Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Golden Vanity

Photo: Coffee House Press
Ben Lerner’s The Golden Vanity which appeared in the June 16th New Yorker is a story about a subject that will ring a bell with anyone who’s had problems with their teeth. Extraction is the ostensible area of concern and the catalyst for what transpires is the choice of a local or the I.V. anesthetic, twilight. “The difference between twilight sedation and local anesthesia was not primarily a difference in the amount of pain, but in the memory of it,” Lerner’s protagonist identified simply as “the author” remarks. “The benzodiazepines calm you during the procedure, yes, but their main function is to erase your memory of whatever transpires.” Actually “the author” functions as both a character in the story and an analogue for what might be called the executive function of the brain. In an age in which we're increasingly conscious of consciousness in its neurological, psychological and phenomenological aspects, Lerner offers up a piece of fiction that is Descartes (to the extent that it delves into the very question of what makes us thinking animals) written in the style of Pascal’s Pensees, to the extent that it’s rendered in aphorism, not on the subject of God and man, but about man and thought. All the musings of “the author” partake of the Kantian dichotomy between noumena and phenomena. For instance, here is the author on meeting a character named Hannah who may or may not exist. “Would you know what he meant if the author said he never really saw her face, that faces were fictions he increasingly could not read, a reductive way of bundling features in the memory, even if that memory was then projected into the present, onto the area between the forehead and chin.” While students of neuroscience might recognize this as an example prosopagnosia, a condition characterized by the inability to identify faces (and mentioned later in the story), it’s employed here to exemplify pareidolia, which the author’s Hannah describes as occurring “when the brain arranges random stimuli into a significant image or sound.” The locutions of The Golden Vanity are delectable. The author’s therapist Dr. Roberts sits in front of “a tactically inoffensive abstract painting, rhythmic brushstrokes in lavender , blue, green—very competently executed visual Muzak.” There are other characters, his brother, his sister-in-law and his nephews (one of whom is named Theo—after van Gogh’s brother?), Liza who seems to be the author’s significant other and whose “characteristic” was “to begin an activity by claiming she’d have not part in it.” We all know people with that kind of negative capability. However, you never know never know who or what is real or not. But then again, isn’t that what happens when you go to the dentist and get numbed up?

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