“The Polish Rider” 
by Ben Lerner
Originally published in the June 6 & 13, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker website.

June 6 & 13, 2016Of the four stories in this year’s fiction issue, this is the one I’m most looking forward to. I like Lerner’s work and think he’s usually up to something very interesting, even if I don’t care for a piece as much as I hope going in.

Looking forward to your thoughts as well!

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By |2016-06-03T14:59:04-04:00May 30th, 2016|Categories: Ben Lerner, New Yorker Fiction|6 Comments


  1. Ken June 6, 2016 at 3:41 am

    I liked this. It’s a bit too impressed with its meta-cleverness and reflexivity, but I found the academic tone kind of nice and not something typical of New Yorker prose of late. I enjoyed the malicious satire of Uber and it was fun to read about art-world practice while reflecting on post-Cold War Eastern European history.

  2. Paul Monsky June 6, 2016 at 9:25 am

    I liked Sergeant Kingdom on Uber–“Anybody who wants to be a cop just gets a gun and a smartphone and waits for a text?” I’ve one question. Sonia is a Polish (taxicab) rider of course. But is the title of the story just a throwaway joke about the (alleged) Rembrandt at the Frick, or is there a connection of some sort?

  3. Patricia June 12, 2016 at 6:44 pm

    I mostly liked this one too, although like Yu’s fable, it may have been a little too in love with itself at times.

    I think the reference to the Rembrandt is because the painting is thought to have been worked on by multiple people, much in the way the two lost paintings here became a piece of kinetic or experiential art and the product of everything involved in their story: Uber, the gallery, the Rivington building, Elena, the narrator, etc.

    I enjoyed the skewering of Uber’s management but was sort of surprised that it was allowed to go as far as it did. And I too loved Kingdom’s crack about the police app.

  4. Greg June 13, 2016 at 8:22 pm

    Ben Lerner is so smart and talented…..what a treat to read!

    And thanks Patricia for explaining the title to us!

  5. William Check June 13, 2016 at 9:14 pm

    I’ve been a fan of Lerner since reading “Leaving the Atocha Station.” “The Polish Rider” doesn’t disappoint. In it Lerner deploys his characteristic wiseasss narrative voice as a form of misdirection, a smokescreen to obfuscate his exploration of a topic of serious import. As well, it entertains us and keeps us wondering what he is doing, which beguiles us into paying attention.

    About the title – it is, as others have noted, a pun on Sonia, a polish immigrant, riding back and forth in an Uber. Perhaps that’s all it is. Except that I give Lerner credit for infusing meaning into all his words. He is, after all, a poet with 3 published books of poetry. His Wiki bio lists “poet” first, before novelist. Here is an excerpt from a review of Lerner’s recent book, “The Hatred of Poetry”:

    “In an interview with Tao Lin that preceded the publication of “10:04”, Lerner hinted (or forewarned) that a novel may be “a kind of virtual poem.” A few weeks ago, when he read the final prose section of “The Hatred of Poetry” in Brooklyn, I heard several audience members remark that his delivery of the essay was indistinguishable from spoken lyric. After reading it myself, I no longer doubt which house he believes the fairer.”


    I think that justifies parsing this prose story as closely as we would a poem. So how might the disputed Rembrandt painting fit with the story, even shed light on it? I think this sentence about the painting, from an online article, helps: “There has also been debate over whether the painting was intended as a portrait of a particular person, living or historical, and if so of whom, or if not, what it was intended to represent.” I think that the question of representation in art – both painting and writing — is one of the themes at the heart of the story. In the early paragraph beginning “Every painting in Sonia’s show . . .” this is clearly displayed, such as in this passage:

    “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 her repainting of the painting of the photograph of the kiss?”

    Lerner is having fun here, both playing with words (which is what poets do) and mocking the gassy, directionless prose of exhibition catalogues. Yet under it all I think he is pointing to a true question about art. I think his degree of seriousness is reflected in his choosing a real event and a real painting, which a current painter might well repaint numerous times, as Sonia has done. His grounding in reality is strong – he himself was actually born in 1979 in Topeka.

    One last comment in this vein. Lerner has the narrator call his writing ekphrastic literature. Here is a definition:

    “Ekphrasis or ecphrasis, from the Greek description of a work of art, possibly imaginary, produced as a rhetorical exercise, often used in the adjectival form ekphrastic, is a graphic, often dramatic, description of a visual work of art. In ancient times, it referred to a description of any thing, person, or experience.”

    Sonia’s paintings are imaginary, and the narrator’s writing is produced as a rhetorical exercise. Even more important is that last sentence. By writing this story, Lerner is describing persons and experiences, thus the story itself is ekphrastic. So when the narrator says he writes ekphrastic literature, he is also speaking for Lerner writing his stories and novels.

    I’ve gone on way too long; I’ll just make two more observations.

    First, this story is about two characters who are very different. One was born in Poland and came to the U.S., the other was born in the U.S. Thus, their attitudes toward art are quite different, analogously to native-born vs. immigrant American writers, a distinction that I posited in a post on Alexandra Kleemans’s story, “Choking Victim”. The narrator here is full of words, mostly abstractions. Sonia, on the other hand, actually makes something, something, moreover, that she takes seriously. She takes her labor seriously, but she also takes the betrayal of the Polish people, as represented by the kiss, seriously. This passage is telling:

    “You already wrote the essay for the show.”

    “And now I’ll delete the essay, overpaint it, and the story becomes part of the show, the canvases themselves unfinished masterpieces, Madonnas of the future. Of the Uber.”

    “You’re sweet,” Sonia said, texting again. “Or sexist. But I want the paintings.”

    To the narrator, everything is fungible, nothing has any intrinsic value. To Sonia, her labor is valuable. She worked hard on the paintings, and she is working hard to get them back. The next day she will brace 70 people in 70 apartments to find two of her works. In these two disparate sensibilities, we have a more nuanced and more grounded version of Jacob and Tamir.

    Second, the ending. It begins with “I have never composed anything at a standing desk before, to be on my feet makes me feel a little like a painter.” That is, he begins to act as a genuine artist, not a verbal fake, so he writes something original for the first time. How can this cliché-spewing volcano produce true art? He transforms. Earlier he has said he is operating on “exhaustion and vodka”. Now he adds caffeine: “I brewed some Bustelo in Sonia’s stovetop espresso machine.” With his unconscious mind unlocked, he writes – a poem. It begins here:

    “A kiss represents a formal limit to speech, kips “locked” and so a painted kiss is anti-literary, anti-ekphrastic, says the coffee.”

    I love the way he slips in that “says the coffee”. He is a sly writer, and you have to pay attention. To convince yourself that Lerner has reverted to his favored mode of writing (and for an enjoyable treat), listen to him read his story:


    It all becomes clear – the stream-of-consciousness interweaving of elements that unites all the aspects of the story in a mystical non-linear way.

    There are many other aspects that I could explore. For instance, isn’t a story supposed to show a person changing, or at least reaching a new awareness? How does this ending show the narrator changing, as opposed to Lerner uniting the strands of his story? But this is enough. Lerner has written a truly genius work.

  6. Greg June 19, 2016 at 12:52 am

    Thank you William for your comprehensive post…..you have helped us see how Lerner worked his magic here!

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