mound as the center of attention in a team sport, being marked as different or just marked as Jewish (not the same! And yet, how similar!). The poem, however, repeats the original anxiety-causing scenario. Itself, it makes yet another such step into the limelight. Lerner invites our gaze; he asks us to adjust to his use of words; and he also does everything possible to evade, complicate, and distort the attention we bestow.

Extremely confessional or pseudo-confessional—the poem also informs us that Lerner’s kids tease him about his childhood nickname, “Benner,” and that because he can’t remember song lyrics he has “taught false songs to my children” that they will one day discover to be counterfeit cultural currency, marking them too as alienated and different—it then dives midsentence into a collective plural and more mystical mode, “That was ‘Joy to the World’ and this a Torah portion about parallel mirrors sung in the perfect pitch our fathers withheld from us, not because they didn’t want us to have it, but because they didn’t think we could handle it.”

This dissonant mood switch, from the personal—what poets and essayists like to call “the lyric”—to a collective impersonal or “depersonalized” voice that is no longer called “epic,” (because we no longer believe in epics) but nonetheless signifies a register of more general social (one might say “choral”) participation, has indeed become Lerner’s signature move, both in fiction and poetry. This is true both at the microstructural level of paragraph or “line” as well as in broader subject, content and theme. Most of the poems in The Lights enact some version of this intermixing—a sampling or layering most explicit in the poem “Autotune”—that yields an impersonal first person singular, or a depersonalized, disconcertingly plural “I,” that is—at the same time—plausibly Lerner and at the same time plausibly not Lerner. The misremembered song lyrics line is the perfect distillation: Is Lerner hinting that his recall is unreliable and laced with fictions, that he is speaking “in character,” or is he confessing to a particular personal foible? Both, neither. All of us Cretans, all of us liars, and this too is the truth.

Lerner has mastered an art of misdirection, standing at a crossroads and pointing us down the road away from him only for us to find that all roads lead back to him. In “The Circuit” the poem’s speaker sounds like a victim of the mysterious Cuban embassy electromagnetic energy attacks. “I was at the embassy without my knowledge, I came forward with my symptoms/light sensitivity, malaise ... and was dismissed until they saw the scans,” he proclaims. He then becomes someone like Lerner on something like the Brooklyn F train, “I heard hail on the roof of the train at Ninth and Carroll.” Does Lerner know that there’s no such station and that Ninth Street and Carroll Street are, in life, parallel? Is this an intended glitch? The poems plunge you into this kind of haze of uncertainty that only sometimes pays off. The mistake at least is humanizing. The titular “Lights” poem mingles UFO enthusiasts and mourners seeking ghosts with another first-person step outside the poem “I think it’s ok to want that/that wrong desire must have its place in your art.”

Lerner can hardly get off the train at that particular stop, though. The second sequence of “The Circuit” begins with another teasing sequence that is yet one more metagesture toward poetics and a disaffected, self-distancing semirevision.

I am trying to remember what it felt like to believe
disjunction, non sequitur, injection
between sentences might constitute
meaningful struggle against the empire

This is Lerner’s version of “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” which was Wordsworth’s way of trying to remember what it felt like to struggle against empire. It’s also a little roadside wave at John Ashbery, about whom Lerner has written on many occasions and credits as a foundational precursor. Here’s one of Ashbery’s attempts at that disjunction, and, in the way of influence, you can now hear Lerner struggling to be born from it,

The system was breaking down. The one who had wandered alone past so many happenings and events began to feel, backing up along the primal vein that led to his center, the beginning of a hiccup that would, if left to gather, explode the center to the extremities of life, the suburbs through which one makes one’s way to where the country is.

Lerner’s fiction also follows this pattern of deliberate ambiguity about the personal-impersonal within the individual-collective. Is The Topeka School really a novel about “toxic masculinity,” “white male rage,” and the expression of our “MAGA moment,” which was how various critics and media outlets perceived and presented it? Or does the undercooked plot involving the angry, inarticulate young white kid from a broken home and the presence of the “God Hates Fags,” Westboro Baptist Church enable a polymorphous, loose-hanging family novel which lets Lerner deal with his parents’ marriage and the turbulence (and considerable triumphs, he’s sure to tell us) of his senior year of high school? Or is it about the promise of the charismatic group of psychologists that brought Lerner’s parents to Topeka and the secret springs of an Adamic tongue that speaks through all of us in unique yet similar ways, the voices that his father painstakingly records and transcribes, of patients, of strangers, the living and dead in his head? All of these, none of these, not entirely, not completely. It’s like a master chef challenge of intriguing ingredients put together with a collagist’s indifference to outcome and the supreme confidence that if it doesn’t quite fit together, well, Benner, we are all going the way of the earth.

All of which returns us to the question of success and also “The Chorus” poem, and Lerner’s late place in the history of Jewish American literature. “The Chorus” ends with Lerner, as a father, speaking in the voice of his own father, about his father’s father. “My dad would have given me some speech about representing the family, honoring the family, being a man, getting in the game, which for him meant withholding.” Again, it’s dramatically unclear whether Lerner is actually quoting his father speaking about his grandfather or just revising him, with additional insight, in the manner of contemporary role-play therapy. Lerner becomes his father in order to undo the circumcisionlike ritual of being singled out from one group on the basis of his Jewishness—i.e., his belonging to another group about which he feels equally or more ambivalent. This time, in the poem, the outcome will be different. Instead of being encouraged to overcome his childhood anxiety and go through with introducing the song, Lerner imagines his father presenting him with a say in the matter, “But I understand that while the introduction takes a few seconds to deliver, while Hanukkah isn’t even a major holiday—the worry can last ten thousand years, that’s the miracle. Your mom and I are fine with whatever you choose, we’ll be proud of you either way. But you do have to choose.”

This last line hits with great pathos, but also stunning irony. What choice has Lerner in fact made? He is still terminally uncomfortable when he has to step out from a crowd or when he’s “marked as different,” and yet he won’t stop talking about the things that set him apart from the run-of-the-mill choristers. Lerner has perfected the humblebrag as auto-fictional style: starting pitcher of his ruthlessly competitive Little League baseball team, the top tier debater who goes to the national finals (Topeka School), the writer with a big book contract (10:04) the young poet on a Fulbright (Leaving the Atocha Station), the freestyle rap champion of his high school peer group in Topeka! (Topeka School again). “A powerful institution approached a friend of mine about curating an exhibit based on their permanent collection” is a typical Lerner sentence that appears in the poem “The Rose.” Some of these are real accomplishments, others are more of big-fish-in-small-pond variety—no white kid from New York, Atlanta, Detroit, or LA would ever admit to being freestyle rap champion of anything.

It takes a certain chutzpah to complain about rewards and talents, but also, yes, competition is an important part of life, and Lerner is too cool and well-adjusted either to brag or complain baldfacedly about how good he is at competing. He will beat you and feel bad about it, which brings me to a certain peace with my jealousy. He wants you to know that he’s suffered for his talents, but also that he is doing so as a kind of Everyman who also happens to be Jewish but who prefers not to be identified as such, at least in public. His children “aren’t really Jewish—their mother is a non-practicing Catholic—but we celebrate Hannukah.” The ultimate falseness at the finale of “The Chorus” poem—ending with “You have to choose” and yet refusing to make a choice at all—choosing not to choose is one non-way out of this particular entanglement.

A performed refusal of identity at this moment in American letters might, in other hands, have become a daring and controversial gesture, but Lerner is too polished and politic. There is no broader critique. Identities are fine—necessary even—for others. Lerner has made himself at ease in this anti-Zion. His “I choose not to,” different from Bartleby’s nonparticipatory “preferring not to,” reveals another element to a literary life that has gone only from strength to strength. Lerner has proved he knows how to write beautifully about the discontents of American meritocracy while also taking pains to show how completely he has earned and deserves his place in it.

Marco Roth is Tablet’s Critic at Large.