Plotting for Lerners

One possible reason why Ben Lerner spends so much over-analysing everything may be that he’s not very good at plots; – and it’s not enough here, I think, to say that he isn’t interested in plot; – I think it’s quite clear he isn’t interested in plot, since what plot there is, seems a particularly feeble thing on which to hang a narrative – even if that narrative consists of just analysis. But I think he actually has no idea how to write a plot.

Here’s my exhibit to this effect:

Basically Leaving the Atocha Station consists in this: an American comes to Spain on a scholarship and he meets two Spanish women: one is called Isabel and he starts sleeping with her, and another is called Teresa, who is his friend and may be they would also like to sleep together (I don’t know if they do, since I never finished the book – nor, of course, does it really matter).

When the narrator first meets Teresa at a party (he is already going out with Isabel at this time), he seeks to elicit her sympathy by telling her that his mother’s just died (she hasn’t; it’s just one of his random lies). Then, in the next chapter, the narrator is taken by Isabel to meet her Aunt Rufina. Aunt Rufina asks him what his parents do, and he says they’re both psychologists, and his mother’s a feminist and maybe she could meet her if she ever went to America, and then Isabel becomes very upset and leaves the room; and the narrator admits to Aunt Rufina that he’d lied to Isabel and told her that his mother had died.

And this is where the reader sits up and says to Lerner, “No, he didn’t. He told Teresa”. And Lerner smacks his forehead with his palm, and thinks, I haven’t any idea how to restructure this narrative now – that scene with Teresa’s really important and this is going to undermine the entire novel, because there isn’t really much more to it than this. Then he thinks for a bit, and has an idea how to get out of it without changing anything, so he writes:

I’d told Isabel the lie during one of our first nights together when, still guilty from having recently told it to Teresa, I had felt compelled to repeat it.

He doesn’t even bother to work it back in earlier in the narrative. Genius, I’m sure you’ll agree.


4 thoughts on “Plotting for Lerners

  1. Just to make you feel a bit depressed, Lerner has just been translated into Portuguese and of course the reviews are raving about him.

    From what I understand, Lerner is just part of this tedious current trend of minimalist writers – Ferrante, Knausgard, the bloke Zadie Smith thinks is the future of the novel; let’s just wait for it to end. Can’t you read Lobo Antunes in the meantime?

  2. Yes, it is depressing; but even though you’d have thought foreign literary culture would know better, it comes as little surprise that it doesn’t.

    I did actually finish the Lerner. Another good piece of plotting: he gets lost in the streets of Barcelona; and incase you think he could just call the girl he’s with on his mobile, he mentions twice quite deliberately and apropos of nothing just before he goes to Barcelona that he doesn’t have a mobile. Clearly Lerner was thinking ahead with that one.

    (I should have known not to turn straight from Lerner to my own writing: it only prompts the question, how is this any different?)

    I’ll get round to Lobo Antunes. I’ve actually started Knowledge of Hell twice, but for a variety of reason (too much on the go at once) not continued. I’ve certainly never read anything before with such a density of metaphor. And the satirisation of British tourists at the beginning is enjoyable.

  3. Goodness! – that really does sound bad!

    You mean he couldn’t even go back ind interpolates brief scene where he tells this to Teresa as well? Seems a pretty easy thing to do!

  4. Maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt, that his bad plotting is a ploy designed to demonstrate his contempt for plot.

    There was one element I did actually like in this book: he’s an American in Spain with an imperfect knowledge of Spanish, such that every time anyone speaks to him in Spanish, he gives a range of possible variants for what he thinks they’ve just said to him. This was quite a good comic idea (though, obviously, critics want to ruin it, by suggesting it highlights the impossibility of communication or the general uninterpretability of the world to human understanding etc.).

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