Suszynski: Facts and the shifting of our neighbors
As I was rereading an essay I wrote about an experience I had at the Prado museum in Madrid in 2015, I realized that memory is both acute and fallible. I had multiple tabs open online, and soon realized that I had somehow collapsed the border, the streets, the buildings between the Prado and the Museo Reina Sofía. The important pieces of art are contained in a singular, infinite museum corridor. While I had the facts wrong, the truth sustained.
A friend of mine was reading over my essay and asked me if I had read Ben Lerner “yet?” She had been asking me this question for several years, so I picked up his first book that night in order to avoid being the person that makes excuses. His first book, “Leaving Atocha Station,” begins in the Prado museum.
I made it through “Atocha Station” and immediately read his second novel, “10:04,” which is a book preoccupied with many themes, but the thread that resonated most with me was the blending of fiction and life.
To me, truth is complicated, and truth is personal. We all live by our own truths. We derive meaning through experience or belief. There is a narrative element to it. Then there is fact. When I visualize a fact, I often think of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Princess and The Pea.” I am the girl on the bed of 20 mattresses, highly sensitive to the hard, little fact below me.
There is one scene in “10:04” that I am still digesting. The main character works in a food co-op in Brooklyn. He strikes up a conversation with a woman named Noor who explains to him (and then the narrator paraphrases to readers) that in a moment in her young adulthood, her mom revealed to her the man she thought was her father, a man who “had a really strong sense of Lebanese identity,” was not, in fact, her biological father.
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In the paraphrased dialogue of the narrator, Noor explains, “I grew up going (to mosque) a lot and developed a sense of difference from most of the kids I knew. In high school and then in college I was active in Middle Eastern political causes and majored in Middle Eastern studies at BU.”
This passage interests me because the plot of this event revolves around one fact: Noor’s biological father is not Lebanese. She was raised by this man, but biologically she is not connected to his culture: “When I’m asked, I say that my adoptive father was Lebanese. Which I guess is true. I still believe all the things that I believed; it hasn’t changed my sense of any of the causes. But my right to care about the causes, my right to have this name and the language and cook the food and sing the songs and be part of the struggles or whatever — all of that has changed, is still in the process of changing, whether or not it should.”
I was particularly fascinated by truth’s role here: “Which I guess is true.” I can tell that Noor is still trying to interpret the facts and how the facts reposition her identity.
Once the narrator leaves the co-op, he walks into the city and describes, what I believe, to be one of the more beautiful passages of the book: “I breathed in the night air that was or was not laced with anachronistic blossoms and felt the small thrill I always felt to a lesser or greater degree when I looked at Manhattan’s skyline and the innumerable illuminated windows and the liquid sapphire and ruby of the traffic on the FDR Drive … ”
The narrator is registering the millions of people, which are signaled by squares of light in tall buildings or moving cars. He is both apart from these people, watching from a distance, and alongside them.
“What I felt when I tried to take in the skyline — and instead was taken in by it — was a fullness indistinguishable from being emptied, my personality dissolving into a personhood so abstract that every atom belonging to me as good belonged to Noor, the fiction of the world rearranged itself around her,” the narrator says.
The narrator seems to be discussing community: how intricate are the connections within a city, or group of people living alongside one another. While Noor experiences this fact reversal and therefore a shifting of her internal truth, the narrator is also sensing the rearrangement of the world around him.
Truth has always had the capacity to transform. Depending on your distance or proximity to fact, truth can stretch or solidify. I always think of memory as imperfect, but facts are always facts. If we think about democracy as if it were a narrative — one that progresses, meets low points and hopefully triumphs, then entities like fact and truth can rearrange how we associate with that narrative. Truth certainly shifts, but facts are discernible. And they exist within greater communities. We can all feel the hardened pea beneath the mattresses — our atoms share borders with the stranger next to us. Maybe truth is less related to fact and more dependent on the infinitesimal shifting of our neighbors.
Anna Suszynski is a staff editor at the Vail Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Instagram at annasuszynski or on Twitter at anna_suszynski.