June 18, 2012

"The Golden Vanity"

By Ben Lerner
~6500 words

Note: A big round of applause to my friend Dominicus, who did a bang-up job on the four stories from the sci-fi issue. Merci beaucoup! I'm back from vacation now and ready as I'll ever be, so without further ado, let's move on to the latest critique.

An obsessive-compulsive writer obsesses and compulses.

The third-person perspective centers on the unnamed main character, referred to as "the author." The nonlinear narrative recounts various preoccupations of the author including: 1) whether to donate his electronic correspondence to a university library; 2) whether his blind date will quiz him about the autobiographical elements of his novel; 3) whether to choose local anesthesia or full sedation during a dental procedure; 4) whether a tumor discovered in his sinus cavity during the dental procedure will turn out to be benign or malignant; 5) whether the art in the office of the neurologist who examines his tumor is meant for the patients or the doctors.

The elements of the plot fit together in a tangential but amusing manner, not unlike what occurs in the best episodes of Seinfeld. The writing itself is fresh, funny, and occasionally brilliant, recalling David Foster Wallace's uncanny ability to reveal his characters' hidden neuroses:
This meant that instead of the conventional conversations about work, favorite neighborhoods, and so on, he'd likely be asked what parts of his 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 else 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.
And, in an imagined conversation with the author's neurologist:
"But the problem, one of the problems"—cold spreading through him, as when they'd injected him with contrast dye—"is that these images of art only address the sick, the patients. It would be absurd to imagine a doctor lingering over one of these images between appointments, being interested in it or somehow attached to it, having his day inflected by it or whatever. Apart from their depressing flatness, their interchangeability, what I'm saying is: we can't look at them together. They help establish, deepen, the gulf between us, because they address only the sick, face only the diagnosed."
And so on. The problem is that these neuroses, while deftly portrayed, ultimately turn the main character into a more pathetic than sympathetic figure, and the reader's interest gravitates toward the morbid (a similar problem occurs in Donald Antrim's "Ever Since"). The tender section in which the author imagines a family reunion in Florida is perhaps meant to correct this imbalance but instead feels out of place.

While it doesn't cross the threshold into outstanding, "The Golden Vanity" deserves high marks for excellent writing, quirky storytelling, and fine characterization. Congratulations to Lerner on this strong TNY debut.

Satisfactory. Strong (modified 24 December 2012, explanation here).

Reader poll: I found "The Golden Vanity" to be ___.

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