The Short Version: After the critical success of his first novel, a thirtysomething author deals with having to write a second while also being diagnosed with a heart condition, trying to get his best friend pregnant, and increasingly frequent superstorms tracking towards New York City. This is life, just a little different from how we know it.
The Review: Look at that cover. Seems familiar, right? It was the cover of New York Magazine the issue after Sandy hit – but suddenly you might realize (or you might not, depending on how well you know New York) that something’s a little off. The image is reversed: that’s the west side of Manhattan but in place of the east. Coupled with the introductory statement (that echoes through the book like a good U2 refrain) that “everything will be as it is now, just a little different”, we are immediately informed in a subtle way just what kind of novel Lerner has written here. It’s not fiction, not entirely – nor is it narrative non-fiction. I would call it ‘semi-fiction’, maybe – but that might not even be right. Only Lerner himself could say exactly what is grounded in truth and what is entirely fabricated. But to be concerned about that is to miss the point, entirely, of this hypnotic and slightly-flawed novel.
I will tell you true, reader, that I felt the stirrings of a unique (or at least very rare) sensation through the first 2/3rds or more of this novel: a sense that things were shifting right before my eyes, that this author in this novel had reached straight into my brain and grabbed hold of something that I myself can only rarely ever articulate. It’s one of the unabashed beauties of Lerner’s writing, his ability to capture in words those moments in life that seem to defy them – when time and space seem to collapse, when we step not outside of ourselves but rather more into ourselves and the moment. Sometimes, he’s actively acknowledging the special moment when it occurs, but there are times when he just lets it happen without telling the reader explicitly, too. The language just lets you know: this is a fully-experienced moment. And not in some hippy way, either. I think it may have something to do with Lerner’s abilities as a poet (which is what he was before he was a novelist and those skills are put specifically on display a few times throughout the novel) – that ability to twist words up into the air and let them hover for a few moments, otherworldly.
It also may help, of course, that I have experienced some of these moments along with Mr. Lerner. As I read the novel, which is somewhat bookended by Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, I found myself viscerally recalling my experiences of those storms: of how Irene was a massive whiff and I was so disappointed, having stocked up on books and food and beer in my uncle’s old 13th St apartment, prepared for a lovely day or so of intense storms… and of that unparalleled (for us, anyway) Sandy, of losing power even on the Upper East Side, of the oddities of the city being shut down, of the eerie beauty of the hours that Monday afternoon before the storm really hit. And I thought of my Alex – Lerner’s best friend, a girl he met in college a few years older than him (mine is not called Alex) – and the uniqueness of that relationship. I thought of seeing “The Clock” up at Lincoln Center, just as Ben and Alex do. Of the strange art my friends make. Of the peculiar oddities that have come together to place us all at the heart of this manic city as the world starts to burn itself up. And I had a kinship, I think, with the author/character – the sort that comes on all at once, unexpected and strong.
Admittedly, his circumstances are different. Lerner’s “as it is now” pretty accurately describes this novel: the main character, called Ben, has written a novel that garnered pretty astonishing critical success. He gets a big advance for his second, but finds himself somewhat caught up in life instead of art: an alluring artist who he’s sleeping with, his mentor who has fallen ill, his friends (including Alex, who wants Ben to donate sperm to get her pregnant), and the city in general. The “just a little different” bit is up for interpretation but to my mind, this novel is (if anything) about the process of discovering itself – we are reading a novel where the story is literally figuring out what this novel was going to be, a sort of ouroboros of metafictionality. But for the most part, it is heart-palpitatingly beautiful. A look at this moment, this time, as this person might see it. It’s starkly personal while also being rather universal.
And then it crashes into the mundane. Or, well, that’s harsh. But when Ben goes to Texas for a writer’s retreat, the novel turns into something altogether more expected – or at least more unoriginal. There are the requisite strange experiences, the New Yorker’s detached near-inability to understand the rest of the country, a debauched evening that reveals some fundamental truth to the main character… and it felt like such a cop-out. This novel that had been so transcendent, suffusing every breath I took while reading it and demanding simultaneously to be devoured and savored and neither option would really satisfy… it was like somebody had suddenly switched on the fluorescents during an Annie Leibovitz shoot. The harshness of the more-tempered reality tossed me out of the rapture of the book and I never quite got back into it. Suddenly, I was even getting ornery towards it – like thinking, as I approached the end and discovered a (to my mind) unnecessary multimedia insert, that Hari Kunzru might think this is a “post-Sebald” novel but really it felt like a post-Jonathan-Safran-Foer novel. Was it a play for my heartstrings? Was it an attempt, like the earlier inclusion of a Lerner short story that had run in The New Yorker (included here in full but worked in really damn well, with a delightful meta twist), to introduce another reminder of the ‘real’ world vs. the world-slightly-different? The whole thing felt off and implied a maturity or at least further understanding on Ben’s part that I’m not so sure was earned. Was this novel really just about a guy deciding that maybe he could be a father? Come on.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I wanted so bad to give this a 5 – hell, I was even initially considering a 6. The early pages are just magical, with Lerner doing something really special that spoke straight to my innermost self. And he keeps that up for a while (I also, I admit, have a soft spot for this type of novel, these stories of our present moment that teeter into philosophy etc) and it is glorious. But I can’t shake the harsh, blinking jolt that happens within the final 80 pages. The novel does nearly regain its high-flying perch a few times, but it never fully manages and that is perhaps the biggest disappointment of the novel. But even still, Lerner’s beautiful prose and the connection I felt to so many parts of the story (for another example: walking side-by-side, facing forward while still being intimately connected to your companion… yeah, I know that feeling, just how he describes it) will stay with me for a long, long time. Flawed but deeply worthy, this one is.