In recent years, online literary circles have loudly decried how white male privilege plays out in publishing. The setup for Ben Lerner’s debut novel, 2011’s Leaving the Atocha Station, and the acclaim that followed it might persuade you that the system remains stubbornly dysfunctional. Its hero, Adam, is a bright young poet from the Midwest on a fellowship in Madrid, and the plot focuses on little more than him pondering his lassitude. Yet this is not an extended plea for attention and pity wrapped in novelistic gauze. Adam is remarkably attuned to his insecurities and impatient to test and understand them—this is a novel about thinking about how you think about what you’re thinking. Lerner’s recursive and blanched prose means to penetrate core questions of being and artmaking: How much does thinking matter instead of feeling, and if you think too much about feeling, have you negated the virtues of both? Narcissism has rarely seemed so open and engaged with the world.
Ben Lerner reads at 8 p.m. at Georgetown University’s Copley Hall, 37th and O streets NW. Free. (202) 687-0100. guevents.georgetown.edu.