What is a museum guard to do, I thought to myself; what, really, is a museum guard? On the one hand you are a member of a security force charged with protecting priceless materials from the crazed or kids or the slow erosive force of camera flashes; on the other hand you are a dweller among supposed triumphs of the spirit and if your position has any prestige it derives precisely from the belief that such triumphs could legitimately move a man to tears.
If people were in fact moved, convincing themselves they discovered whatever they projected into the hackneyed poem, or better yet, if people felt the pressure to perform absorption in the face of what they knew was an embarrassing placeholder for an art no longer practicable for whatever reasons, a dead medium whose former power could be felt only as a loss—these scenarios did for me involve a pathos the actual poems did not, a pathos in fact increased in proportion to their failure, as the more abysmal the experience of the actual the greater the implied heights of the virtual.
These images of art address only the sick, the patients. It would be absurd to imagine a doctor lingering over one of these images between appointments, being interested in it or somehow attached to it, having his day inflected by it or whatever. Apart from their depressing flatness, their interchangeability, what I’m saying is: we can’t look at them together. They help establish, deepen, the gulf between us, because they address only the sick, face only the diagnosed.
What kinds of characters would say such things, and why? Ben Lerner is the author of three novels, three books of poetry, and numerous critical essays, including the book-length monograph The Hatred of Poetry. The more books of prose he writes, the more clearly a kind of common persona, singular yet plural, emerges across his work: his narrators, whether fictional or not, share some facts of their background with one another, while also writing Lerner’s poems and thinking lines from Lerner’s essays. Together, they—or the plural he, a poet and reluctant novelist, born in Kansas and housed in Brooklyn—sprawl easily across the fiction-nonfiction divide.
One of this composite narrator’s most notable and appealing qualities is his tendency to launch into hyper-articulate, often indignant, flights of literary-critical or theoretical fluency, like the ones in the passages above. To the question of when or why a character would have such bouts of fluency, Lerner’s usual answer is: under duress. The first passage is from Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011). The narrator, Adam Gordon, is a young American in Madrid on a poetry fellowship. But Adam doubts that he really qualifies as a poet or is even capable of feeling very much for art, a doubt brought sharply into focus when he walks into room 58 of the Prado and finds standing before his favorite painting a man who bursts into loud sobs. Is this man really moved by the painting? Is he having the “profound experience of art” that has eluded Adam?
The question gnaws at him as he follows the man and watches the pattern repeat itself: “The man walked calmly into 56, stood before The Garden of Earthly Delights, considered it calmly, then totally lost his shit.” The guards seem as doubtful as Adam about the authenticity or meaning of the man’s sobs. Together, they all “trailed the man from gallery to gallery,” and the plight of the guards—should they talk to the man to see if he’s mentally stable, thereby admitting that even they don’t believe people can really be moved by the art, or should they let him go on and risk enabling some possible act of vandalism?—becomes more absorbing to Adam than anything on the walls themselves, furthering his suspicions of his own incapacity for feeling.
The second quote, from the same novel, forms a kind of diptych with the first: Adam is at a poetry reading. His Spanish is fuzzy, so he’s surprised, and then affronted, by how much of the poem he can understand: it was “an Esperanto of clichés: waves, heart, pain, moon, breasts, beach, emptiness, etc.” Only when he looks around and considers the inexplicably rapt audience does the scene become interesting for him. But Adam isn’t there just as a spectator; he’s slated to read his own poems next and has been terribly nervous. His jag of critical analysis is not only a set of ideas, it’s also an expression of his anxiety and at the same time his own unusual method for allaying it. Having worked out for himself that the poet sucks but is a moving “placeholder” for the ideal possibilities of poetry, he can relax.
Some of the ideas and even these very sentences also appear in Lerner’s essays, where we naturally focus on their face-value critical content. But in novels, they have a special comic shimmer—they’re interesting thoughts, yes, but also signs that our man is wracked by fear or internal conflict.
The final quote is from Lerner’s second novel, 10:04 (2014). The speaker of these lines about medical office art in fact never speaks them. Like all the discursive riffs above, this one sounds only in his head, as he waits for test results about a life-threatening medical condition; it’s part of an internal monologue, a conversation with himself that we are meant to overhear, while in the real world he struggles to make himself understood without breaking down. What this narrator actually says when the doctor enters the room is, “Am I going to be okay?”
In 10:04 a writer, Ben, has recently received a large advance to turn a short story published in The New Yorker into a novel. Lerner draws our attention not only to how fiction gets written, but why. One of Ben’s reasons for writing fiction rather than poetry—“something I’d promised my poet friends I was going to do”—is no less than a desire to change the world for the better: to be able to create complex figures for utopian possibility within a realistic world that we recognize as essentially our own. In the course of the book, Ben describes situations, whether ordinary or extraordinary, positive or negative, that suddenly shift his sense of the world, like an eerie change of light. On the evening before a tropical storm is supposed to hit New York City, Ben grabs a normally unremarkable, now precious jar of instant coffee from a supermarket shelf and is suddenly aware of the complex, fragile conditions of its production, “as if the social relations that produced the object in my hand began to glow within it”:
I held the red plastic container, one of the last three on the shelf, held it like the marvel that it was: the seeds inside the purple fruits of coffee plants had been harvested on Andean slopes and roasted and ground and soaked and then dehydrated at a factory in Medellín and vacuum-sealed and flown to JFK and then driven upstate in bulk to Pearl River for repackaging and then transported back by truck to the store where I now stood reading the label.
It might once have seemed well within the scope of an ambitious novel to take us to all of these places, introduce us to the coffee growers and harvesters and processors and wholesalers and lay bare the institutional and corporate networks that connect and bind these characters. Lerner, however, is writing in a time of doubt about the realist writer’s authority to take us very far beyond the bounds of his own experience. 10:04 is a scaled-down reinvention of the social novel.
Lerner may not credibly be able to take us to the Andes, or even to Pearl River, but if he credibly invents a knowledgeable, articulate, idealistic, ruminative narrator who can acknowledge the limits of his own perspective, we can join him in thinking about coffee production, as well as overpopulation, Occupy Wall Street, climate change, and a lot else. Ben’s most important quality for this role is his intellectual excitability. No object that you’ve held in your hand may ever have seemed to glow with revelations about the social relations that produced it, but it’s easy to believe such a thing might happen to Ben.
The Topeka School, Lerner’s third novel, takes us back into Adam Gordon’s childhood and adolescence in Kansas, and offers what Lerner calls a “genealogy of his speech.” It turns out that Adam’s fluency has a history, was honed in the public school debate tournaments of Midwestern states and at parties where, after a certain hour, the mostly white suburban kids would gather to have freestyle rap tournaments. Adam is the son of two psychologists, liberal transplants from New York City, and his family stands somewhat apart politically from the conservative-leaning community. He describes a Topeka of well-armed households and militant masculinity in which any two teenage boys meeting for the first time would “as a matter of course” imagine “exploding each other’s noses, breaking jaws or limbs in holds, choking each other out, running simulations that were mash-ups of Street Fighter II: Championship Edition and lived experience.” His classmates are mostly affluent (big houses, boats, neighborhoods with man-made lakes) and college-bound, and Lerner emphasizes the startling levels of casual, vicious violence among the more coddled of American youth.
In this environment, Adam’s love of words is channeled into combative forms. He loves to read and write poems, but predictably, “poetry made you a pussy.” The debate team is marginally more acceptable: at least there are winners and losers, and you can style yourself as a kind of verbal “bully, quick and vicious and ready to spread an interlocutor with insults at the smallest provocation.” Meanwhile, his skill at freestyling goes a long way toward redeeming Adam’s social status. Though embarrassing in retrospect (“a small group of privileged crackers often arrhythmically recycling the genre’s dominant and to them totally inapplicable clichés”), freestyling “transmuted his prowess as a public speaker and aspiring poet into something cool.”
Fighting and guns were, at the time, part of the air Adam breathed—just how much they would signify politically did not occur to teenaged Adam, though it’s very much on the older narrator’s mind. There are actually two Adams in The Topeka School: the middle-aged present-day narrator writes about his teenage self growing up in Kansas. Adam is now the father of two young daughters, married and living in Brooklyn and writing at least part of this novel, he tells us, from the room where his daughters sleep. His mood is darker and tone more urgent than in Leaving the Atocha Station. He’s reaching into his deep past not only for the sources of his fluency, but also for the sources of a political crisis—Trump’s presidency—that has blindsided him. When Adam was a high school senior, in 1996, presidential candidate Bob Dole made a surprise appearance at one of Adam’s debate team’s award ceremonies, posing with them for a photo. The senator, adult Adam tells us in rueful deadpan, “was less than a month away from being crushed by Bill Clinton, a landslide victory for the Democrat that would confirm that cultural conservatism was giving, had all but given, way to the reign of more liberal baby boomers.”
Adam doesn’t narrate this story by himself. Alternating chapters are told by his parents, Jonathan and Jane Gordon, who moved to Topeka in the 1970s for a fellowship at the Foundation, a prestigious psychiatric institute. Lerner himself grew up in Topeka, the son of psychologists from the East Coast, as a recent profile of him in The New York Times Magazine reminds us.
As autobiographical parental characters, the Gordons seem the very opposite of another great set of literary Midwestern parents, Evan Connell’s gently satirized, emotionally repressed, bourgeois couple, based on his own parents, in Mrs. Bridge (1959) and Mr. Bridge (1969). To satirize characters, however gently or affectionately, is to condescend to them, and Adam—or Lerner—conspicuously doesn’t. The Gordons are articulate, self-questioning, politically engaged, fluent in the languages of psychology and emotional expression. They speak for themselves reliably, organize their own stories. Lerner never qualifies their self-understanding or suggests that he, or Adam, knows Jonathan and Jane any better than they know themselves.
Lerner again is not just interested in creating the illusion but in drawing our attention to the process of creating literary illusion, which he does especially beautifully through the character of Adam’s mother. Jane doesn’t just begin speaking. She begins her first section by speaking to someone, a “you” whose identity is at first not clear: “Do you remember how two winters ago it turned out that I hadn’t bought our Florida tickets…?” Her narrative is full of conversational touch points (“Do you know what I mean?”), and she seems to be reminiscing in the same room with an interlocutor, who, it emerges, is her adult son. “You can’t really remember what Sima was like back then…” “You and Jason were of course best friends…” “Dad put on this video for you…”
In her second section, Jane has changed, or at least her style of narration is a little different. “Dad” is now Jonathan, and there is no “you” to whom she is addressing her story. No one interjects an observation. She is talking to us, her readers. She registers changes in the weather. (“The rain had stopped by the time we parked…. The humidity was gone, the air washed cool.”) She has become a character in a novel. Adam is writing her, has written her. He has used his powers of fluency to create another fictional person like himself. The son has given birth to the mother—or is it that he has possessed her?
At one point, Jane tells a story of her failed attempts to quit her unconscious habit of nodding in time to her patients’ talking, and she concludes, “I even developed something like pride in the subtle nodding, the way an athlete might—a little ritual that helps you keep your rhythm at the free throw line, for instance, an analogy I would never use.” She would never use the analogy but she just used it. Whose analogy is it? Adam the author’s? Ben Lerner the author’s? And where is the author? In the analogy? In Jane? It’s a literary version of impossible perspective, which Lerner makes both uncanny and comical. The son has taken possession of the mother and left his telltale bite mark: a sports metaphor.
Jane and Jonathan had expected to return to New York when their two-year fellowship was over, but they made friends at the Foundation, enjoyed the quiet, bought a house they could easily afford, and stayed. “We were treated with curiosity rather than suspicion by the locals,” Jonathan tells us, “and even though I was a Jewish long-haired hippie from New York, I was good at drawing people out.” He develops a specialty in treating “reticent Midwestern boys and men.” Over the years, he sees an increasing number of teenage boys who are withdrawn and defiant for no obvious reason that their families can identify, “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.”
Jane too is concerned about the boys and men of Topeka, and about Adam’s growing up in the macho-ish culture of their adopted city. While Adam is in elementary school, she writes a hugely successful book of popular psychology on relationships, aimed at women. Although the book is not political, it is interpreted by some readers, or their husbands, as crypto-feminist. After she appears on Oprah, she starts receiving anonymous phone calls from men threatening violence, as well as comments from actual men at the supermarket who come up to her to say, “I hope you’re proud of yourself, home-wrecker,” and, “I feel sorry for your husband.” This may be apt, as Jonathan himself struggles with Jane’s success, which plays a part in an affair he has that roils their marriage during Adam’s high school years. Sexism is not only for conservative Kansas; it’s been known to occur among liberal New York–born psychiatrists as well. At a family dinner where Adam relentlessly talks over his girlfriend every time she tries to say something, Jane struggles to get through the meal by trying to think of “my bully of a son as a vulnerable young man passing through a complicated social and hormonal stage.”
There’s one other significant character in The Topeka School. In between the Gordons’ chapters are short, italicized sections that stick closely to the perspective of Adam’s classmate Darren Eberheart. Darren is intellectually disabled. He has most of his life been openly mocked by other students in the way Adam most fears and spends his life trying to avoid. Darren has something like the opposite of Adam’s conspicuous gift for flowing speech; Darren’s speech has long drawn attention to itself by being slow and halting:
And then Mrs. Lewis demands he read aloud from How the Grinch Stole Christmas! in fourth grade, sound it out, we can wait all day, the laughter, then Coach Stemple grabs him by the face mask during tryouts in seventh and throws him to the ground for being dumb as shit, ears ringing, cut-grass smell.
Adam’s strange fluency is analogous to Darren’s strange, unassimilated hesitancy and simplicity. After years of being shunned, Darren is surprised to find himself welcomed into Adam’s social circle during their senior year, where his partying with the other kids will lead to an act of violence for which Adam still feels culpable all these years later, a culpability that shades into his general, diffuse sense of culpability for the current political crisis.
On the debate team, Adam was mastering the kinds of skills that would soon bring his country low. His debate coach teaches Adam subtle linguistic and physical gestures to manipulate the judges. “You’re giving fast and fluent speeches from left on the spectrum and you’re going to easily carry judges who share that orientation,” he tells Adam.
But imagine you’re running for president and now you’re in a swing state. You’re an hour or two outside of Pittsburgh, and while you need to be intelligent, you need to be winning hearts as much as minds. What you have in your favor is Kansas. You have Midland American English. I want quick swerves into the folksy…. I want you saying, right after some hyper-eloquent riff about Yeltsin breaking a promise, “Now, in Kansas, we call that a lie.”
Topeka, in other words, has a politics problem as well as a masculinity problem; it’s less than fifteen years away from
the most right-wing governorship Kansas has ever known, overseeing radical cuts to social services and education, ending all funding for the arts, privatizing Medicaid, implementing one of the most disastrous tax cuts in America’s history, an important model for the Trump administration.
It feels, sometimes, like the deranging effects of the national crisis have turned middle-aged Adam into a forlorn and slightly mad detective, searching his own past—because where else to look?—for clues to the political malpractice that’s being perpetrated on the country. Growing up in Kansas during the conservative revolution, Adam was at the scene of the crime. White, male, and affluent, he matches the suspects’ description. He even appeared in a newspaper photo with Bob Dole, receiving a trophy for excellence in arguing points he didn’t necessarily believe on subjects he didn’t know much about. Is he a culprit? An accessory?
“At some difficult-to-determine point,” Adam says, “among middle-class white boys in the Middle West, fights, instead of ending when a combatant hit the ground, took on new life there.” Describing a fight that breaks out among Adam’s friends and a couple of students from a rival school, Lerner writes:
They felt at once profoundly numb and profoundly ecstatic to be young and inflicting optional damage on each other… there was a second-order thrill in knowing you could kick someone in the chest without emotion.
Adam and Darren are the only Topeka boys to speak. The ordinary, not-strange, much-worried-about Midwestern boys, the kind that make up most of Adam’s crew and Jonathan’s clientele, stay silent: it’s striking that we don’t hear them, or even see them up close very much. It is left to Jonathan to describe their symptoms, Darren to describe their cruelties, and Adam to gloss how they feel. But can he? Should he? Has he personally ever kicked anyone in the chest without emotion? In our current state of skepticism, it may be that any kind of omniscience feels like condescension, and for Adam—or Lerner—to inhabit the minds of ordinary young townsfolk would have been to dabble in Kansas kitsch. But to leave the Topekans out of The Topeka School means that the city, as a distinctive place rather than a multivalent symbol or private proving ground, effectively drops out of the book, and the better part of the social drops out of the social novel.
At the end of the book, the adult Adam has arrived at the same point that many of his fellow citizens have, by thousands of different paths through different states and histories: at a federal office building, with his wife and young daughter, chanting in protest against the family separation policy at the southern border. “It embarrassed me, it always had,” Adam says of hearing his own voice repeating simple phrases and slogans in chorus, “but I forced myself to participate, to be part of a tiny public speaking.” He is one of many, his linguistic virtuosity beside the point. The political gesture is also a literary one: the novelist depicts his own humbling. To be part of a public speaking may be discomfiting, but it’s not nearly as treacherous as writing novels for, and about, the public that’s reading.