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Rob Spillman: Is This the Real Life?

Readpolitik: The real political choices in Ben Lerner’s 10:04 and Jeffery Renard Allen’s Song of the Shank

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Image from Flickr via zoriah

By Rob Spillman

Art aims to arrest time, to make us see anew. What then do we make of fiction that uses “the real” or what we perceive to be real? Two new novels aim to shift our perceptions of reality from very different places, Ben Lerner aiming to make us see present-day art and engagement as vital and lived moment-to-moment, line-by-line, while Jeffery Renard Allen takes an enigmatic historical figure and gives him new life in order for us to look at racism and subjugation through a historical lens.

Despite and even because of the TMI metaphysical trappings, I was fully invested in “Ben Lerner.”

Ben Lerner’s new novel, 10:04, takes as the subject the very real Ben Lerner. However, in his Talmudic epigraph, Lerner proclaims that in the world to come, “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” If you have read Lerner’s first novel, LEAVING ATOCHA STATION, this will come as no surprise. ATOCHA chronicled a slightly fictionalized Lerner as he stumbled through a fellowship in Madrid. 10:04 picks up with Lerner back in Brooklyn on the heels of the surprising success of ATOCHA and starts with a celebratory lunch with his agent after getting a huge advance for 10:04, which is based on a story he sold to the New Yorker and which he may or may not expand into the present novel. At this point, it is hard not to hate “Ben Lerner.” Which makes the rest of the novel so remarkable—reader, despite and even because of the TMI metaphysical trappings, I was fully invested in “Ben Lerner.” Partly it is due to the language. With three collections of poetry behind him, Lerner’s every line sings, his paragraphs like Bowerbird nests—beautifully constructed and marked with startling yet precise flourishes. But what really makes 10:04 work is that Lerner’s central struggles—how to live an authentic and engaged life, as well as how to live an authentic and engaged life on the page—are emotionally raw and laid out in all of their complexities.

A friend of mine who is a voracious reader and works in a Brooklyn bookstore complained that she thought Lerner was dumping in every single anxiety of our modern condition. But to me this is why the book succeeds, because all of these pressing anxieties are filtered through art. One of the through-lines is about the happiness of Lerner’s best friend Alex, who wants to get pregnant, with Lerner’s help. He is willing but not enthusiastic—until he lets an Occupy Wall Street protestor shower at his apartment and suddenly he wants a child badly. In the next breath he does a Marxist breakdown of his thoughts: “you let a young man committed to anti-capitalist struggle shower in the overpriced apartment that you rent and, while making a meal you prepare to eat in common, your thoughts lead you inexorably to the desire to reproduce your own genetic material within some version of a bourgeois household.” The struggle with how to live an authentic life plays out on the page, Lerner talking out his proposed novel about fraudulent letters from famous writers. Yet the real world presses in—Occupy, climate-change-driven super storms bearing down on Brooklyn, the very real struggles of the real people who work in the Park Slope Food Co-op. The oft-ridiculed, militantly PC Co-Op is an easy punchline, but Lerner sets one of the most moving scenes there, telling the story of one of his coworkers whose identity shifts when her mother reveals once-secret biological information. Here he pulls a deft sleight of hand, at first showing the scene in conversation, then shifting to “Ben Lerner” taking over the narration, demonstrating the power of conflated and selective storytelling, but all the while ceding the ownership to the teller.

Lerner aims high and tells you that he’s doing so: “Say that it was standing there that I decided to replace the book I’d proposed with the book you’re reading now, a work that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them.”

As the book progresses, “Ben Lerner” becomes a modern day Whitman, a walker in the city, observing all, containing multitudes, speaking for all, yet, unlike Whitman, still very much an “I.” 10:04 is a gutsy performance—Lerner aims high and tells you that he’s doing so: “Say that it was standing there that I decided to replace the book I’d proposed with the book you’re reading now, a work that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them.” Elsewhere he describes “two temporalities collapsed into a single image.” Which is what 10:04 is, a masterful work of art that is and isn’t our present time.

A very different approach is used by Jeffery Renard Allen, whose novel SONG OF THE SHANK revolves around “Blind Tom,” a real-life Georgia slave who was an autistic musical child-prodigy and wound up being the first African-American musician to perform at the White House, at the age of ten, in front of president James Buchanan. Tom is a fascinating fictional tool—a genius who could play back any sound that was played, sung, or spoken, but whose own thoughts and feelings were enigmatic and cryptic. Tom himself was used as a tool throughout his life, first by his original owner, General Buchanan, a Georgia landowner prominent in the secessionist movement. It is no accident that Tom was taught to play “Dixie” and “The Battle of Manassas.” Allen takes what is known and spins out a tale about the would-be managers, black and white, religious and non-religious, who set out to exploit his talents. During the Civil War, Tom tours the world and makes his owners vast sums of money. After the war, Tom is suddenly not property, and there is a protracted battle over Tom’s custody, a battle between his newly-freed mother, a liberating preacher, a manager, and the daughter-in-law of the General, who is, surprisingly, the most loving person in Tom’s life.

A white policeman shooting an unarmed black teenager with his arms in the air in Ferguson, Missouri didn’t happen in a historical vacuum.

Set mostly in New York City right after the Civil War, at a time of chaos and senseless violence toward in-coming former slaves, Song of the Shank follows the ever-shifting prejudices of blacks and white in the newly slave-free country. The war may be over, but the reckoning with slavery’s aftermath is only just beginning. It is a complicated, dreamlike novel, (Allen is also a poet, with two previously published collections), the prose infused with the rhythms of African and African-American music.

Why do fiction writers turn to the real, messy past? Because it very much informs our present. A white policeman shooting an unarmed black teenager with his arms in the air in Ferguson, Missouri didn’t happen in a historical vacuum. And the question of who tells the story of “Blind Tom” is a political one. Tom’s genius was debated at the time, with white writers doubting the intellectual and creative abilities of blacks. Allen, in SONG OF THE SHANK, draws no simple conclusions about Tom’s life and the chaotic world he was born into. As the preacher says toward the end of the novel, “The time has come for us to forget and cast behind us our hero worship and adoration of other races, and to start out immediately to create and emulate the heroes of our own. We must canonize our own saints, create our martyrs, and elevate to positions of fame and honor Ethiopian men and women who have made their distinct contributions to our racial history.” In Song of the Shank, Allen is doing just this, reclaiming a crucial moment in African-American history, but not in a didactic or reductionist manner. By writing his way through real and fictional history, Allen brings us to the very real here and now, and makes us see the present slightly anew..

Rob Spillman is the Editor of Tin House.

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