"The Golden Vanity"
by Ben Lerner
Originally published in the June 18, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

As requested by Aaron, here is a placeholder for “The Golden Vanity.” I’ve started this one and am almost done, but I keep getting pulled away (we are preparing to move across the country). In the meantime, do you think this is overdone or done just right (surely, not underdone, right?)? A glimpse into my thoughts so far: I’m enjoying it, but I’ve found it easy to be pulled away.

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By |2016-07-18T17:59:02-04:00June 14th, 2012|Categories: Ben Lerner, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |12 Comments


  1. Jon June 14, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    I’ll speak on behalf of those who kept getting pulled away and couldn’t finish it. It reminded me of Miranda July, I don’t mean that in any positive way…

    But I’ll be interested to hear opinions of those who read it all the way through.

  2. Booker Man June 14, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    I love it and for the reasons that come up in the accompanying interview mainly–Delicate dance between the author in the story and the author writing it. The last section blew me away.

  3. Aaron June 14, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    Yeah, Jon, that’s why I was pressuring Trevor to get this thread up (I commented about it over in the Sam Lipsyte thread and linked to my lengthier blog post there). I literally broke each section apart and tried to figure out what exactly Lerner was trying to do — I didn’t get a quirky, July-like vibe from it, but I did feel as if he was trying so hard to embed symptoms in his writing that he wound up overwriting and repeating himself to accommodate them. The title hints at the idea of ad-libbing a happy ending (useful for a nervous guy faced with a potentially terminal condition), and that’s OK; the ending, however, feels especially ad-libbed. Along with the fake-out in the doctor’s office (“Here’s what I *wanted* to say”), it’s an odd and unearned section that briefly casts a happier light on things, and in doing so, convinces the narrator even more of his pending doom.

    I suppose some of my frustration with Lerner’s work is that I have anxiety about memory, too, so to see it so casually added in the end (after all this other stuff about pareidolia and a time-distorting doubling effect straight out of, say, “Sliding Doors”) . . . irksome.

  4. Jon June 17, 2012 at 9:22 am

    @Booker Man: Could you elaborate on the interview you’re referring to? (On the iPad edition, was there an interview after the author’s reading of the piece?)

  5. Trevor June 17, 2012 at 11:27 am

    I believe the interview is here.

    Most weeks the authors are interviewed and the interview can be found on The New Yorker website.

  6. Jon June 18, 2012 at 9:03 am

    Thanks Trevor. (I guess I agree with the author’s semi-inadvertent comparison of his piece with an abstract meta-fictional workshop exercise.)

    Here my comparison to Miranda July. One element is confusing self-absorption for art. The other is the use of hipster themes in a clubby, “look at me,” cultural-signifier way, rather than a “seeker of truth” way. (E.g., semi-gratuitous digression into type of art you see in a doctor’s waiting room.) I get the same sort of in-crowd intent with the name-checking of places like “Dumbo” (yeah, I had to look that up–I shouldn’t have had to.)

    (And the themes he talks about in the interview just feel like they’ve been done to death–Philip Roth had richer things to say about them in books like ‘Operation Shylock.’)

    Overall, like Miranda July, the author’s focus feels too much on his White Board rather than on the audience/reader.

  7. Paul Monsky June 27, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    I’m a retired mathematician with a taste for fiction, and have been following this site for a month or so. I’m no literary critic, and so have only posted on one thread, where
    I thought that the elephant in the room was being ignored. To allay (but perhaps it
    will compound) Jon’s suspicion that I’m sort of provocateur I’ll say that I was very
    taken by the intricacies and trickiness of “The Golden Vanity”. Perhaps it has something to do with my profession.

  8. Trevor June 27, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    I still haven’t finished this one (did I mention I’ve been conducting a move cross the country this month??), but I’ve enjoyed what I got through first. I plan on starting it over soon and getting my thoughts posted. I wanted to mention, though, that I’m thrilled you posted this, Paul. I think people on this site are generally strong but kind in disagreement, so I hope you always feel welcome to voice your dissenting opinion as well as any where we all may agree (not that that ever happens).

  9. Ken June 27, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    This is my favorite story of the last 3-4 months. I thought it truly cohered around an interesting theme of slippages and blurred boundaries between such things as past/present, fiction/reality. Authors are often confused with their characters, that much is hardly original, but Lerner kept this idea of blurred boundaries up throughout the story whether the palimpsest like moments as when the narrator sees several eras at once on a Brooklyn street or when he imagines fictional scenarios as if they’re real. It starts immediately with the narrator being told he’s like his fiction. The only two moments where things aren’t doubled or blurred but are singular seem to be-his inability to create a composite out of Hannah’s face and the moment of clarity in the taxicab on the way back from the dentists. Here is seems he comes up against the “real.” Interestingly, when he remembers the latter moment he decides it can’t be real since remembered. That was a great, ambiguous way to end it. I found this to be much smarter, perhaps as I’m interested in critical theory, than most stories in The New Yorker.

  10. Jon June 27, 2012 at 6:15 pm

    Paul: I don’t discern any radical left-wing plot in your liking this story, but I’ll look again :)

    And uber-ironically, the novel I referenced which I thought does a better job treating similar themes (“Operation Shylock”), involves Philip Roth going to Israel, getting rescued by IDF soldiers, and then recruited by the Mossad in a plot against the Palestinians. (Who knew what durable literary themes these were?)

  11. Colette Jones February 24, 2015 at 6:53 am

    This story features in 10:04 which I thoroughly enjoyed. I have not read Lerner before.

  12. lotusgreen March 28, 2015 at 12:21 am

    I am surprised and nonplussed to here these responses! What am I to think? Here, I finally come across a story, which I find hilarious and entrenching (though not necessarily always at the same time), and which features a style and a main character whose minds work more closely to how mine does than anything else I’ve ever read.

    I happen to notice how twin wisteria trails fall before the white wall of the neighbor’s garage and I am instantly in someplace other than my yard, perhaps Italy 1927, and am simultaneously in my own garden as well. Sometimes the roots of these disappearances are obvious, sometimes clever and unconscious, and sometimes, like this one, totally unclear.

    I may go back and forth with the story and come up with some of the many more examples at another time; here, I simply wanted to express these thoughts.


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