Friday, June 17, 2016

Ben Lerner's "The Polish Rider": Exphrasis, Self-reflexivity, Intertextuality, and Other Genius Stuff in The New Yorker Summer Fiction Issue

Although Ben Lerner's story "The Polish Rider" narrates a simple plot of a young female artist named Sonia who searches for two of her paintings she left in an Uber the day before her show in a New York Gallery, it is complicated by the fact that Lerner is also an art critic interested in the relationship between the actual and the virtual, particularly in regard to ekphrastic works—verbal constructs, i.e. poems and stories, that replicate, encounter, engage visual constructs, i.e. paintings or other works of art.
 Lerner admits that his story is imbued with his aesthetic thought, telling the interviewer on New Yorker's "This Week in Fiction" that the ideas about the relationship between literature and visual art expressed in the story have been with him for a long time, confessing that at several points in the story the narrator "steals language" from his essay entitled "The Actual World" that appeared in the art magazine Frieze in 2013.
The example of ekphrasis Lerner gives in "This Week in Fiction" is the same one he gives in the Frieze  essay, in almost exactly the same language: "The classic example of ekphrasis—the description of Achilles's shield in Homer's Iliad—is so elaborate as to cease to be realistic; no actual shield could contain all that detail. (This makes sense, since the shield was made by a god.) The verbal, while pretending to give life to the visual, often transcends it: words can describe a shield we can't actually make, can't even effectively paint."
 (Lerner, who is often very conscious of his use of language, will forgive me for pointing out that the language of the interview (supposedly oral) is actually copied and pasted from the Frieze article, right down to the parentheses around the shield-made-by-a-god phrase). Perhaps he intended this to be another play with the relationship between two kinds of media.
Lerner (and his persona narrator in the story) likes to play self-reflexive games with the relationship between the virtual and the so-called actual. For example, after finding a copy of a textbook named Late Art, which contains one of his essays, while helping his friend the artist try to get back her paintings, the narrator starts writing the story we are reading and says he will read the story he is writing at Sonia's opening. If the paintings are not found, he will publish the story of "their loss and recuperation through literature" (which, of course, he does, the story we are reading in The New Yorker) He says Sonia has allowed him to add one more piece to the show—he will drop the copy of the book Late Art, which he found, on the gallery floor to be a piece of "found art."
All this self-reflexive stuff is right out of Borges, Barth, and others from the sixties, and indeed, Lerner even mentions the Borges story "Pierre Menard," in which works somehow change even as they remain the same when their context changes.   Although anyone who reads English can read Lerner's story, it would not be the same story if that reader knew little or nothing about ekphrasis, or Borges, or Duchamp, or self-reflexivity, etc.  As a result of this demand for a literary/philosophical/aesthetic context, the story, dare I suggest, becomes just a bit too self-conscious and self-important. 
The narrator tells us how he loves stories such as Henry James's "The Madonna of the Future," in which the painter plans a masterpiece for decades but ends up with a blank canvas, and Balzac's story "The Unknown Masterpiece," in which the painter works the canvas so much it becomes a garbled mass of paint. (Another little note of allusion: James's narrator cites the Balzac story) The narrator quotes from his own (Lerner's) art criticism, noting that all ekphrastic literature, even when it claims to be describing a work of visual art is actually asserting its own superiority.  To which, Sonia says, "Your students are very lucky."—a self-congratulatory complement that any professor would treasure—that is, if he were not indeed making it about himself and putting it in the mouth of a fictional/real character.
When Lerner is asked, as all writers are, the origin of his story on the "This Week in Fiction" website, inevitably he talks, in Derridan fashion, without Derridan sophistication, about the difficulty of such questions. He says the events of the story, which he seems to suggest he wrote in order to make his ideas about art "felt," are loosely based on something that happened a few months previously to a painter he knows, and that the fictional paintings Sonia loses in the Uber are similar to the actual paintings he discusses in an essay he wrote about his friend who lost them.
The fact that his acquaintance lost the paintings in an Uber allowed Lerner/persona, so he says, to cross an old medium like painting with the "new platform of capitalism" of Uber and thus "open up a space for thinking about some of the competing and changeable networks that make up contemporary life."  And this, Lerner, a 2015 recipient of the MacArthur "Genius Award," says is what makes fiction "politically interesting" to him—"how it can represent—and how it can make felt—the inextricability of self and systems."  How Uber is a cultural or political system that can play such a role, simply because a painter had to pee and thus ran off and forgot two of her paintings, I leave it up to other geniuses to determine.
However, it is the relationship between various systems or modes of representation that Lerner obsessively toys with throughout the story.  For example Sonia's paintings are different versions of the famous kiss between Erich Honecker, the leader of the German Democratic Republic from 1971 to the fall of the Berlin Wall and Leonid Brezhnev the head of the U.S.S.R from 1964-1982.  You can look up the original photograph of the kiss taken in 1979, as well as the painting of the kiss on the East side of the wall by Soviet artist Dmitri Vrubel with the caption "God help me to survive this deadly love affair." 
The narrator says although all the paintings in Sonia's exhibit depict this same image, in a Borgesian sense he knows that is not exactly true: "Did a particular painting of Sonia's depict the actual kiss? The photograph of the kiss? The painting of the photograph of the kiss? Or was the painting the repainting of the painting of the photograph of the kiss."  (You have to really love this sort of stuff to tolerate all this quasi-complexity.)
The story ends with the narrator thinking about kisses and art, as well as his own first kiss, which, although at the time it was life, is now at the time of writing art. How so, one might ask, unless all that exists only in memory is, by its very distance and subjectivity, a work of art?
The fact that the culprit in this story is Uber, whose rigid rules of customer privacy makes it impossible for Sonia to recover the paintings, makes the narrator inevitably think of the old TV series "Taxi"—you know the one with Judd Hirsch, Andy Kaufman as Latka, and Dany DeVito, up in his cage.
The Lerner narrator asks his readers to imagine that the building at 203 Rivington, where he thinks perhaps the thief who has the paintings lives, is built over the gas station where Louie De Palma ran the Sunshine Cab Company in "Taxi."  He says let's imagine that Louie can coordinate all the systems, "private and public, above ground and under: Uber, subway, gallery, representational, temporal, spatial, national, natural, supernatural, not that any of these things, by itself, exists." Okay, we can imagine that, but why should we?
Finally, he imagines Bob James's theme song from "Taxi," (which I am listening to right now), "a song without words that can be described but not played, notes that fall one after the other all at once, Romantic music, unheard melodies in F major, a portal or door, the news a mentor almost brings you in a dream, the living record of your memory.  That sort of thing."
Yes, indeed, "that sort of thing" is the sort of thing Lerner's story is about.  I kind of like it, although I have come across it many times before in James and Kafka and Borges, and Keats.  But I am a literary academic, a pedant, who always likes this "sort of thing."  But do you have to be a pedant to like it? What do you think?  Does it make you feel smart? Or does it make you think Lerner is smart? He has been officially designated as a "genius," you know.
And one final arty allusion, the title of the story.  "The Polish Rider" is a Rembrandt van Rijn painting, famous for its mystery.  The painting was done in 1655, or thereabouts, and is in the Frick Collection in New York City.  You can find a copy at many places on line. It depicts a young man on a horse in a dark landscape, behind which rears a large mountain with some building on top of it. The man sits stiffly on the horse, holding a bridle in one hand and a sword heft in the other. The horse is old and bony, almost skeletal. No one seems to know whether the painting is a portrait of a real person or whether it depicts a mythic, generalized figure. Several art critics have written analyses of the painting, suggesting the man on horseback is an allegorical figure representing a Christian knight or that he is the Biblical prodigal son whose father's house sits on the hill behind him.
In Lerner's story, the primary character, Sonia, is Polish and a rider of the Uber vehicle.  However, I am not sure why Lerner chose this title except perhaps to suggest that his story embodies a mystery as well. Or perhaps to suggest that although Sonia's story is about a particular event, it is also a universal event. Or because, he just wanted to keep reminding the reader that he and the story are imbued with art.

 Lerner packs a number of other art allusions in the story, but I can only take this sort of thing so long before the fun runs out. The primary system on which the story most referentially depends is, of course, the Internet, which allows me (and you, if you so desire) to look up all the allusions Lerner plays with. 

1 comment:

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This story is taut and compelling, and reaches out to not only art, but writing, television, music -- it's meta-ekphrastic. And easily, with story, with plot, with emotion. I really admired it.