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Ben Lerner. FSG/Faber & Faber, $25 (256p) ISBN 978-0-86547-810-7

In his second novel, an associative, self-aware roman à clef that ably blends cultures high and low, Lerner (Leaving the Atocha Station) explores the connections between contemporary life, art, and literary writing. The unnamed narrator is a 33-year-old Brooklyn-based novelist, poet, and teacher, at work on his second autobiographical novel, a follow-up to his debut, which was a surprise success (though a limited one). Much of his future hangs on the book’s marketability, and whether he can secure a sizable advance for it. Though he is in poor health (possibly Marfanoid), he has consented to the request of his best friend, Alex, that he help her conceive a child by being a sperm donor for her. Still, he frets over the degree to which he wants to be involved in the process and worries that it might jeopardize his relationship with the “mysterious” artist Alena. In his spare time, he also mentors a boy named Roberto, whose company leads him to even more self-doubt regarding his fitness for fatherhood. Lerner’s insistence on showing off his skill and his display of syntactical acrobatics sometimes result in overwrought constructions that detract from the narrative momentum, but readers who can overlook the sluggish start will be rewarded with engaging streams of thought and moments of tenderness. (Sept.)