Saturday, January 23, 2010

Review: The Case of Lena S., by David Bergen

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.


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  2. Hi CarolCares,

    Thanks so much for this detailed response to the novel and to my review. It sounds like your reading group really did a thorough job discussing *The Case of Lena S.* and gave it the consideration it deserves.

    Your group makes a lot of interesting points here. I'm especially struck by this notion that the teenagers in the novel are missing a certain level of believability because they don't engage with the technology that would inevitably surround them, that they may simply be transplanted teenagers from Bergen's own milieu. It's a fair point. But on the other hand, one has to consider that part of a writer's job is to make tough choices about which quotidian detail to include (because it fleshes out a character or moves the story along) and which to exclude because, well, it's just too mundane to mention. So while the teenagers in *The Case of Lena S.* don't use PCs or play video games, they also don't make a sandwich, fish a sweater out of the laundry, or hunt around in the couch for change for the bus. Not to say these and other things wouldn't happen over the course of *A Case for Lena S.* but Bergen simply chose not to include them.

    (Also: regarding the heavy tomes and classical music, I'll reserve judgement because I've often had to learn the hard way not to short change teenagers and their interests. Just when I think I've got them pegged as Nintendo-playing, iPod-listening computer junkies, I get invited to read to or give a creative writing lecture at a high school, and I'm pleasantly surprised by the range and diversity of their hobbies.)

    I'm also very interested in your group's response to the graphic sex scenes in the novel. It's very true that these aspects of the book aren't going to work for everyone; and frankly, had Bergen not written them as well as he did, they probably wouldn't have worked for me. But this is one of the things I continue to admire about this book: how Bergen is able to use his immense writing talent to take us right up to the line of what's tolerable without crossing it.

    Again, thanks for your detailed comment. Always appreciated here at Free Range Reading.


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  4. Ack! I came up with the 'sandwich' reference at random - unbelievable that a character actually makes one. Ha! Oh well - the spirit of what I said still holds.

    Your point about technology is very apt. It's sometimes hard to remember, what with their increasingly ubiquitous presence in our lives, that these gadgets are not required by law: each cell phone, iPod or Twitter account is a personal choice. (If it's any consolation, neither I nor my girlfriend own cell phones. This probably pegs us as downright geriatric!) I often think teenagers would be less susceptible to depression if they actually got off the grid from time to time.

    Again, thanks for the comments. Hope you’ll continue to follow the blog.

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  6. Wow, good catch! I haven't read The Retreat, but I'm now intrigued. Thanks for this!

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  8. Wow, that's really cool. I had no idea that the film was in the works. I agree--I think Bergen's prose would be quite hard to translate to the screen, but still it would be interesting to see how a filmmaker handles the actual story. Thanks so much for letting me know!

    And no, sadly I haven't read The Retreat yet. Soooo many books, only so much time....


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  10. What a great story. Thanks for sharing!

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