Ben Lerner: The accidental novelist

The Brooklyn-based writer talks about poetry, plot and why Donald Trump reminds him of a toddler
Ben Lerner photographed in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, this month © Adam Golfer

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn is three-fifths the size of Central Park but just as beautiful. And, on a recent midweek afternoon with only the sounds of nature and the sight of the Manhattan skyline beyond, it is also more peaceful. Ben Lerner, author of three collections of poetry and two novels and one of the most highly praised writers of his generation — novelist Jonathan Franzen and New Yorker critic James Wood are among his fans — has chosen to bring me here.

We follow a winding path and come to a large obelisk marking the casualties of the Brooklyn Theatre fire of 1876. It’s an unsettling spot for an interview but that’s not altogether surprising: Lerner’s writing revels in inhabiting the weird, porous borders of the body and mind. “Right now, you’re standing on the grave of 103 people,” he says matter-of-factly. “Not many people get enthusiastic about visiting cemeteries but to some, me among them, they hold great appeal.”

At 37, Lerner might appear every bit the cliché of the Brooklyn intellectual, in thick-framed nerd glasses and skinny jeans — the portrait of the artist as a young man. But when I mention that he looks like everybody’s idea of a writer, he rolls his eyes. And later, when he is having his photograph taken, he asks us to make sure he doesn’t look like the figure of the “wandering poet”. Which is easier said than done when you have a tombstone and a cherry tree in full blossom for company.

Lerner’s work skips from poetry to criticism to novels and back again, unencumbered by genre and liberated by the MacArthur “genius grant” of $625,000 he was awarded last year. But the success of his novels seems to bother him, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that they, rather than his poems, have brought him critical acclaim in every highbrow literary publication from Harper’s to the New Yorker. “I’m first and foremost a poet,” he insists.

Indeed, when his debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, came out five years ago, when he was 32, Lerner was already a successful poet with three published collections and a nomination for the National Book Award. The themes and preoccupations of his poetry recur in his novels: communication, emptiness, how we value art, male/female friendship, family. “But the transition from poetry to prose fiction initially felt like a betrayal. I’m surprised people read my books at all. Now I’m doomed to write more novels,” he says in a typically wry, lugubrious way.

In his novels, Lerner uses everyday comic situations (drunkenness, strutting and preening) to portray a particular kind of contemporary clown: the exceedingly well-educated man with all the advantages who has stretched his youth into his twenties, then his thirties, evading conventional professional responsibilities and delaying personal ones. By writing about topics so close to home, does he open himself up to ridicule?

He pauses before conceding that, sure, he’s a middle-class white guy living in Brooklyn and there’s a lot in his books that reflects his surroundings. “But I’m not going to pretend there isn’t any pleasure in that. I don’t want to escape the world around me to write a novel about heroism, or to write something about someone who went through incredible hardship. I could write about a trans person growing up in Iran. It could be a great novel but more likely it would be a shitty novel. I’m more interested in how we can see the world with just a little difference.”

Lerner’s novels are distinctly un-novelistic. He displays an abiding affection for the offbeat and doesn’t worry too much about plot, climax or denouement. “It’s bullshit to think protagonists have to undergo some kind of change,” he says, adding the kicker, “I’m anti-Bildungsroman.”

© Adam Golfer

All of which makes it hard to summarise his stories, but let’s try. Leaving the Atocha Station was published in 2011 by a small independent press to wide if improbable praise. Improbable because Lerner never intended to write a novel. “It was accidental,” he says. He had been putting together ideas and notes for what he initially thought would turn out to be a first-person essay. “I was halfway into the novel before I admitted that’s what it was.”

Leaving the Atocha Station follows Adam, a twentysomething American poet in Madrid, who is meant to be working on “a long and research-driven poem” about the Spanish civil war. Really his “research” is taking quite a different shape: he spends his days pursuing women, wallowing in self-pity and ingesting large quantities of prescription drugs, coffee, nicotine, booze and marijuana.

“When people who abuse drugs are described as ‘having a substance problem’, it sounds to me like a philosophical problem that’s distinguishing semblance from essence or something, right?” Lerner says, exhibiting the modesty of a recovering smart alec.

The style, however, is the real story, weaving together poems, prose, G-chats, essays and photographs. The writer Geoff Dyer declared the book “so luminously original in style and form as to seem like a premonition, a comet from the future.”

Lerner’s second novel, 10:04, published in 2014, was similarly well received. Ben, its narrator, lives in New York and is diagnosed with a potentially fatal heart condition. His best friend Alex asks him to donate his sperm so that she can conceive a child. He comes into a small fortune, goes out with a glamorous artist and prepares for two huge storms to hit the city.

And there’s another kind of plot running through 10:04 — the story of how Ben sets out to write one version of his novel and then scraps his plan and writes something different. Sound familiar?

Earlier in the day at a little Italian restaurant in Park Slope, a hipster hang-out not far from Lerner’s home, we talk about his poetry. There are American poets who have written successful novels in recent times but they are a rare breed. As for the poetry of major novelists — John Updike, for example — it’s best not to comment. “But there can be beauty in failure,” Lerner reminds me diplomatically.

Not long ago, in an essay for the London Review of Books, Lerner outlined the ways in which poetry, to be poetry, has to fail, since the idea of the poem in the writer’s head is never fully achieved. The Hatred of Poetry, a book version of the essay, will appear next month. In it, Lerner explores why so many people claim they dislike poetry. He attributes this, paradoxically, to the belief that poetry ought to have tremendous cultural value. “The bitterness of poetic logic is that its transcendent ideal always falls short in the actual expression,” he says.

So what state is American poetry in today? “There’s always horrible shit out there; one can always find material for despair. That said, many interesting poets are still kicking around.”

Lerner refers me to the following passage in his book: “When Barack Obama announced that he would revive the practice of having a poem read at his 2009 inauguration — Clinton had done it twice; Kennedy had done it in 1961 — many scoffed. George Packer wondered on the New Yorker’s website: ‘Is it too late to convince the president-elect not to have a poem written for and read at his inauguration? . . . For many decades American poetry has been a private activity, written by few people and read by few people, lacking the language, rhythm, emotion and thought that could move large numbers of people in large public settings.’”

© Adam Golfer

Between mouthfuls of salad and sips of wine, Lerner says: “I like George Packer, he’s an interesting writer in lots of ways, but I find it weird he was thrashing poetry. I mean, it was a fucking presidential inauguration in the United States! Surely there were other more important things to pick up on.”

Having touched on politics, I ask how he feels about the current US presidential race. “Oh God, it’s horrifying. Even an over-the-top DeLillo novel would never have imagined this moment. We’ve got a Thatcherite Machiavellian neoliberal Clinton dynasty versus Trump’s discourse of pure unreason. If anyone needed more evidence for the bankruptcy of American politics . . . ” he trails off.

“Trump is so parodic and clownish. His language, since we are talking about literature, is post-semantic and totally post-rational. It’s like when you see a toddler holding something in their hands that they aren’t supposed to be holding and, when you ask them about it, they claim they aren’t holding anything, because they don’t have a very developed strategy for simulation. Trump is similar. But whereas with a toddler it can be cute, with Trump it is terrifying.”

Language has been important to Lerner for as long as he can remember. The son of two psychologists — his mother, Harriet Lerner, wrote the 1985 bestseller The Dance of Anger — he grew up in Topeka, Kansas. The family had dinner together most nights. “It wasn’t exactly group therapy but my parents encouraged me and my older brother to be very verbal. It was about sharing feelings and not withholding stuff.” He took part in high-school debates, winning the state championship four years running and a national championship in his senior year. “You had to be really interested in rhetoric — the way language is used to persuade, coerce, conceal, reveal — to take part in these things.”

At the cemetery, conversation turns once more to his novels. The New York Times critic Dwight Garner called Lerner “a young Brooklynite version of the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard”. The comparison is telling: neither Lerner nor Knausgaard writes traditionally plot-driven novels but dramas of consciousness; and in both writers’ major works, the author and his protagonist are more or less interchangeable.

“On the one hand,” says Lerner, “there are all these ways these narrators are clearly not me — ways that are maybe not clear to a reader who doesn’t know me necessarily. Sure, I lived in Spain, but with a woman who’s now my wife. And in terms of 10:04, I never tried to get my best friend pregnant, and my wife and I didn’t have fertility treatments.”

Lerner’s conversation, frequently very funny and delivered in perfectly formed paragraphs, is never less than engaging. He continues: “I overlap with the protagonists but it’s not memoir dressed as fiction. It’s another way of exploring the flickering border between art and life — which is one of my novels’ primary themes.

“For example, I think there’s a strong relationship between writing and shame. One of my friends Aaron Kunin has organised much of his writing around the idea that the part of yourself that you’re most ashamed of can and perhaps should be used as material for art.”

We cross the road without looking and are almost hit by car. “Danger comes from the least expected places,” Lerner deadpans, then tells me about a recent “near-death” experience here, when a tree branch fell just in front of him during a storm. “Like in my books, tragedy primes one for humour, and humour primes one for tragedy.”

I say readers will inevitably be curious about personal things — what parts of the novels are based on his memories, and to what degree — but I suspect he won’t want to answer these questions. “That’s right, in part for boring reasons. I wouldn’t want my wife’s father, say, to see that information. But also because it’s different to collapse the distinction between art and life within art, and to collapse the distinction between art and life in life. I’m much more interested in the former — in exploiting the blurriness of that distinction within an artwork, as opposed to investing further in me, the historical author of the books in question.”

What does he think the author/protagonist confusion achieves? “A large part of my books are about the way our lives are confusions between imaginative structures and real forces. So I have to kind of get close enough to experience and identify to be able to fuck with those things in any kind of meaningful way. But that’s not to say that I’m interested in writing blogs about all the shit I do or putting on Facebook a picture of my lunch or something about my sexual life . . . The question is about how you gather in the book the energies that are produced by the conflation of fact and fiction. The bigger question is: what are the limits of lived experience?”

‘The Hatred of Poetry’ will be published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in June; John Sunyer is a commissioning editor on FT Life & Arts

Photographs: Adam Golfer

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.