David Bergen has pulled off quite a feat in this novel. He has written a story centred around teenagers going through many of the horribly angst-ridden and overblown things that teenagers go through; and yet the book itself is not horrible, or angst-ridden, or overblown. Far from it. The Case of Lena S. is a quietly beautiful and exquisitely crafted work of contemporary fiction. A real gem.
The strength lies in Bergen’s prose, in his ability to imbue emotional significance to the small, quotidian details of life. The story involves a 16-year-old high school student named Mason and his on-again, off-again relationship with a troubled, depressive, suicidal girl named Lena. The novel is obsessed with how the inner lives of its characters jar against the external world, especially the characters’ own bodies. This a very visceral novel: there are some wonderfully astute descriptions of arms and feet and necks, of the “blue bone” of someone’s shin, and they lend a physical counterpoint to the emotional downward spiral that consumes Lena. As Mason puts it to her: “It’s all so thin … I mean the wall between the outside and the inside.’ He touched Lena’s arm. ‘What we’re made of. Sometimes I can’t believe it.’”
Bergen takes some extraordinary risks in this novel – risks that paid off for me but may not for every reader. Some people may interpret this book as merely expressing a multitude of 16-old-boy fantasies through the prism of a skillful adult writer. The lesbian love scene between sisters. Lena’s convincing of Mason to have anal sex with her. The scene where Lena has broken Mason’s heart and yet pleads with him for help after getting into a terrible situation with another guy she’s picked up in a bar. These episodes form a bewitching patchwork that may leave some readers disturbed and a little bit incredulous.
But The Case of Lena S., like all good novels, is more than just the sum of its scenes. Bergen has full command of his themes and metaphoric imagery, a virtuosic control of his vision displayed on nearly every page. The aim is to show Lena’s depression both from the inside and the outside; how the physical world can poison the emotional one; how the loss of one’s sanity and self can be drowned out in the noise of other people’s agendas. Much like Bergen’s novel The Time in Between (which I’ve also read and loved), this book is a stellar work of fiction that rewards close reading. Go check it out.