In his blurb, Jonathan Franzen says this book isn't like anything he can remember reading. Surely you can't mean that, Jonathan! The days and nights of a young, literature-obsessed man recording his life in a foreign city, Lerner's book has many precedents, from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge to early Nabokov novels such as Mary or The Gift to Murakmai's Norwegian Wood to the hundred pages of journal entries that open Bolaño's Savage Detectives. James Wood adds to this list Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet (a book I haven't read) and places Lerner's novel in the flâneur tradition. No, we've definitely been here before. And while this Madrid-set story cannot live up to the weirdly excessive praise it's received, it has many of the trademarks of those earlier works—the obvious autobiographical dimension, the spartan surroundings, the rootlessness, the oceans of free time, the impulsive actions—and does a good job of updating the genre to the digital era.
Baudelaire envisioned the flâneur as someone who drops himself into the life swarming around him (what Lerner nicely calls the "white machine"), not taking part but passionately witnessing it, in order to create his art. Lerner's stand-in, Adam Gordon, walks plenty of city streets and does witness the terrorist attack on Atocha Station and, only days later, the national elections that galvanized Spain in 2004, but the bulk of the book is spent pondering a lack feeling in himself that even he finds strange. He doesn't feel pain but, instead, "the shape of pain." He is almost unbearably self-conscious and keeps bumping up against an old-world, often feminine, sensibility for which he is no match. He attempts to give blood after the station's bombing but, due to his drug-taking, is turned down—even his blood is no good! Despite all the evidence that he is not human, of course he does end up feeling and living; he can't help it. The lyric becomes the dramatic.