The New Neurotic

Ben Lerner, the young poet and novelist who’s getting rave reviews almost everywhere, is neurotic. Or at least his persona is. And he’s neurotic in a somewhat original way. Which is remarkable, since The New York Times recently declared that all the neurotics are gone.

A neurotic is someone who suffers from a perceived disconnect with the world and becomes anxious and over-analytical as a result—Woody Allen is the classic example. Ben Lerner is similar in all respects but one. He suffers from a perceived disconnect with himself.

In his poetry collection, Angle of Yaw, Lerner finds a profound and chilling way to redefine phobias.

A person is phobic, that is, mentally imbalanced, when his fears fail to cancel out his other fears. The healthy, too, are terrified of heights, but equally terrified of depths, as terrified of dark as light, open spaces as closed. The phobic are overbold, not overly apprehensive, and must be conditioned to fear the opposite of what they fear. The difficulty of such a treatment lies in finding the counterbalancing terror. What is the opposite of a marketplace? A prime number? Blood? A spider?

In his novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, he describes the internal schism that causes his neurosis, and links it to his perspective as a writer.

But my research had taught me that the tissue of contradictions that was my personality was itself, at best, a poem, where “poem” is understood as referring to a failure of language to be equal to the possibilities it figures; only then could my fraudulence be a project and not merely a pathology; only then could my distance from myself be redescribed as critical, aesthetic, as opposed to a side effect of what experts might call my substance problem.

And in his New Yorker story, “The Golden Vanity,” he adds another layer of self-analysis and self-doubt, musing neurotically on the popular reception of his neurotic novel, and even defining his neurosis explicitly.

Since late the previous spring, when he’d published his novel to unexpected praise, the women his friends attempted to set him up with had invariably read his book, or had at least glanced, in advance of their meeting, at those preview pages available online at Amazon. This meant that instead of the conventional conversations about work, favorite neighborhoods, and so on, he’d likely be asked what parts of the book were autobiographical. Even if these questions weren’t posed explicitly, he could see, or thought he saw, his interlocutor testing whatever he said and did against the text. And because his narrator was characterized above all by his anxiety regarding the disconnect between his internal experience and his social self-presentation, the more intensely the author worried about distinguishing himself from the narrator the more he felt he had become him.

In each case Lerner is worried about “the disconnect between his internal experience and his social self-presentation.” Other writers have tackled this subject before. But Lerner approaches it like a true neurotic–with meticulous clarity, a skittish intellectualism, and clinical overtones. And he’s not socially neurotic like Woody Allen, who constantly worried about his place in the world; he’s internally or existentially neurotic, exploring a fundamental disconnect in himself and his perspective.

It may be time for the Times to issue a retraction.

- Brian Hurley

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