City Arts & Lectures: Good evening and welcome to the Sydney Goldstein Theater and to City Arts & Lectures. It’s my great pleasure to welcome you all tonight. Maggie Nelson and Ben Lerner are two of the writers celebrated for writing at the foremost–foremost writers at the center of writing about poetry, memoir, and nonfiction.
Many of you have read their works: Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts,” “The Art of Cruelty,” “Jane: A Murder,” and Ben Lerner’s “10:04,” “The Hatred of Poetry,” and now this beautiful new novel, “The Topeka School,” which they will talk more about tonight.
Can’t leave the stage without saying that tonight is a benefit for 826 Valencia college scholarships, so all of your tickets here tonight help send eight students from San Francisco to college. So thank you. And please join me in welcoming Maggie Nelson and Ben Lerner.
Maggie Nelson: Hi everybody. Can you hear me okay? Yes. Great. Okay. I’m so glad to be here. A shout out to members of my family who are here, and to Ben’s members of his family.
Ben Lerner: We can’t see how many people are in the audience, we assume it’s just our family.
Maggie Nelson: Exactly. So, which is great cause we’re going to talk a lot about family tonight. I am not going to do big introductions because I hear that you guys have bios and programs and you’re, I’m sure, a literary crowd, knowing who you’re here to see, but I’ll just say on a more personal note that I’m delighted, Ben, to be here with you. We were just saying, we’ve spent a lot of time under stage lights together, but I don’t think we’ve ever had a full hour that I get just to talk to you. So that’s fun.
And then, and on, that Ben and I are friends, and that we have been readers of each other’s work for several years now. And it’s really fun for me to be here because I feel like I got to see this book all along the way and have had lots of thoughts and feedback and, but lots of my own thoughts about the book that I don’t even know if we’ve talked about thoroughly.
So I’m very delighted to be here to talk to Ben about his book. And we’re going to talk for about an hour, and then we will take questions from you all, so be thinking of things that you might want to ask Ben about this book or any other thing. And yeah. So do you have anything you want to say to start?
Ben Lerner: No. Thank you for coming and thank you for doing this. And Maggie was an indispensable reader of this book and manuscript. So all of its flaws are her responsibility.
Maggie Nelson: Exactly. Every single one.
Well I thought that, you know, just to kind of cut very quickly to get into the weeds, instead of starting with like a, you know, “what made you become a writer” kind of question, I would go very deep, deep in the weeds and talk, ask you some things that’ve been on my mind ever since I started reading this book in earnest, which have to do with therapy and psychoanalysis.
Because I don’t really think that, in things I’ve read about the book, I haven’t really, I haven’t, I mean, I’ve read a little bit about it, you know, but analysis and therapy are just, I mean especially you know, psychoanalytic theory, are longstanding interests of mine. And I think that there’s so much in this book that I want to ask you about in that realm.
So I guess I would just start by saying that you know, I came up in school and maybe you did too, I don’t know, I want to hear more about it, because a lot of this book, as those of you who’ve read it know, has to do with having two therapists as parents and who work at an Institute.
But more than that, thematically, to me, a lot of the book uses what I recognize, and I’m curious to know if you recognize them, or are wielding them explicitly as such, as kind of tropes from psychoanalysis, whether it’s return of the repressed, or the kind of notions of interpretation and transference. Like a lot of things that are, that when I came of age, and maybe you too, I don’t know, psychoanalytic theory was still very in vogue as something that was taught, especially in literary realms. And I have noticed now as a teacher, when I try and teach it, my students often tell me, I mean rightly, they guffaw at castration complex and Oedipal triangulation and things that that maybe deserve to be guffawed at in certain ways.
But there’s a, you know, there’s been a kind of displacement of a lot of that conceptualization of interaction and mind by neurological, medical, behavioral approaches via SSRIs and cognitive behavioral therapy. Just different things. So your book has so many of the different things in them, but I’m just curious, cause I’ve never asked you before how much any of that–I mean, I guess therapy, but psychoanalysis in particular–was of interest to you in writing the book, and what you see is the relation–of which there are many–but what the relation might be between some of those tropes and structuring the book. You know? Like I said, we’re gonna start in the weeds and…
Ben Lerner: My aunt and uncle who are here are both therapists, who know a lot more, you know, they actually know the theory, so I have to be careful not to…
Maggie Nelson: Yeah, we’re gonna literary gloss on theory.
Ben Lerner: I mean, the parents in the book, like my parents, aren’t analysts, they’re family systems therapists, which is of course informed, like kind of any therapeutic practice I can think of, by psychoanalysis and its insights. But I think for me, you know, this is a book that’s largely about prehistory, like it wants to be a prequel to the other two novels, it wants to kind of be the unconscious of the other two novels. And it’s a book about prehistory in the sense that it’s about the way patterns occur across generations and might be illuminated or broken or whatever.
And I definitely kind of grew up in a household where, like if people were visiting from out of town, people would drink some wine and then draw genograms. That was like kind of like, you know, like a routine practice. So I think when I started writing fiction, kind of without meaning to necessarily, but the ways that a certain kind of therapy is attuned to the repetitions and silences in a family system also is a very novelistic practice to think about, especially a novel that has multiple centers or moves across generations. So I think there is a way in which the family systems theory that I kind of imbibed, not in a rigorous way, but in a kind of ambient way, has really shaped my thinking about fiction.
I think that that, you know, what we all learned when we were studying psychoanalysis in some capacity in like English courses, right, was that it just helps remind us that what a character says is always–the character always means more and less than he means to express. A writer always means more and less then he means to write. And that writing is this weird calibration of the patterns you will in order to produce the architecture of an aesthetic object. And these patterns you discover in writing, which are your own complicated, driven behaviors that suddenly become visible on the act of composition. You know?
But I think that what made this book writeable for me was this idea that it would both be about psychologists, or being the son of psychologists. It would be about family pre-history, but it would also be a prequel to the other two books and almost kind of become the unconscious of the other two novels in the trilogy.
Maggie Nelson: That’s super interesting. I mean, I have two questions. One, can you, would you mind terribly saying a couple things about what family systems therapy works like?
Ben Lerner: Well, in the most basic way of kind of like family systems therapy, as I understood it, would mean that you would say, track where there was a cutoff and a previous generation, and look for ways that that cut off, for example, might influence contemporary relationships. And you would kind of map out the family as a system and think about where there might be triangles, or the repetition of certain behavior, and try to kind of demystify it so you wouldn’t be doomed to repeat it.
I mean, this book also has a lot about kind of the mother character Jane’s experience being a certain kind of therapist at an institution that was dominated by an old guard of more traditional analysts in which kind of like resisting their authority always meant you would be expressing your penis envy.
You know, and you had to be kind of in analysis with your boss, or you were encouraged to be an analysis with your boss, which means like you’d have like an outburst in a meeting, like not an outburst, they would say it was an outburst. You would say something in a meeting about how, like, “why do women get paid less for the same job classifica–” and then like an hour later, you had to kind of talk about your outburst and how it related to your phallic strivings or whatever. So it is in part about the kind of rivalry of different theoretical orientations. Of course, psychoanalysis has changed a lot, but there’s also that.
And there also for me, I should say like in the boo– and I don’t pretend to any special knowledge or authority about these discourses or anything like that–but the other really interesting thing about growing up in Topeka and about the Menninger foundation, is that it, Karl Menninger, which is, you know, very fictionalized in the book, but Karl Menninger had been really effective at recruiting a lot of analysts who had fled, by whatever circuitous route, the Holocaust. And so there were these European analysts who found themselves in Topeka, Kansas, and became kind of like the elder generation and the bearers of historical memory and trauma for people who were in my parents’ generation, who had come from the coast to do their Postdocs or whatever, and stayed.
So there’s also kind of, psychoanalysis as what was often called the Jewish science, you know, and as a kind of interpretive practice and bearer of historical memory that couldn’t be separated from the surpassing disasters of that history. So the book kind of tries to gather all of that in a certain way.
Maggie Nelson: I mean, what you said about… I mean, there are multiple layers of how much that works, right? So one of them, like you’re saying, is when you’re talking about writing a prehistory, there’s a prehistory of both psychoanalysis, but also of just American immigration history at mid century, right, that you’ve got in there.
But then, and then there’s, but I’m curious just for a minute, I want to maybe go back to that later, but for the moment, what you just said about this book being the unconscious of the other two books, but you’re also kind of talking about unconscious and prehistory as synonymous in some way or something.
So A, I wonder if he might say something about that, and B, what do you make of the fact that the unconscious would be like the story of your or fictionalized Adam’s parents, you know?
Ben Lerner: Yeah. I mean, I think in a way it’s like, when I started writing fiction for reasons I don’t fully pretend to understand, parents and parental mortality and questions of intergenerational transmission immediately kind of asserted themselves, often in kind of like funny or tragicomic forms.
Like in the first novel I wrote, Adam Gordon tells this lie about his mother being dead to kind of get the sympathy of an attractive stranger, on the one hand. But on the other hand, he’s also kind of trying to say the thing he’s most afraid about at this kind of a young age when he’s abroad and in this moment of vertiginous self invention or whatever.
So like to a certain degree, you know, I think–and I think this had to do with my parents work, I think it had to do with the nature of fiction, which is always to a certain degree about the genealogy of the voice that’s writing it. I think when I had kind of written these two novels and then kind of became a parent, I got interested in remembering Adam Gordon’s childhood.
But I didn’t have access to like the adolescent version of me, which is largely like a black box to me. Like I can’t really get back inside of what I was like as a teenager, but I suddenly had this like empathic, however, you know, refracted or inaccurate ability to imagine my childhood from my parents’ perspective. So that it was a way of both kind of thinking about myself from the impossible vantage of my parents, but also kind of thinking about the present of composition when I’m like also a parent who has to figure out what I’m going to transmit or try not to transmit to the next generation.
So I just mean to say that you know, when I wrote “Leaving the Atocha Station” and Adam Gordon blurts out this lie about his mom, or he has this distrust of language, or he’s desperate to pass in a certain way as a certain kind of person, or, in the second book when again, like it’s about kind of this narrator may or may not, maybe he’ll just be a sperm donor, maybe he’ll be a father with someone who wants to have a child, his best friend who wants to have a child whose own mom is dying. Like there are all these questions of the intergenerational that were showing up in the novels, but I hadn’t kind of gone directly at some of the emotional sources of that concern that were harder to handle.
So I just mean that the, it’s a, I wanted to write a book that would give a different resonance and valence to some of the often kind of like comic or picaresque elements of those other novels. But that that involved thinking through a lot of my like childhood formation and malformation or, you know, whatever.
Maggie Nelson: Well here’s the thing. I mean, I know, we both teach and I’ve written, I’m sure my family here can, you know, attest to the the woes and, of that. But that, here’s the thing, when most people go, my students or myself, most people go to the juggular or the non, the juggular-adjacent mode of writing about family, they usually go to, you know, petty grievances or, you know. It kind of shows how grown up you’ve become and how, and the fact that I’m just, you know, very amazed by that you seem to have skipped over that entire problem and just gone straight to, you know, totally empathetic, credible monologues from the point of view of your parents.
Ben Lerner: Well the parents are pretty screwed up in their way in the book. I mean, they’re great parents and it’s like an homage to these fictionalized versions of my parents, but they also like, they commit this horrible parents sin of thinking that their kids will know better. They think that their kids are sensitive–well, they don’t have kids. Sorry. In my real life, I have a brother who the book is dedicated to, but who is left out, in part cause he demanded to be left out. And in part because I couldn’t figure out how to handle it formally.
But the parents in the book, Adam Gordon’s parents, believe that because he’s, although he’s a handful, he’s expressive of vulnerability, he fights in a way that always produces more language. So they have language, they can process. He doesn’t withdraw, which is what they’re really afraid of as therapists, because as long as there’s like languages and conversation, there’s processing. But they think he’ll act–…
Maggie Nelson: Were they right?
Ben Lerner: No, they weren’t right. I mean, you mean my parents or, I mean, it’s basically the same error. No, they weren’t right. That you can’t, what the book says is that, I think there’s somewhere in the book, I say something about like “he did know better, but knowing is a weak state,” you know, knowing is a weak state compared to his desire to pass as a real man in the dominant libidinal economy or whatever. So the parents are distracted and are…
Maggie Nelson: But that’s the short game, right? I mean, the long game is the Adam that’s narrating the book from now.
Ben Lerner: Yeah. And he’s learned a lot from his…. I mean, I think his parents. I mean, a lot of “The Topeka School” is about his encounter with all these like weaponized forms of eloquence through debate or through kind of freestyle. And he wants to find some poetry in that, but it also seems proleptic of the bankruptcy of political speech and the endless game of white kids appropriating spectacularized images of African American violence or whatever, so it’s totally busted. But there is also this sense that he has been given models of listening and of communicative exchange that can be counter to that. And so “The Topeka School” is both about like Adam’s schooling in these different contexts, but also about what the older Adam feels like he has to unlearn.
I mean, I think of it really as a kind of a homage to the parents, but I think an homage to the parents requires deidealization. And that they don’t come across in the book as flawless.
Maggie Nelson: Right. I mean, I wonder, I kind of wanted to go back to something that you said about family systems, but about its relationship to writing novels, where you talked about learning by laying things out, where things overlapped, like recognizing patterns, you know, and I think that, I’m just curious, in your writing process, I mean, one idea that I think Adam Phillips, who’s a British psychologist, has talked about, about psychoanalysis, and then about Freud or about Oedipus in particular, has been this idea of like thinking of analysis as a detective story. You know, in the Oedipus’s case, it’s a crime story, whereas the journey is to discover that you are the criminal. You know, so there’s a kind of sense of dread in and around self knowledge as it’s being sought.
But there also obviously needs to be kind of a sense of surprise and not knowing what even may later seem predetermined. But this is, so, this is very different when you’re thinking about constructing a novel, because you have to do two things, I would imagine. One would be, you have to be becoming very aware of all the patterns that you’re putting into play, and your writing seems very aware of that, especially by activities of refrain of different lines or different concepts or different symbols or whatnot.
But then on the other hand, clearly you probably didn’t know when you started writing this what those refrains were all going to be. I wonder what surprised you to find as you plotted it, you know? Not plotted it–as you plodded along, I guess.
Ben Lerner: Yeah. Well, I mean, this book has a weird history, because like first I wrote an essay about high school debate in Topeka in 2011 and I thought, well, that would be like an interesting roadmap for a novel, but then I thought I would write it in the first person and so I’d have to write in a first person, like teenage, like avatar of myself and I figured like I didn’t know how to do that. Like I could do it as a comic novel if I tried to represent my adolescent speech, but it couldn’t hold any of the emotional material that I wanted.
So then that stalled out and I wasn’t going to write the book. And then I found myself kind of writing, I mean, I think I sent you very early stuff, kind of like writing things in a fictionalized version of my mother’s voice. So it kind of got getting interested in writing in that voice. And she’s been so influential on me in all kinds of ways, also as kind of the first writer I knew, you know. And that kind of worked and it kind of didn’t.
But then when I, again, then I had children and there’s that weird like banzai effect when you have a child where like on the one hand you’re like the grownup suddenly, and what you realize, or what I realized anyway, is that there are no grownups, in fact, like you haven’t arrived at any kind of like mature tranquility or whatever, you just like have to pretend. That’s what it means to be a grownup is to pretend that there’s a thing called a grownup.
And then, but then at the same time you’re looking down–like I think about as a banzai, literally cause of like the relay of the gazes and then you’re like looking down at this kid who’s like looking up at you and you have this return with great vividness to your memories as a child. So you’re like both for the first time the adult who knows the secret of adulthood, which is that there are no adults, and you’re also like the child again, having the intense experiences of looking up at the adult, not–if you’re lucky–not yet knowing the secret that there are no adults, right?
So that it’s kind of like you’re occupying kind of two vantages at once. And for me, the book was about that to a certain degree, that there’s different stages. There’s like the older Adam who’s writing the book and the political disaster of our present with these two young kids, remembering the younger Adam. And often remembering it from the perspective of the parents and then that sense of correspondence, of having like two points in time, is what made the book writeable for me to a certain degree.
But then it’s, yeah, it’s about discovering patterns, like I used my dad’s real PhD dissertation, which was this weird speech shadowing phenomenon that he never really did anything with, but was kind of amazing, where he discovered that people like would start speaking drivel without knowing they were speaking drivel if they were like fed a recording of themselves at a certain speed. And I thought, “Oh, that was really like high school debate as I experienced it.”
And then I started thinking about these like intergenerational points of linguistic collapse and the novel kind of grew around the motif of these linguistic extremes. But as I was like doing that work, I was driven to write all kinds of things that I wasn’t deciding to write consciously. Like in my mom’s voice about her messed up father, or then I would remember just kind of in a passage of writing a little ritual of poetry recitation that I fictionalized, but that was from my mom and I reciting this nonsense poem, “The Purple Cow.”
I just mean like, there’s a certain, like a correspondent, like a temporal correspondence, a few motifs of these linguistic extremes, and then having to risk what bubbles up and writing around those points, right? And there’s a lot of stuff, like I look at the book now and you know, like there’s all this stuff in the book about how like vigilant the parents are about babysitters. My parents were like famously not vigilant about babysitters. We like had a run of like criminally incompetent babysitters, and I’m like, “Oh, like I guess I have corrected for the babysitter problem.” Like what are babysitters doing in this? And then I have to just like call my mom up and like, you had like these horrible babysitters, like what was going on with you guys? So I just mean to say that there is also all this, you know.
One, you, yeah, you know what you’re doing and you don’t know what you’re doing. And that’s also thematic in the book, you know, like with Jane’s kind of partial memory and somewhat recovered memory of an experience with her father and the kind of that texture of a memory coming back to consciousness that she saw as structuring her behavior. This is a long way of saying, that I don’t, I don’t know.
Maggie Nelson: Yeah, no I get it. Well, what’s cool about the not knowing though, is that I think in the book you dramatize something, which I think is very cool, which is that what I’m describing about seeing these patterns very clearly, and which in a sense is also kind of, we’re also watching in these monologues, particularly, in the mother, in Jane’s monologues, you know her interpret experience and meaning making and kind of watching you as a novelist making meaning, but you’re also watching the characters kind of say, “wow, you know, this time was twin to that time. And look at this thing. And I used that word here and that was the same word I used here,” and kind of tracking this again, you know, kind of more psychoanalytical notion of how speech elicits pattern that can also then jog, you know, repressed memory in certain ways.
But what’s so cool is that the mother is also surprised and that we see her making meaning around maybe, for those of who’ve not read the book, you know, in particular, I mean that her husband is having an affair with this woman Sima, at a certain point. And we see her doing a lot of meaning making around her relationship with Sima and why it’s falling apart, but the one thing that she never puts into the equation is, “Oh, maybe she’s sleeping with my husband.” You know, she doesn’t know, but she’s becoming, you know, but she’s using all of her analytical chops to kind of to…
I mean, it’s kind of the definition of being gaslit in the sense that like, she’s in, all of her interpretive faculties are you know, running at high throttle, but she can’t see what’s actually being kept from her as a betrayal, which is, I think, I guess to me, it just, the fact that we then become surprised in the novel by certain elements, I think it’s very interesting because it shows us that as we meaning make, as we read along, we too are not fully in control of our lives, because we’re not the only actors or tellers.
Ben Lerner: Well and also just that, I mean that even the more benevolent characters in the book use language to obscure as much as they use to clarify. I mean like in the relationship that Jonathan has with Sima, he talks about like that since they’re both therapists, and they’re both at the foundation, and they have this kind of like meta vocabulary for what’s increasing the intensity between them, like they understand it as the displaced this and the transference of that or whatever, that they think that that meta-vocabulary protects them from transgression, but in fact kind of like feeds the fire, cause they like have an intense conversation at breakfast and then they process it over lunch, and like processing can produce processing or whatever.
So like, I mean, I think, yeah, the book, I mean the book swings, I think, between these different linguistic practices that sometimes are regulatory and are often very obfuscating. And that the therapists in this book, I mean, this isn’t like a position on therapy generally, sometimes use their expertise to create the possibility of really authentic exchange and sometimes use it to blind themselves or others to what they’re actually doing.
Maggie Nelson: Yeah, I mean, that kind of brings us to what I kind of, the second basket of questions that I have, which is about what you’re doing with forms of speech in the novel. And I think what you just described is a really good description of how, you know, you’re not making an argument about what speech is or does, you’re showing us what language and speech does, and you know what it’s capable of in all these different forms.
And as you say, sometimes it’s to obfuscate, sometimes it’s to connect, sometimes it’s to form discoveries, sometimes it’s to lie, some, but I think, you know, in “10:04,” Ben’s previous novel, he has this line, which has been really of interest to me, which in that novel is more speaking, I think, at this moment to like the forms of connectivity wrought by capitalism. But where you talk about how the bad form of something, in the case of “10:04,” he’s talking about, I guess like the connectivity of capitalism and the way products come from all over the world.
And you know, likewise, you can think of the internet and kind of how did the internet get so bad, you know, but how a bad form of something might also serve as what he calls in “10:04” “a negative figure of its real possibility.” So the thing has this real possibility, and then it has, sometimes it comes in these negative figures, but it’s not like, I mean, what I respect so much about the work that you’re doing and you know through these fictions is not to say like, “Oh, how do we dust off speech and take the bad parts off of it and make it shine as real communication?”
It’s like it’s all these things, you know, at once and even within one conversation, like the way we use speech together here, and the way we do questions later, and the way we talk to people in the lobby, you know, many forms of speech, some of which are real, some of which are obfuscating, may all be operative at one time, you know, which I think is what to me, is kind of the systems theory of speech in the novel, you know?
Ben Lerner: Yeah, like I got interested, I mean, like there’s a version of this novel that could be written where like the spread in high school debate or whatever is just an image of the bankruptcy of contemporary speech. But for me, the challenge was to find the glimmer of like poetic possibility in these linguistic extremes. So like this, I don’t know if you guys have seen fast highschool debate, but it’s really amazing. You should look at some YouTube clips.
Maggie Nelson: Yeah, maybe tell people a little bit about the spread, in case they don’t know.
Ben Lerner: I haven’t been able to figure it out when and where it started exactly, but it’s basically this strategy where you try to make as many arguments as quickly as you can, with the idea that any argument that you make that the other team doesn’t have time to respond to is what they call a dropped argument, which means it’s conceded.
So the practical effect of this is that these high school kids are like speaking much more quickly than auctioneers and spit’s flying, and people sometimes pass out, and people are gasping for breath, and it sounds like the barking of seals. And it’s this reduction of what is like, you know, ostensibly an exchange of ideas about like health care policy or whatever.
Maggie Nelson: Like Jim Jordan’s speech, for example.
Ben Lerner: Kind of, I mean, it’s similar to that, but that, like, really, it becomes this athletic kind of glossolaliac weird cultic ritual. And I kind of participated in that. And then…
Maggie Nelson: Kind of.
Ben Lerner: Well, I did, but then, but then you had to like, actually to be in that world, you had to do a lot of research, which is funny because no one can understand anything you’re saying, but you still have to like have a big tub of evidence. And I didn’t want to do the work to produce the tub of evidence, even though nobody can hear it once you read it. But anyway, debaters do all these crazy exercises like you, you read with a pen in your mouth, like clenched between your teeth, to train the muscles of your mouth to be able to move more quickly, or you read backwards so that you can train yourself not to be slowed down by actually understanding what you’re saying.
And but anyway, so like the spread, you know, in the book is like, it very much is about the kind of collapse of meaningful exchange and a metaphor, not for the very slow, agrammatical, racist dog whistling of like Trump speak, right? The politicians speak very slowly, but for the way that say, Trump has learned that having one scandal would be really dangerous. And having two or 3,000 world historical scandals a day is totally incapacitating.
You know, like you’re already–or the way that, you know, drug companies or financial institutions use language, you know, there’s hundreds of pages of fine print that you know you’re not actually supposed to read and understand, you know, you’ve just already signed away all your rights or whatever.
So the spread is very much a metaphor for a kind of information economy that’s totally incapacitating, but, to make, for me the reason why it was worth writing about, was because also Adam and the other people who participate in this weird activity sometimes have these moments of transport where they don’t feel like they’re delivering the speech, they feel like the speech is delivering them, and they have this experience of just prosody and language coursing through them. And it’s a kind of weird moment of avant garde poetry where they’re making contact with the weird, mundane miracle of language as such. Like it’s the end of a language. It’s the total bankruptcy of a policy discourse or whatever, like you don’t figure anything out about policy.
But I also liked these like nerdy kids saying, we’re doing something else, like we’re re-encountering the plasticity of language. We’re going to make a new kind of language game. So all the extremes of linguistic breakdown in the book are also moments of possibility, because there they’re moments of encountering the kind of the, yeah, the miracle of human language as such. Like you can vibrate these columns of air and suddenly you know, some part of consciousness becomes sharable.
So I, or like with freestyle like I wanted, which is very embarrassing in the book, and the book’s ruthlessly critical of these suburban middle class kids appropriating these, you know, what they’ve seen in their hip hop videos. But again, like an experience of flow is an experience of the transpersonal capacity of language. And that’s an experience that always has like a poetic and political valence that isn’t just about the bankruptcy of language. It’s also about the fact that language can be remade.
Maggie Nelson: I mean, this is a, you know, weird question, but having been on the receiving end and the giving end, both, of language to each other, like in terms of sending each other pages of things that we’re working on or things. I mean, I think that you know, I’ve often gotten the feeling when you’re kind of saying like, “well, Maggie, here, just, you know, some pages I wrote the other day,” you know, but when I get them, I usually have the feeling that what you’re describing that like, you know, that you, that you plug yourself in to the flow and that almost, despite yourself, you know, literature, language, you know, that what you’re describing is flowing through you.
And I wonder though, you know, I think I may have been accused of a certain kind of hypoglossalia or something at a certain point, hypomanic writing in my life, but when I actually write, it never feels like that to me. And I wonder, does it feel like that to you?
Ben Lerner: You mean it never feels like it’s flowing through you, it always feels like…
Maggie Nelson: No. It feels like, like the artist Sarah Lucas once said, you know, “art is like being in a prison cell with a nail file and trying to get out.” I mean, that’s how it feels to me.
Ben Lerner: That’s usually how it feels to me, too.
Maggie Nelson: So it might feel like that, but it doesn’t come off like that.
Ben Lerner: Well, sometimes, I mean like with this book, which was the hardest book for me to write because, for a variety of reasons, but because it was, so much of it was having to will it and figure it out and start over. But there were like a few sections that felt–maybe only one really. Maybe the first section that’s kind of in the mother’s voice that did just kind of come through me. It was like I’d just kind of sit down and could write this for many hours and had no idea if it’s any good or not, and would have to be made a lot better in revision. I do sometimes–not nearly enough to be like a healthy, happy person–but do sometimes have the experience of like, you know, like, just like…
Maggie Nelson: Flow, man.
Ben Lerner: Yeah, of flow, like, and I do, you know, like with my first book of poems, which took me, you know, four or five years to write or whatever, I wrote the first 14 sonnets in one night and then spent the rest of the time writing the other poems, you know?
And it was very like, so I do have like little, they’re very rare, but I do have some of that experience of like, you know, as poets sometimes call taking dictation or whatever, but then it’s only a moment and then it’s the, yeah, then it’s the nail file.
Maggie Nelson: I mean, maybe. I mean, what about the Darren sections? Darren is this character that runs throughout the book, but kind of differently from the long monologues that Ben has running through. Whereas the Darren character, I’m using the name in the book, has, they’re third person, so they’re not spoken, but they, my impression was that they also have flowed through you.
But this is a character–and I also want to talk a little bit more about Darren, because I think maybe in our remaining time, I have so many more things I want to talk about than this, but it might be also interesting to talk a little bit about the speech and political speech and I think that there’s a kind of, you know, mute quality to Darren, but we’re getting his internal monologue, but his story ends, well it doesn’t end with, but it’s you know, that, you know we learned in the beginning of the book in his monologues that, you know, an act of violence has been set into motion, and then this kind of cue ball that he throws that shatters a girl’s jaw is kind of literally kind of flying in motion throughout the whole course of the book and then lands near the end.
And there’s this you know, sense of, I mean, a lot of people have written about violence as the kind of end of speech in certain ways, and it feels like that. But I’ve also read a couple of places, like some people not having liked you putting a MAGA hat on Darren, saying that like, he’s the most kind of extensively mentally ill character in the book. And thus, the implication is that, you know, there’s a certain kind of mental illness at the root of Trumpism. And that didn’t seem to me like my reading of the book at all.
But I also thought that the book does seem to me like it’s partaking in a conversation happening right now, which has to do with the fact that whether it’s, you know, Reich’s analysis of the mass psychology of fascism, or James Baldwin’s analysis of the kind of spiritual malady of racism, that there are moments, and we may be in one, when a kind of strict political theory or economic analysis is not adequate for trying to understand different forms of pathology or identification taking place. And to me, I felt like that was what the Darren trajectory was, not about objecting mental illness onto him or making him the carrier of it per se, you know.
Ben Lerner: Yeah, I mean I think. I don’t think the book is totally clear about what’s going on with Darren mentally. I mean, certainly he dropped out of school. He’s in therapy with Adam’s dad, which is something that Adam doesn’t know. So they’re in, not a fraternal relation, but there’s some kind of like symmetrical relation. I mean, Darren and Adam are as different as can be, like, Adam has all this language, and he has all this privilege, and he has all this support, and Darren doesn’t have that. And Adam is one of the kind of cooler seniors who brings Darren into the like senior party circuit, and this has disastrous effect.
So though like bringing him into the senior party circuit is both like this act of cruelty and mockery and also a little bit about like, let the kid get to be cool, you know, before we all go to college. Like it’s not always clear how much of it is cruel and how much of it is, generous would be to overstate it, but that there’s a little particle of empathy in it.
I mean, yeah, the Darren sections. I mean, Darren is like a kind of figure of surplus, which is also the place he hangs out, at the military surplus. Like he can’t hold down a job, he can’t, like inpatient care isn’t available. Who would pay if that’s what he needs? He couldn’t make it in high school. He you know, the military wouldn’t have him. Though the military would probably have him now. It used to be harder to get into the military.
But Darren haunts each main section kind of the same way as he haunts the periphery of the novel. But he doesn’t have language, and those italicized sections, which did kind of flow in the writing are on the one hand from Darren’s perspective, but also their kind of hyper literariness was for me, a way of saying, this is the older Adam’s best guess. Like the book doesn’t pretend to have unmediated access to his internality, what it has is the older Adam reflecting on the way Darren was treated and trying to figure out a kind of vantage. And the only community in Topeka that will have Darren at the end of the book are Topeka’s most famous citizens, that Fred Phelps and the Westboro Church, and he’s kind of mutely holding his sign, you know, kind of, it’s kind of dead. It’s like, you know, extreme dead, end of masculine terror.
But all of this is to say that what really unites Darren and Adam and the book, in addition to things like when Adam gets a concussion, Darren’s mom who’s a nurse is caring for Adam the same way, you know? So there are all these different kinds of care and failures of care. But what really unites them is that they’re both totally disfigured by this desire to pass as real men. And they’re both horrified that they’re going to be found out as wanting in one regard or another. So it’s, Darren’s difference is definitely there, but it also is kind of emphasizing this similarity.
And to me, the, I mean I’m aware that the reviews of the book think that like he’s the proto-Trump figure. And that’s like true to a certain degree, that there’s a certain kind of white nationalism that comes from this white surplus rage that hasn’t found another kind of community or outlet. But the real proto Trump figure for me is the troll of a debate coach, who’s a quite competent, quite privileged white guy who’s come home to work on Sam Brownback’s campaign and who is really good at mixing a kind of folksy vocabulary with a xenophobic and misogynistic agenda and who teaches Adam a kind of, again, to use that phrase, weaponized eloquence, that part of the project of this book is to renounce.
Maggie Nelson: Yeah, I mean, I think what you just said about the anxiety about being real men, I mean, the two scenes in the book that, you know, two, I mean, they’re very funny and they’re very not funny, but they’re of Adam when he, I mean, kind of like you’re saying about having kids and trying to do things differently or not be doomed to repeat mistakes. Adam in his, in the two scenes I’m thinking of, one is when he confronts, so the Westboro Phelps people, you know, so the “God hates fags” people, they’re protesting and trolling Adam’s mother Jane, because she’s a feminist psychologist who’s written famous books about you know, that have made her, what’s the word? A Jezebel or harlot or whatever these different…
Ben Lerner: They call her in the book, as they called my mom in real life, a Jezebelian switch-hitting whore.
Maggie Nelson: Yes, exactly. That was the phrase I was looking for. So they’re out there protesting her as such, but Adam and, you know, wanting to defend his mother, you know, instead makes a scene. What does he call them or he says…?
Ben Lerner: He calls someone a bitch, he gets very violent.
Maggie Nelson: He calls someone a bitch and they start saying, I mean, their whole gig is to like provoke people. They were just at my son’s school in Los Angeles recently doing the same thing. So their whole gig is to provoke you into response. They’re trying, then once Adam is provoked, they’re like, “oh, is this who you raised, Ms. Feminist mom, you know, this is your great son calling us, calling this person a bitch?”
And then so there’s that scene and then that’s kind of echoed near the end of the book, when Adam, as the father of two young girls, and the girls are being kind of bullied on the playground by, you know, kind of a dick of a kid who Adam approaches the kind of the bad dad figure on the playground saying, “Hey, maybe you can let your, you know, make your kids act a little differently.” And that dad’s like, you know.
Ben Lerner: Boys will be boys.
Maggie Nelson: Boys will be boys, you know, screw you and Adam eventually, you know, after trying, you know, all of this kind of reasonable speech ends up, I guess, hitting the phone out of the bad dad’s hand, but is the person in both instances, who, in acts of trying to make a better form of masculinity and protecting his daughters or in defending his mother, becomes the bad actor in certain ways. And so, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know what question I have now that I’ve offered you this analysis of those scenes, but you said exactly, so.
Ben Lerner: No, it’s a really accurate analysis, and I think it’s important because there’s apparently a way to read this book, although it’s not available to me as the person who wrote it, which is about like Adam’s triumphant development or something. But in fact, it’s very, I mean, at the end of the book, he’s very much still in this mode of, I mean, he’s, he’s critical of it. He’s interested in alternatives. It’s not the only voice in his head, but he’s still very much beholden to a logic where he becomes what he’s, you know, ostensibly criticizing.
Maggie Nelson: But here’s the thing, and this is my vote of confidence in you as a human being and in the character of Adam, which is the, you know, he can’t, you know, you’re not going for perfect. I mean, he’s contaminated and these things are echoed just like the parents have flaws, but there’s a kind of you know, the like, as you just said, it’s like there are enough seeds in the pot that are also sprouting alongside these other ones that, I mean, I do think that there’s a, hopefulness is the wrong word, but you know, a feeling that, a more realistic kind of hopefulness, which is not to say that these elements can be extinguished within us, but that enough other things can also be there that they may not have as toxic as effects as they have when they’re, when they grow rank, you know?
Ben Lerner: Yeah.
Maggie Nelson: But what you said just a minute ago, what did you say, something about like writing the novel and, well, I can’t remember if you said he failed or succeeded in his speech, and Adam, but at the very end, so the very last bit of the book is a scene at a rally against ICE in Brooklyn, where Adam takes his two young daughters with his wife and there’s a confrontation with a policeman outside while the two daughters are drawing in chalk on the street.
And Adam says to, you know, to the policeman, the policeman’s saying, you know, get these kids stopping drawing. You know, just get, and he’s saying, you know, kind of challenging, again, another scene that seems like it’s going to go the same as the others, kind of challenging the cop’s authority and saying, but then Adam says, and I don’t think Adam, I think this might be a moment of the novel where we’re not supposed to believe that he actually spoke these words to the policeman because he says, the cop says, “this is the last time I’m going to ask you.” And Adam says, “you see what shoes my daughter’s wearing? Do you have kids? Because I have no authority, is what I’m trying to say. I just have no authority over these kids. Do you have authority? Where does your authority come from again?”
I mean, I’m guessing, I mean, maybe you did say those words, but it seems like a moment where it kind of lapses into the speech of what one would say, but also Adam saying, “I have no authority.” I mean, it’s an interesting move and a novel, which is obviously, it’s not authoritative, it’s just virtuosic, and there becomes a kind of space between the virtuosic and the authoritative. I don’t know if that is a meaningful distinction for you.
Ben Lerner: Yeah, but I think that the, yeah, I mean, again I think it’s like more and more when I think about the book and the different kinds of schools in the book, the book wants to be an instance of unlearning certain bankrupt forms of authority. Like to arrive, like in the same way, talking about like the spread, like the good thing about the spread and debate for all its craziness, is it is the eradication of a certain authority, like a false authority that’s in the bankrupt class of political pundits or whatever that the kids are making into this game where you recover the plasticity of language.
Like it’s a book about schooling, but the goal of the book is to model a kind of unlearning. So to arrive at the point of recognizing the lack of authority and kind of editing out the false narratives of authority that have gone into his voice in so many ways, that that is, that there’s a kind of authority that derives from that renunciation, which is just like an openness to the social possibilities of language that doesn’t have to be the mere repetition of the masculine posturing that shows up in a lot of other scenes.
Maggie Nelson: But here’s everything about language in the book, and I know that we’re spending a lot of time talking about, as the book does, about forms of speech. But, you know, as you were describing about speech being used to occasionally obfuscate kind of big, huge moving forces moving below, you know, there is, and maybe this is related to political speech, maybe it’s because my mind is completely pickled by watching impeachment hearings for days, but like in all the speech, but, you know, but beneath the speech are these huge forces of, you know hot wars and betrayals and you know, and capital moving, and, you know.
And I was thinking about Claudia Rankine’s quote on the back of your book, and I just wanted to ask you what you thought when she says “The Topeka School deftly explores how language not only reflects, but is at the very center of our country’s most insidious crises,” which I think is a true statement about what the book does, but I also wanted to ask you, you know, so language is at the center, but there’s something about this idea that we can broker it out by finding the right language that it seems to me also bankrupt as an idea.
Ben Lerner: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I guess like here’s my best attempt at optimistic statement about contemporary life. Like to me like the truth. You know, like, so this thing we have now where like Trump is considered authentic by his supporters because he doesn’t lie very effectively. Like he’s the most honestly dishonest politician. And that’s a real thing.
You know, there’s a degree to which like, the kind of vote for Trump I can most, I wouldn’t say respect, but kind of most understand is this vote that’s described as something like this. It’s like, well, you’ve got people, like you’ve got like the Clinton dynasty or the Bush dynasty, who are skilled to varying degrees, politicians, in putting like a relatively humane face or some kind of ideological coherence on policies that we know don’t bear any relation to their valid values. And here’s this guy who’s just, doesn’t even observe, like observe a logical principle of non-contradiction.
You know, you’ll say like, or like, “are you prepared to renounce David Duke,” you know, during the campaign. And it’ll be like, “I don’t know who David Duke is. And yes, I renounce him and no, I won’t renounce him. And I couldn’t hear the question cause the earphone,” you know, like there’s like many different contradictions.
And the truth that Trump speaks when he opens his mouth is the truth of how fundamentally bankrupt our mainstream political discourse is, right? And that that’s a real truth in the sense that we have to hede it. Like we have to develop a new political vocabulary. You can’t just kind of go back to an nostalgia for like a good regressive father as opposed to like, you know, the Trump father or whatever.
So I think that the, I mean, I think that like what you see in an impeachment hearing in part is what happens when you just have two totally incompatible language games being played. It’s not discourse, right? It’s just signaling, there’s no possibility of exchange, etc.
I think that the good thing that I wish, the good thing about the present of speech, I guess is, is that there’s no going back from the political. There’s no going back after Trump, I mean the language, the kind of like neo-liberalism with a human face, the cultural conservatism of a certain brand of the Republican party, like whatever. Like that’s, it’s gone there and died in his mouth. And the good thing about that is that that’s a moment of linguistic collapse that reminds us of our human capacity to generate a new language.
And the book, this book has no program, no ideas, for like where we go from here, but it does want to model an approach to language where you say when the language arrives at an end point, you make contact with the abstract capacity of language again, and then we have to actually listen and honor authentic speech when it arises, that are alternatives to the kind of nonsense signaling that dominates like an impeachment hearing.
Maggie Nelson: Okay. I have questions about that, but I’m not going to ask them. I’m going to ask you later. I’m just going to ask one more question and then I guess we’ll open it up to the audience, which was just a, you know just more writerly question, which is…
So this is a really different kind of novel than your first two novels, and I know that you know, maybe you’ll hate me for saying this, but like because of its experiments and voice and because it has a different kind of structure than those two, you know, it employs more, it employs more novelly, more fictive, elements then the kind of Bernhard monologues that the first two were.
And I just wonder, knowing as I do, being your friend and being a writer, talking about genre and form with you, knowing your ambivalences about fiction in general and about the novel as a form, I just wonder, in writing this kind of novel, and were there things about, you know, where do your ambivalences stands now, and what did you, was there anything about fiction or about novelly elements that were entrancing or surprising or compelling to you to in moving forward, or like, yeah, just what do you feel about it now?
Ben Lerner: Right. It is intergenerational. It has multiple centers. It is involved in a different set of novelistic conventions. I mean, I think, you know, like there’s a kind of novel, and this can be done really well, like I’m not knocking this kind of novel, but there’s a kind of novel where the goal is to be able to inhabit other minds and voices really seamlessly, right? Where you’re supposed to forget that you’re kind of reading the work of one author and have all these very different vantages. And sometimes that can be great.
That, even with multiple voices and centers, that’s not what I was interested in. I was more interested in the drama of the adult son undertaking the effort to imagine the voices of the parents, and there being tears in those voices, glitches.
Maggie Nelson: Tears, you said?
Ben Lerner: Yeah, like glitches in the matrix of the voice that shows you this isn’t just the mother, you’re not supposed to like willingly suspend disbelief and believe like now you have the mother, now you have the father. Really what you’re seeing is the emotionally charged drama of the son trying and sometimes failing to access those voices. Like it’s not the virtuosic inhabitation of another voice, which…
Maggie Nelson: Pretty close.
Ben Lerner: Well, but
Maggie Nelson: It does have tears, I’ll grant you that.
Ben Lerner: In one moment it kind of makes it a bid for that, but at other moments it’s very…Also with like the repetition of phrases, like it’s, I wanted the emotional drama in part to be the unevenly successful effort to imagine that other voice, as opposed to the accomplished fact of the other voice being like a closed sphere. Cause so much of the drama for the book for me is the older Adam trying to figure out the history of his voice and what he wants to honor in it and what he wants to edit out as he becomes someone who’s going to invariably transmit a voice, you know one voice among many to the next generation.
So I just mean to say that the conventions of multiple voices, that was more novelistic, but it was also to a certain degree the strategic moments of disappointing the ambition of those conventions that were charged with more emotional drama for me.
But I also, you know, I don’t know what I’m doing, and I do think I wanted to write this, I wanted to end this trilogy of novels. And I knew that–I always thought of it as, I mean, I didn’t know, I thought of it as one novel and I thought it was a diptych, and then I thought, okay, well, I guess there’s one more.
But the, I wanted it to be the end, I wanted it to be in the grammar of the other books, which are very first-person books, as you know, or whatever. But I wanted within that framework to like have it be of, like to be one entry in that syntactic unit, but to produce the most formal difference I could within it, in part just because otherwise, I felt like I’d be repeating myself formally.
So I just think convention, like, you know, like novelistic conventions are great because they’re things that they create patterns of expectation you can strategically disappoint. They’re not great just because you fulfill them in the most expected way. But you’re right, it is more novelly in that regard, but it’s also very much about kind of bending those conventions in certain strategic ways that show you that it’s still this neurotic Adam Gordon character trying to figure this stuff out. So that like one first person is a composite of all the different first persons.
Maggie Nelson: Okay so this is my real last question, which is, it’s kind of coming off that, which is that when I get done with the writing project of certain experiments for different conventions or a form, I’m usually so tired and irritated and disgusted sometimes with, just out of exhaustion, with the immersion in it, that I feel kind of catapulted towards a very different kind of project next. Did you feel like that after finishing this book, and if so, what direction did you feel catapulted in?
Ben Lerner: I feel catapulted but without any direction.
Maggie Nelson: Great okay.
Ben Lerner: I mean yeah, I definitely feel done with whatever these three books were, and like I have absolutely no idea what, if anything, I will ever write again.
Maggie Nelson: Great. Ben and I talk a lot about writing into the nothingness at the end of writing in the future. So we’ll just keep talking about that together.
All right, you guys. Let’s have you guys ask some questions of Ben and we’ll bring up the lights a little bit and see who’s in the house.
Ben Lerner: Actually, we still can’t see you at all.
Maggie Nelson: No, we’ve just been alone with our lights.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s coming from the front and center of the orchestra.
Audience Member 1: Thank you, first, both Maggie and Ben. I have to say, I come to a lot of these lectures and I’m sorry I haven’t read this book, but you did a great job making this really interesting. I really, really enjoyed the interaction. So, first, this is a two part question, because if the answer to the first question is no, then my second part is meaningless.
So is the character Adam an only child in your book.
Ben Lerner: Yes.
Audience Member 1: So I found it really interesting at the sort of start of this, that you, you mentioned that your brother was like, I don’t want to be involved in this. And then you started talking about like empathy that you were sort of struggling with to sort of put yourself into the head of this like teenager and to sort of experience those emotions.
So I actually sort of wonder if like, did you struggle with the idea that you’re writing from the perspective of an only child when you had a brother when you were growing up and like, was there some sort of struggle that you had there?
Ben Lerner: Yeah, it was interesting. I mean, so I, what I did, my solution that may or may not have been a solution, was to take my brother out of the book, but then to dedicate it to him. Because it is a book thinking through, I mean, it’s, again, it’s heavily fictionalized, but it does involve a lot of like shared experience and context. It’s, yeah, you know, it is, I couldn’t, like every, like formally when I tried to write it with the brother, even before getting into the issue of like what my brother would allow me to write or object to, like, it kind of doubled every scene, like every scene or the conversation with the mom, I then thought, well, now I have to write the scene, which is about like the mom telling the brother or the son processing it with the brother. And I like, I couldn’t figure out how to do it.
A lot of people have talked to me about it as like an intense book about being an only child, which I listen and I’m interested in, but I have no experience of.
It is I think a book about, I mean, I do think the parents’ concerns about Adam, and the way that Adam is in certain ways very available to them and in certain ways a black box does have to do with him kind of like, there being certain kinds of like privacy in the household. Like there isn’t like the, there isn’t another person in Adam’s generation that’s generating talk that the parents are observing. So I do think it’s a different household environment, and then it becomes about Adam’s relationship with his close friend that gets crossed in various family dynamics.
But to me, the form of acknowledgement of the problem was to dedicate it to Matt, my brother, which was also a way of acknowledging the fictionality of what nevertheless would use a lot of biographical material. But I had that like, I usually don’t know how I’m going to dedicate a book until I’ve written a book, if I’m going to dedicate it. But the condition of writing this book was to dedicate it to Matt, but to keep him out of the fiction, like it was essential to making it writeable.
Maggie Nelson: And here’s when we recall the great Kafka line, the book is the truth, and the dedication is the lie. All right.
City Arts & Lectures: This next question is from your left.
Audience Member 2: Hey. So I guess one thing that I thought was really interesting about this book, and also I kind of realized as you’ve been talking about it, is you know, the fact that it’s a book written by a fictionalized version of you who’s often writing through the voice of his mother trying to remember himself as a young boy. And it’s like all these different layers of consciousness kind of pushing through each other.
And then also it’s a book from all of these different time periods, and it’s about prehistory and subconsciousness and prehistory as subconsciousness, and it itself is a prehistory of these other books. So basically I just thought it was a book which so many of its formal properties are like very layered.
And that seems kind of contrasted with, you know, so much of the subject matter being about like the end of history, which kind of seems like something with no layers, you know with no subconscious. And I was just kind of curious if that was like a conscious choice you made or just something that kind of came up?
Ben Lerner: Well the end of history, yeah, cause I got really interested in the ’90s, cause if you remember in the ’90s, at least amongst the pundit class, yeah, there was this, it was the end of history. There’s this big famous book, “The End of History,” you know, it was the collapse of the Berlin wall and the end of the Soviet Union meant that, and Bill Clinton trounced Bob Dole, and it meant that from now on, it was just like baby boomers with post-idealogical technocratic solutions to the world’s problems. Didn’t work out that way.
But you’re, yeah, I mean, the end of history is a discourse of repression, right? I mean, it’s a discourse of, that levels and pretends. I mean, no therapist, I mean, I’m not a therapist, right? But can you imagine a therapist being like, “well, this is the end of a family history? You’ve arrived at the end of family history. From here on out, it’s just going to be smooth sailing,” right? That’s not how it works. That is a model of repression.
So I think that I did get interested in thinking through all the different layers of prehistory set against a political backdrop in which there was this amnesiac national discourse amongst the pundit class that claimed that history could have arrived at an end. Like, which is a very, you know, which is a kind of disavowal of the unconscious, or that there’s anything repressed that can return.
I mean, the only other thing about the layers that I’ll say is, I just think, I mean, it sounds like kind of complicated or meta-fictional or whatever, but it’s also just like about, I mean, to me it’s just a realistic model of like, the way memory is formed. Like you know I had a concussion, I had a really bad concussion as, I had two concussions as a kid. And I remember them clearly, but really what I remember is a reconstruction based upon all these different accounts. And I remember a lot of it in the third person, and you know, because I, because it was storytelling that shaped formative memory.
And so part of the layering that the book wants to get at is just the degree to which the fiction of the self that we operate as is this collaboration of all these different modes of storytelling and experience. Like it is that, that layering is the process of the production of an identity that’s always subject to change or whatever. And that that’s always countered to, you know, radical simplification. Like the white fantasy of the end of history in the 90s.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is coming from the center, slightly towards your right.
Audience Member 3: Hello. I haven’t read any of your work, so I’m sorry if this is completely out of context. I’m curious about this idea that you have of kind of melding your personal history and narrative with the kind of like fictionalized self.
I think if you could talk about that in terms of how you think it fits into our age, which is one where I think everybody now has the platform on Twitter and Facebook and et cetera, et cetera, to kind of do the same or something similar, to take like all of the experiences that they have and try and tell this very, very interesting story to some number of people and hope that, you know, maybe a lot of people care, but, you seem to have had done that and it does seem something that is very core to like our age. And I wonder like how you think about that, and how you think, like, whether that is something that is ascendant, whether more and more of novels will be, at least admittedly in this way.
Ben Lerner: Yeah. I mean. I mean, I don’t think, I do think that we, since we live in a moment in which a lot of life is lived or whatever the word is, pursued with like, you know, digital avatars or whatever, that some of the concern that’s often described as like autofiction amongst writers, like writers using autobiographical material probably is like an opportunity to be slower and more critical about the self curation and social performance that’s part of our identities. Like, I mean, I think that there is something that’s probably timely about it. I also think it’s like as old as the novel, the kind of mixing of fact and fiction and the dramatization of the blurry boundary between art and life.
I mean and I don’t have a kind of abstract commitment to like writing books that involve clearly autobiographical material. I think the themes that I was interested in in the novels kind of lent themselves to working with that material. But I also think kind of all, I mean, maybe this is obvious, I don’t know, but I feel like all writing involves the biography of the person who’s doing the writing, the question is, when is the work of art intensified or made more interesting by foregrounding or acknowledging the relation between the artwork and some of the forces that were compelling the artist who was making it.
But I guess the other thing I’d say is that there’s this thing that happens a lot now of like grouping all the writers who use some kind of autobiographical material in their fiction, and it’s a very different group of writers. I mean, like, there’s somebody like Knausgaard, who I’m very interested in, who’s like thing is to kind of reject literariness and I’m going to write down every experience I’ve ever had and I’m going to embrace formlessness and I’m going to tell every detail about my marriage and like all that kind of stuff, and it can be a kind of riveting and disturbing project. But that like I have nothing in. Like I’m a big believer in literariness and structuring an artwork as carefully as possible, and always bending the quote unquote facts to the truth that the literary form might achieve.
So. This is not a very good answer, it’s just to say that like, I think this is like there, there are reasons why this is coming to focus now because there are so many avatars in the social world. It’s also like one of the oldest concerns of literary production. And then there’s just a great diversity of interests and forms and artworks and experiments within this thing that like a lot of people call autofiction or fiction that blurs biography. So I think it has to be kind of like work by work.
City Arts & Lectures: This next question comes from the center on your left.
Audience Member 4: I have a question about the spread. And when you first say the spread, I think of man spreading, right? And when you’re talking about the spread and it is all these ideas thrown out at once, and it’s all these expert ideas thrown out at once, so the other person or the other side can’t get a word in edgewise. And it’s this illusion of expertise. And so it’s simultaneously both super canonical and patriarchal, but it’s also kind of extremely radical and nihilistic. So it’s two extremes of basically, of the same language. And so I’m wondering how we get out of that.
And I was thinking about that in relation to this review that was written about your book a couple months ago in the New York Times Magazine. And at first I was very excited, but then I became very frustrated because I think the tagline was, “he’s written the pivotal novel of the Me Too generation.” And it just seemed so strange cause it was like, well, here’s a male author writing, the seminal, you know, novel for the Me Too movement.
And I don’t mean that as disrespect to you, I just mean, how do we get out of this kind of idea of a vertical thinking or just extremes that still rotate around the same kind of hierarchal patriarchal thinking or masculinist thinking? Like if it’s all about some sort of polyglossia, shouldn’t that be as many different voices as possible? And why are we still positioning someone as being the best at that? Because if it’s truly a polyglossia, shouldn’t it be all these voices? And are–I don’t know that I have a question. I’m just wondering how we get out of that.
Ben Lerner: Yeah, yeah. No, I mean, I think like, I mean, I don’t know the line in the article in question or whatever, but yeah, that’s a bad line. I think that the, I mean, generally I think the kind of like ranking of the novels or whatever, like it doesn’t make a lot of, like as a model, that doesn’t make a lot of sense for artworks and that…
I mean, I guess it makes me think of the very persistent great American novel discourse, which is traditionally is very much a racist and masculinist discourse. It’s about a white guy who can write the novel who can speak for everyone. You know, it’s a Whitmanic fantasy where everyone is included, but the reason why everyone is included is because there’s one white guy who has transcendent access to all the truths and can identify everyone as in their appropriate place or whatever.
Yeah, that’s a bankrupt model, absolutely. I don’t know how it gets, I mean, I mean, I guess, like one thing I would just say about it in relation to the other question about like using experience, I think like part of why I’ve been drawn to writing novels that use biographical elements is precisely, or like when I was talking about like the attempt to not pretend to have perfect access to other voices, but dramatize the effort and the limits of access to other voices, is like a way of saying, “this is like, there’s no omniscience here. There’s no transcendence here,” right? I mean, I’m trying to like use this very particular material that I don’t pretend would be of interest to everyone to make a kind of artwork I need to make.
But yeah, it’s certainly, I think they kind of, those universalizing claims on behalf of artworks or the claim for a narrator to have a kind of omniscience or universal access are definitely suspect and problematic claims that we shouldn’t repeat.
Maggie Nelson: I think we maybe we have time for one or two more questions.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is from the front all the way to your right.
Audience Member 5: Hey, Ben over here.
Ben Lerner: Is that my cousin?
Audience Member 5: I don’t think so.
Ben Lerner: Oh. I thought my cousin Jen was here. And you sounded kind of like my cousin Jen. Oh, my cousin’s over there. Okay. Yeah.
Maggie Nelson: Hi Jen.
Audience Member 5: So I hope this question doesn’t sound facile, I’ve actually thought about it for a long time. Why isn’t the name of the narrator of “10:04” Adam?
Ben Lerner: Yeah, so I had a lot of trouble. It’s not a facile question. So first I was going to have the narrator of the first novel not be Adam Gordon, but be Ben. And then my mom talked me out of it. But I don’t remember, like I, it was like, but I think it was a problem. I think it was like a failure of nerve, but then I was stuck with this Adam Gordon name in the first novel, like it was like, I just like, I was kind of convinced that there needed to be like an added level of acknowledgement of its fictionality or something.
But then in the second novel, I mean the name Ben only appears in a very strange context in the novel, which is in this letter. This fictionalized letter that’s actually kind of cut, like it’s kind of haunting the outside of the novel. So most people say like the narrator of “10:04” is named Ben, but I don’t kind of always think of it that way. I sometimes think of that narrator as unnamed.
But the movement between the first book and the second is kind of funny, cause it’s like the author of the first book becomes the narrator of the second book. When I was in the third book, I just thought like it’s enough of Adam, like it’s continuous enough, enough of it is about the kind of relationship between fact and fiction. And that I would return to kind of that name to make clear that it wanted to be the prehistory of the first book to a certain degree. But names, I mean, I’m reading this absolutely incredible, book, or the three Elias Canetti memoirs. The great author of “Crowds and Power,” and so much of it is about names and he feels like he’s ruined his novel cause he gave the narrator the wrong name, and he can’t read certain novels cause he doesn’t like the name.
And I actually, like I’ve had profound trouble with proper names and novels. Like I write it with like a name that might be something like Darren, you know, like when you were asking is Darren his name, like before his name was Dale. There was kind of a real Dale, but Dale was like the perfect name, cause it was both like a very Topeka name, but it was also kind of like John Clare and the unenclosed valley, and it had this like pastoral echo. So I wrote the whole book with Dale. It was the only word in the book that I was really sure about, was Dale.
And then I had to change it. I mean, I didn’t have to change it, but there kind of was a Dale, even though it was like very different. But I was worried that, you know, Topeka’s a small place, like I was just like worried it would upset someone. So then I spent all this time trying to figure out something kind of like, that would work in the sentences. It needed a D, it needed like a stressed initial syllable. Then it becomes like a prosody problem.
But as soon as you change a name in fiction, every name sounds fake. Like, I have someone named, like, you know, Liza, and a fiction, but I have a cousin named Liza, and then I change it to like Alex, and I’m like, “no one’s named Alex, that sounds ridiculous.”
You know, like, so I don’t know. I have an ongoing crisis with proper names, and it shows up, I think, in the kind of slipperiness of the narrator’s name or the resistance to the name. You know, I think the word, I think it only, the narrator’s name, I think only appears once in “10:04” and kind of disappears. So it’s not a facile question, I just don’t really have the answer to it. But it is yeah. It is something that changes in the work.
Maggie Nelson: One more question.
City Arts & Lectures: This question comes from the center in the back.
Audience Member 6: Hi Maggie. Hi Ben. This is a question that pertains to craft, I think, and it’s in regard to you saying that this third book is the prehistory, or wants to be the prehistory and the prequel. And for somebody who’s not read any of your previous two novels, would you recommend reading them in any order to glean more of that subconscious writing into psychoanalysis, psychology, meaning of language, or meaning-making with language? Is there an order that you’d recommend?
Ben Lerner: Yeah, it’s a really interesting question cause I don’t, cause I had to experience them in order. So it’s very hard for me to imagine what it would be like to experience them in a different order. But I’d like to think that it’s modular. Like, I’d like to think that. I mean, I think it’d be different. You know, it’s like that great Cortázar book “Hopscotch,” like, I mean, I think each order would make the trilogy a different work of art, but I would hope that, that it would be, I hope that they stand as discrete works. You know, it’s not, my expectation is not that everyone would read each book diligently or whatever. I mean, they’re written as discrete works.
I guess I feel like my opinion, like if someone really wanted to know, I would read them either in order or reverse order. I think that there’s something about, I think “10:04” is the less interesting book if it’s not coming after or before one of the others or something, but I don’t know, I don’t know. Someone will have to tell me.
Maggie Nelson: But here’s the good news, which is the, I think probably all of Ben’s books are for sale and we’re going to vacate…
Ben Lerner: That’s an expert transition.
Maggie Nelson: …the stage. That’s my specialty. We’re going to vacate the stage after we thank you guys so much. And then if you want to have books signed in the lobby, that will happen next.
So thank you Ben, and thank you guys all for coming today.