Ben Lerner is a critically acclaimed poet, novelist, and essayist with plenty of well-deserved accolades — he's currently a MacArthur Fellow, has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a finalist for the National Book Award, and has won the Believer Book Award and the Hayden Carruth Award, among others. In his newest work,
, the main character is Adam Gordon, who is also the narrator of Lerner’s debut novel,
; we see Adam here largely as an adolescent growing up in Topeka, Kansas, with his psychologist parents, who are part of the Foundation, an esteemed, groundbreaking psychological institute and progressive hub in a very conservative state. Lerner utilizes multiple perspectives and voices, including those of Adam's parents, to thoroughly investigate the history of this family and how it ties to our present moment, parsing themes of debate, masculinity, and the dissolution of language.
raves, "This book is a prehistory of a deeply disturbing national moment, but it’s written with the kind of intelligence, insight, and searching that makes one feel well-accompanied and, in the final hour, deeply inspired." And
praises, "Ben Lerner is a masterful writer who destabilizes the very notion of what a novel can achieve by making it new at every turn.
is not only a fiction for our times, but for the ages: insightful, humane, politically astute, and true." We're thrilled to present The
, after the brief intro about Darren, is a story that appeared as a standalone in
, which is incredibly striking. Adam is talking to his girlfriend, Amber, in a boat, and doesn't realize that she's disappeared, and then Adam goes into the wrong lake house while he's looking for her, not realizing it isn’t Amber's until he's inside. Is that how the book began for you; or, what was the genesis, if not?
: One kind of complicated thing about how my books begin is that they often begin before I know they've begun. So I wrote an essay for
a long time ago — I think it was in 2011 or ’12, it was certainly before my last novel — that was kind of about debate and growing up in Topeka.
And, to a certain extent, it gestured towards growing up between two worlds — one of psychologist parents, and the other of the culture outside of the house. So, in a way, the book began with that essay, but I didn't know that. I mean, I didn't think of the essay as like a précis for a novel or anything. But I ended up incorporating a lot of language and some of the ideas in the essay into the novel. That preceded any of the fictional framing.
But I had carried around this story in my head about that experience of disorientation, of being in a landscape of standardized housing, and how it was sublime and terrifying and banal all at the same time. So that wasn't the beginning of the novel, but it soon became clear to me that its position in the book that I was writing would be at the beginning... Because it introduced Adam at the age in which Adam is most active in the book, and that experience of disorientation and reorientation, and his addressing that speech to no one, when the recipient of the speech has gone missing, seemed to establish a lot of the tensions that I wanted to elaborate.
: That moment where he's deep within the house and realizes that it's not Amber's house is so disorienting. It's similar to her house, but just different enough to be jarring, which I feel comes up throughout your work — that sort of uncanny sense of “this is not quite the same self” or “this is not quite the same image,” but is close enough that it's disorienting.
: Yes, I think fiction is really good at those moments of narrative re-description, like where there's a little reorientation. In
, I got really interested in that concept of "just a little different." Like on the eve of a storm, the way everything in the city seems just a little different, and there's kind of a new possibility of identity dissolving, or being reestablished, in that moment of re-description.
So I think there is continuity between that kind of opening scene and some of the other stuff I've been interested in with fiction.
: In an interview in Interview
magazine that you did a few years ago, you were talking about how many of the events in your books are based pretty closely on your real life. You said: "For me, fiction is most powerful when it feels enough like the world and enough like yourself that the differences are really charged. So I have to kind of hew close enough to experience and identity to be able to fuck with those things in a way that feels powerful to me….The question is about how you gather in the book the energies that are produced by the conflation of fact and fiction."
I think that description of how you gather energy in your work, in those dissonances — which in itself is something you come back to frequently — is really interesting. Did you think about that any differently for The Topeka School
: To a certain degree, fiction for me is about patterning. My books, to a certain extent, are more patterned than plotted. It's about the little repetitions that make meaning.
In The Topeka School
, patterning isn't just a structural device. It's also what the book is about on the level of content. It's about how patterns recur across generations, or how they might be broken. For me, the big difference is precisely the intergenerational nature of the book, and that I'm ventriloquizing other voices.
I'm trying to imagine not just the perception of pattern or the possibility of re-description within one sensibility and a first-person narrative, but trying to imagine that really taking place from grandfather to mother to kid or whatever, and then trying to set those family patterns and recurrences against the larger rhythm of political patterning.
Again, to a certain degree, it is about using biographical detail and staying close to the memoiristic in order to imagine little differences that can make a big difference, but it's also that there's a different scale and a different duration, and there are multiple centers in this book psychologically in a way that was different for me.
I wanted to do this thing that felt hard and almost dangerous.
: The book almost seems structured like the conversation of therapy. It highlights these sort of moments of crisis in the characters' lives — Jonathan and Jane's acid trip in the museum, Adam's concussion, etc. — or smaller ones — like the children finding the "magic" plant at Montessori school — and then tracks their recurrence and resonance, sometimes from different people's points of view.
: Yes. A lot of therapy is about identifying when you might be driven to repeat a pattern without fully knowing that you're acting out a script that precedes you. I definitely think that's one of the things the book's about, like Jane's coming into recognition of the legacy of her relationship with her father.
Then Adam and Jane together figuring out how to imagine a different paternal relationship, and in the coda, the older Adam trying to imagine how to be a parent to his daughters in a way that doesn't just repeat some of the tropes of the paternal, or the masculine. Therapy and literature both share an interest in making visible patterns so that they can be broken and not just unthinkingly repeated.
I also think that the book is really organized around all these different theaters of extreme speech. Whether it's language breaking down under the influence of drugs or of trauma, or the debate, with that travesty of speech called the spread where logical argument is reduced to this athletic performance through speed, like in Jonathan's dissertation or Ziegler's nervous breakdown under the power of this magic pill.
Those are moments where the book returns to this idea that there's a point where speech breaks down that's both horrifying and vertiginous, and also a moment of possibility, because it's a recognition that language has to be rebuilt from the ground up.
: I loved your definition of poetry in The Topeka School
— that Adam "wanted to be a poet because poems were spells, were shaped sound unmaking and remaking sense." And as you say, you have those beautiful moments of language breaking down all over, in all the examples that you cited but also as Klaus is dying, and towards the end when Amber is at the party.
The remaking and unmaking of sense in the book, language disintegrating and reintegrating, is really one of the great pleasures of the book, I think.
: I'm glad you think so. The dystopian and utopian elements of the book are the same thing, in the sense that how did we get to a present where what passes for our public discourse is so obviously bankrupt? We’re in a moment where language has ended. The glimmer of hope is that there's a kind of dawning recognition of the necessity of learning to speak again, as is mentioned at the end of the book.
It's similar to when Jane talks about her speech breaking up under the emotional pressures of this kind of recollection or recovered memory: it's both a moment of terror and a coming to consciousness about the necessity of renovating our social language. That, to me, is what poetry has always been really involved in. It's this return to the materiality of language and this return to the mundane miracle that we can make these columns of air vibrate in a way that makes consciousness sharable.
It can reach a dead end, or it can be weaponized; it can be made violent, which is of course what a lot of the book is about, a kind of toxic trolling. It is also a fundamentally social capacity.
I also think the scene with that little ritual of call-and-response that Adam and Jane have with the poem… To me, it's like a nonsense poem; it's not about the quality of the aesthetic object. But through this ritual of misquotation, this little theater of recitation, it becomes an allegory for both how language is transmitted across generations and also the fact that it can be changed. Adam and Jane have made up their own little ritual where it's not just about memorizing the poem, it's actually about playing with language and showing its plasticity.
That's a theme, and in a way it's back to that question of re-description, disorientation, and reorientation, whether it's like that vertigo in the house, or it's like the way things in the grocery store seem changed on the eve of a storm in 10:04
. It's the defamiliarization of language, which is both terrifying because it can make you feel speechless, or because it can make you feel like your identity is dissolving, but it's also bracing and full of potential, because it returns you to that kind of original poetic capacity for making meaning in the first place.
: Absolutely. I'm glad you brought up that call-and-response, because I was going to bring up that moment towards the end when they're listening to the tapes of Adam’s grandfather and they turn the tape off and go back to that call-and-response.
You write: "…and now his grandfather wasn't in the room; it was just the three of them, an immediate family. If he ever needed to summon her voice, Adam knew, all he had to do was quote his misquotation, their ritual refusal of repetition across the generations, their shadowed passage, weak spell, and then his mother would answer in his head, overwhelm the Men, however briefly."
Even with their flaws and problems, this family is trying, and there is a sense of genuine progress, work, and movement. It's a really powerful moment, and it signals to me real connection and love, real victory over some of the darker forces of humanity.
That phrase, the "ritual refusal of repetition across the generations," is exactly what you were talking about earlier, of trying to rewrite this story for a better place for themselves and a better pattern for their relationship.
: Right. The psychoanalytic account of trauma is precisely that if it's not made conscious, and processed, and integrated into a narrative, then it gets doomed to a kind of ritual repetition. Part of what they're using a kind of poetry for there is as a spell against that bad form of traumatic repetition; it’s a conscious breaking of a received pattern.
The book — not in any kind of comprehensive, political, theoretical way — also wants to say that there has to be a use for political language that isn't just the doomed repetition of the regression to some kind of fascism. It wants to imagine the possibility of language being used between people for something other than doomed repetition. For breaking patterns at the same time as it also figures out what to honor in the language that we inherit.
That passage too, I think, is significant because so much of this book is a genealogy of the voice that's writing it, and Adam is really concerned with who goes into his voice. It's not something that you control. People speak through you — fathers, grandfathers, media, mothers, friends, whatever.
The way language circulates through Adam is part of what he's trying to figure out. Adolescence isn't just about coming into a body; it's also about coming into a voice.
We’re in a moment where language has ended.
: How did the character of Darren come to you? Why did you want to write his pieces in between the other voices?
: It's a good question. There are a lot of sources and ideas motivating that choice.
On the one hand, I feel like Darren haunts the periphery of the main chapters in the same way he haunts the different communities in the book. Darren is a kind of surplus. That's part of the pun of his hanging out at the military surplus. The Foundation can't quite help him. He can't quite be held in the community of the school. He can't quite hold down a job.
He's just excluded from all the available communities, until the end, when you glimpse him really quickly amongst the Phelps family. I liked the idea of him having to haunt the periphery of these sections that are so much about speech, because Darren is also really silent in the book. He's silent in the book, both because he doesn't really have a voice in any of those communities, but also because I'm trying to do something with Darren, where I'm both trying to write from his perspective and structurally acknowledge the limits of my ability to access it.
I shouldn't say I'm doing that, so much as Adam Gordon is doing that, the adult Adam Gordon, who's writing the book, who's trying to imagine from the present tense of his writing this book, looking back on his childhood, what Darren’s perspective would have been like.
And — this is really subtle in the book. This is almost... this is not something that I expect everyone to see or anything. But I was thinking a lot about the figure of John Clare
, who is this poet of the English countryside, who, after the enclosures, ended up in a mental asylum.
One of the most beautiful pieces of prose in English, I think, is this account that John Clare wrote of running away from the mental asylum and trying to walk home 30 miles or something to the village where he grew up. In Darren's long walk home from the party, I tip in little fragments from John Clare. He's also another poet-like figure.
Darren and Adam are both obsessed with a kind of magical thinking about language. Darren is worried that he has these powers he can't control, but so is Adam. Not just in terms of getting pissed off and being a bully, but in terms of causing migraines or needing spells. Like in that passage with his mom that you just quoted, part of the language there is language from the Darren section about the weak spells that Darren learns to cast back against the insults. Spells like "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may never hurt me."
Darren and Adam are obviously incredibly different. Adam has all this fluency, privilege, and support, but they're also linked in an alarming symmetry. They're also linked through the fact that Darren is Adam's dad's patient at the Foundation, which is something that Adam can't know. Structurally, I think those interleaved sections with Darren are trying to represent the degree to which, yeah, he's marginal, but everywhere in all those other sections.
I don't pretend I got it right, but the gamble with those little sections is to both want to be really evocative of a perspective, but again, not pretend to be able to speak for or as Darren in any kind of sustained way.
: Adam’s father, Jonathan, describes his male adolescent patients this way: "But I was encountering more and more patients whose suffering wasn't clearly related to their circumstances, or whose circumstances were most notable for their normality — intelligent middle-class white kids from stable homes who were fine until they weren't: the lost boys of privilege."
"The lost boys of privilege" is a very evocative phrase. And then Adam’s mother, Jane, is talking about the men calling her, which is another version of this toxic masculinity: "I couldn't really take them seriously, or only took them seriously as specimens of the ugly fragility of masculinity. (Of course, if we've learned anything, it's how dangerous that fragile masculinity can be.)"
All of that taken together seems... I feel like it's a really accurate exploration of what our era is showing us about masculinity, what is expected of it, and those toxic representations.
: I'm glad you think so. I also think we’ve reacquired this knowledge in all kinds of different ways — just the degree to which the macho is a form of weakness, how terrified it is of what it establishes as its "others."
The book has a lot of different kinds of male fragility, not all of which are violent and disastrous. It is certainly a book about a kind of identity crisis amongst white men and some of its consequences, psychic or political. But the book doesn't want to be a paraphrasable diagnosis. It just wants to put into relation some of the different scales at which those anxieties and terrors can operate. That's the thing I think you're also pointing to that I didn't say, which is Darren and Adam are related because they're totally disfigured by this desire to pass as real men. They're both horrified of being found out not to be real men.
They're crossed in other, subtler ways, like Darren's mom caring for Adam when he has his concussion, and that scene of Adam, which recurs as a poetic motif, being asked to recite the alphabet off her sweater in the hospital. He's reacquiring language through Darren's mom, as if now, he's in the position of being a version of her son.
: On first read, I think I might have found Jane's sections the most engaging. I don't know if that’s because they were just the easiest for me to connect to, but I felt a real affinity with Jane.
There's something about her voice that is so lovely — it's strong and empathetic. I was wondering how you thought about writing from her point of view.
: The first Jane section is the most spoken writing in the book. It's this implied transcript. It's the one part of the book that makes a bid to really sound like speech. I think in that section in particular, I was really...
This was, in a way, the biggest psychological risk for me writing; it was hard to do. I was really trying to do what the book is, in part, about, which is the way we channel our parents both willingly and unwillingly.
I know my mom's voice very well. We're very close. I wrote a lot of this book in conversation with her. There wasn't an actual transcript or anything, but I was really writing in a composite voice. Some of it's mine, and some of it is really my attempt to speak in her voice.
What's the way to put it? I feel like, in a way, writing that section is like the emotional work of the novel writ small. It's about identification with a parent and dis-identification. It's about how writing as your mother involves trying to put yourself in that position, but by virtue of putting yourself in that position, it's no longer your mother.
Then you're trying to write as a character or an independent adult making her way in the world. When we talk about repetition, separation, or identification and dis-identification, this book is, in part, about imaging your childhood from your parents' perspective. Which entails, on the one hand, real empathy for your parents, and on the other hand, no longer just thinking about them as your parents, but as people in the world.
When we talked earlier about how the book started — I think I wanted to see if I could write in that voice. I’d felt a need to experiment with that for a really long time. I just didn't have the frame in which I wanted to do it.
It's really hard to explain, but I think that act of identification and dis-identification, writing as a parent in a way that makes you see them as something other than just your mom or your dad, was part of the psychological and formal gamble, especially of that first section. In a way, that's the spine of the book.
My books, to a certain extent, are more patterned than plotted.
: I think both from Jane's perspective and then from Adam's perspective in the coda, you really vividly and accurately convey the experience of being a parent, including sometimes the terror of it.
I was rereading the section where Jane's talking about Adam having his concussion, where he's unconscious and then coming out of it, while my husband was giving our son, who's four, a bath in the other room. He was practicing how long he could hold his breath underwater. And something about just the terror of imagining your child hurt, unconscious, and then simultaneously hearing that conversation and those noises from the bathroom really crossed into emotional territory for me. It was a really interesting experience.
: It's funny, because that section, the concussion stuff, was really hard for me to write. I’ve actually had two concussions, but the one that's fictionalized in the book is the worst one. It wasn't hard for me to write because I was remembering pain in the first person; it was hard to write because I was imagining that happening to one of my daughters.
: At the end, too, when Adam is worried about Luna at the protest, that fear is echoed.
: I think when you become a parent... this is kind of true of any identity into which you're interpolated. It's like, you become a whatever. You get a diagnosis, or you become a professor, or you become a homeowner.
Whatever the category is, you open your mouth and all this stuff starts to come out. You're like, Who said that?
Like, Oh, I just said a thing that some part of me thinks you're supposed to say if you're a teacher, or a cop, or a crossing guard.
You feel the accumulated cultural heritage coursing through you.
That experience of how the long line of your predecessors either enriches or deforms your speech, and having to stand in the stream of speech and select what you feel like you can authentically inhabit —that process, to me, is really kind of amazing and can be very overwhelming.
At the end, Adam is worried about his daughter's safety and his daughter's experience. I also feel like it really matters, at the end, when he gets into that fight with the cop. He's saying, "I have no authority. Where's your authority come from?" That renunciation, that kind of vacuum of authority, like with the collapse of language, is both terror and possibility.
Adam’s trying to imagine being a father in that vacuum, and though he does have some good models, he also has bad models. The way he's going to be a father has to do with navigating his role in relation to those received traditions.
: What you're describing is almost literally in the book, when Adam confronts the other father on the playground. He’s trying to channel his own father to deal with the situation better than relying on his anger and rage.
: Right. On the one hand, they're these cliché dads, having a very New York parenting disagreement. On the other hand, there's this primal violence and terror coursing underneath the surface of it.
I feel like that's a lot of what parenting is. On the one hand, it's about conventional behavior, and you're following a set of codes and rules. On the other hand, you're so terrified about something happening to your kid that there's this level of urgency... this dangerous force and intensity coursing just beneath the surface of the convention.
: Absolutely. Another person that Adam sometimes feels like is speaking through him is his debate coach, Evanson. We were talking about debate a little while ago as an example of speech breaking down and the private, coded, bizarre, nonsensical language of the spread, but I was wondering why else you wanted it to be a focus of the book.
There's also, of course, the absurdity of these high school kids talking about, for example, the currency rate in China, and this vast spectrum of things that they don't really have any experience with.
: Yeah. It's a lot of things. Part of my thinking about the book was, well, there's this Foundation culture of psychologists, which is an institution that really runs on talk. Then, I set it against the backdrop of this state, where talk, unless you're talking shit, is considered emasculating. Part of the book is about growing up in a place that has this differential relation to talk and its value of talk.
The irony of Adam's experience is that there actually were these two really intense, pressurized forms of speech in his world. One was debate, and then the other that the book gets into is freestyling. They're both absurd and inauthentic modes for him. They're also moments of real linguistic intensity, performance, pressure, violence, and then also, something beyond that, which is this making contact with the social possibility of language.
It's bullying, it's extremity, it's appropriation, and it's travesty, but there's also this glimmer of that poetic power that we were talking about. Then, in debate in particular, it became this really rich, if inexact, metaphor for the bankruptcy of political and policy discourse.
You know how, in the book, the Lincoln-Douglas debate is supposed to be slow and policy debate is fast? A lot of what we have in the national discourse is like nano-trading. We have a speed and spread of information and this emphasis on incomprehensible rates of exchange on the one hand, and then this painfully slow, evacuated political speech on the other hand.
There's a jargon-filled language for the initiated that can never be questioned, because every time there's a financial collapse, you hire the same people, because they're like a priestly class whom the establishment has decided are the only people who can understand derivative trading or whatever. Then, there’s the typical, more accessible, totally bankrupt political rhetoric, ostensibly about American values, that nobody actually believes.
Part of it was just the way that that image of adolescent debate in the ’90s got at something in the travesty of public life. Also, by reducing this language of policy, etc., to this athletic spectacle of unreason, the kids are acknowledging, and almost celebrating, in a certain way, that vacuity, or that bankruptcy, and refusing to play along with the same kind of game.
There's all of that, and then there's the stuff that Evanson represents, which is the weaponization of eloquence, which is like the opposite of good therapy — this utilization of the affect of argument in order to destroy an opponent. Not in the service of something like truth or policy, but just in the service of winning or some kind of performance of superiority, a kind of violence.
That's a really powerful voice in Adam's head, because, again, with his terror of not being tough enough, or his terror of coming from a different culture of talk that's about expressivity and sensitivity, that's a way for him to turn linguistic prowess into a kind of mixed martial art.
The Evanson voice is one of the voices that the future Adam is trying to unlearn, and not wholly successfully. Again, that playground scene is not a scene of his successfully channeling only the good father, or whatever that means. He's still engaged in a weaponized discourse.
: I did like, in both Jane's and Adam's experiences, that there was this little physical tic, when they’re in their groove of debate or therapy, which you describe as "like Glenn Gould's humming in the Goldberg Variations
. It was a sign that the artist was alongside an art that exceeded him." I like that idea of the art exceeding the artist, of almost being possessed by it. Can you elaborate on that idea at all?
: It's like the good form of that thing I was saying about how, when you become a father, you open your mouth and hear this father stuff. This intergenerational speech is coursing through you.
That can be a really bad form, but it can also be a form of collectivity and the transpersonal. Like, I'm channeling a force that's bigger than me. These modes of thinking and speaking have a power that isn't just ego, or my individual concerns. That force is making contact again with the social possibility of language.
I think the good thing about those moments of flow is that you're experiencing the dissolution of individual identity into this broader social force, and there are loving modes of it.
For me, for the book to be writable, it couldn't just be a tour of all these different reasons to despair of the language. The book is also an argument about the poetic possibility we reencounter in these moments of linguistic extremity.
Of course, the book is by the older Adam, sometimes writing as Jane, seeing the younger Adam. Jane sees all the ridiculousness, the posturing of the Evanson kind of style. She sees the weaponization of eloquence. She sees all this stuff that's worrying, but she also sees this other potential, to a certain degree, in debate and forensics, and that stuff's full of really smart, good kids, doing smart, great things.
I make it a little bit horrifying. This is not an indictment of the activity. I experienced it in my own life as pretty horrifying, but looking back, I also see a little bit of an avant-garde poetic performance in these weird kids, using the language that way.
Adolescence isn't just about coming into a body; it's also about coming into a voice.
: Adam Gordon is also the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station
. What do you see the relationship between these two books as being?
: Well, I really see the three novels as a trilogy. I don't mean that I think that's the only way to read them, but for me, this is a book about prehistory, obviously. It's family prehistory, in the way it recurs, or the way patterns are broken. It also wants to be a prehistory of the political present, in a very specific way. I also wanted it to be the prehistory of the other two novels to a certain extent.
The Adam Gordon of Leaving the Atocha Station
— now there's so much more context for his relationship with his mom. His kind of funny, kind of gross lie about his mom being dead when he's in Spain has a whole other resonance because he's testing the separation.
Or the way he talks about his father as a fascist in Leaving the Atocha Station
. Adam’s big lies and ridiculousness about his family of origin take on a different resonance when you have the prehistory. As does his trying to think about art, and what would be authentic in art, after all his different experiences of inauthentic speech that nevertheless have the slight glimmer of poetic possibility.
Another way to put it is, I think of this book as like the unconscious of the other two books. I didn't start out as a fiction writer and I never expected to write novels. My poems were very different. When I started writing novels, in somewhat tangential, but really important ways, all the fiction was about parents.
[Drawing] from Adam’s lies about his parents, to his calling his parents when the bombings in Madrid happen, to his trying to figure out if he'll be a parent in 10:04
, [in The Topeka School
] I wanted to just go at parenting, parenthood, these psychic structures, the origination of language in these family scenes. I wanted to make that explicit and sustained and intergenerational.
Then I wanted to see how that [focus] changes the other books. I didn't want to just write a book that was, Now Adam Gordon is a dad in Brooklyn and it's all set in Brooklyn
. Instead, I wanted to do this thing that felt hard and almost dangerous, which was to think about my childhood, but from the perspective of my parents, which is something that only really felt available to me when I became a parent.
I was also thinking about some other overlaps between the book and my life. The Jane character moves from being somebody writing academically to writing in a more popular way, which is enough of a similarity to me, being a poet who then also became a fiction writer, that I was thinking about the ways that some of her experiences repeated in my own life.
It's biographical, even when it's very much about the preceding generation; or, it's inflected with biography.
: From that same interview in Interview
, you said, "If I write a third novel, I think I'll try to write one without disasters." Do you think that's true of this book?
] No, not really. I don't think I avoided the disaster. I don't remember saying that. That's really interesting.
I think part of the function of the bombings and the storms in the other books is that, when you have a collective threat, you have the brief sense of a collective subject. Adam Gordon feels alienated from the big crowds.
The real disaster in The Topeka School
is the disaster of the political present, which is kind of everywhere and nowhere in the book, more than it's the cue ball being thrown. That language I stole from the Thematic Apperception Test — "I'm going to show you an image. Tell me what led up to this scene," which, as I understand it, is supposed to be a test of your capacity for empathy — is kind of saying, Show me what led up to this disaster
; and the disaster, to a certain degree, is the disaster of the spectacular violence with Darren. Although by American standards that doesn't really rise to the level of disaster; it's a cue ball, not an automatic weapon.
: Exactly. But there's that specter of an automatic weapon, which I think haunts the book anyway, even though you know it's a cue ball; the cue ball is there from the very beginning. Both my colleague and I, when we read it, thought it was going to be more than that. There's this sort of perverse relief when that doesn't happen, even though it's still really violent.
: Part of what I wanted to do is take the structure of a very American-style event, kind of unmotivated overkill, but not actually have it happen in a way that would overwhelm the book. I'm sure if somebody were going to make it into a movie, the first thing they would do is amp up that violence.
I think that the cue ball that's hanging there, and kind of rotating, suspended over the novel... really what's suspended over the novel is the present. Then, in the last section, before the coda, time resumes, and then it's hurtling towards the person it's going to hit.
The novel is a lot about that kind of moment in the ’90s where, at least amongst the pundit class, there was this talk about the end of history, like historical time has ended and everything's going to be fine. Part of what I'm trying to do is remember that discourse from the present, where history has resumed in really horrifying ways.
Obviously, history never stopped, but that ’90s ideology of being at the end of ideology is something I wanted to get at. I think with the cue ball, when the cue ball is in motion again, you're also being thrown back into the present, remembering the '90s from the Trump era.
The symmetry isn't exact, but there is a disaster that hangs over the book, and it's not just Darren’s discrete act of violence. It's everything that act of violence represents about a structure of American nihilism.
I spoke to Ben Lerner on September 24, 2019.
÷ ÷ ÷
was born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1979. He has received fellowships from the Fulbright, Guggenheim, Howard, and MacArthur Foundations. His first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station
, won the 2012 Believer Book Award, and excerpts from 10:04
have been awarded The Paris Review's Terry Southern Prize. He has published three poetry collections: The Lichtenberg Figures
, Angle of Yaw
(a finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry), and Mean Free Path
. Lerner is a professor of English at Brooklyn College. The Topeka School
is his most recent book.