Ben Lerner: ‘People say, “Oh, here’s another Brooklyn novel by a guy with glasses”’

The poet and novelist, whose new book 10:04 is just published, talks about art, octopuses, and new ways of writing about families and politics

Some years ago, after eating one at a Japanese restaurant, the poet and novelist Ben Lerner became interested in the sensory life of the octopus. He went on the internet, where he learned that the cephalopod’s neurons are evenly distributed, and that as a result the octopus can taste anything it touches. As a downside of this nervous condition, the octopus has a poor concept of its overall position in space.

The word for what the octopus lacks is “proprioception”: the unconscious sense by which a being monitors the position of its limbs. In Lerner’s new novel, 10:04, the word appears many times. It’s a literary homage (the poet Charles Olson wrote an essay about the term) but also a refrain about the poor perceptual relationship of the individual to the social body.

As Lerner writes, of the octopus, and of his narrator, who is also named Ben: the octopus “can detect local texture variations, but cannot integrate that information into a larger picture, cannot read the realistic fiction the world appears to be”. 10:04 is a novel that considers global trade, social inequality, ecological catastrophe, the limitations of a human’s reproductive lifespan, and the passage and accumulation of time (the title references the moment the lightning strikes the clock tower in Back to the Future). But 10:04 only approaches such difficult problems through a detailed description of the “local texture variations” of New York City in the years between tropical storm Irene, in August 2011, and hurricane Sandy, in October 2013. In Lerner’s novel this New York is one of extreme luxury – a place where a baby octopus is imported from Portugal and then delicately massaged to death and served for lunch – but also constant insecurity, with a clear sense of an untenably unequal society. Lerner’s characters both enjoy their access to obscure consumer goods and resort to living on unemployment cheques. They await a collapse of their empire – expecting, either during a hurricane or Occupy Wall Street, a toppling of the social order – but somehow the moment never seems to arrive. As they wait, they go to museums.

I met Lerner at the Brooklyn Museum of Art on a rainy afternoon in early December. He lives nearby and visits it often with his young daughter.

Museums are frequent settings in Lerner’s writing. His first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, begins with a scene in the Prado in Madrid. A man stands in tears before Rogier van der Weyden’s The Descent From the Cross. Is the man grieving, wonders Adam Gordon, the book’s narrator, or is he having “a profound experience of art”? The question is a joke about how much of art is dissimulation; Adam, a poet, feels like a fraud. He and his friends wait to experience something “real” to write about. He tends to enjoy poetry more when its lines are embedded in works of prose.

“Insofar as I was interested in the arts I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf,” Adam says.

Lerner describes his first novel, a satire of the poetry world and serious young men, as “accidental”. By the time of its publication, when he was 32, he was already a successful poet, with three published collections, a nomination for the National Book Award for poetry, and a teaching job at Brooklyn College. He was tired of writing in lines, however, and tired of academic criticism too. He began to put some of the ideas from his third book of poems and from an academic paper about John Ashbery into what he initially thought of as a first-person essay but later turned out to be Leaving the Atocha Station.

Lerner describes the narrator of that book as “a neurotic version of my already quite neurotic self”. Adam Gordon mirrors Lerner in key respects – he is a poet on a fellowship in Spain, and Lerner spent a year in Spain on a Fulbright grant to study poetry; both he and his narrator are from Topeka, Kansas – but Gordon is a dissimulator, who shirks responsibilities and tells petty lies to elicit sympathy. Writing in the New Yorker, the critic James Wood described Adam as “a creature of privilege and lassitude, living through a time of inflamed political certainty, yet certain only of his own uncertainty”. The novel, published by an independent non-profit press in the US, received critical praise, but Lerner’s sudden transition to prose fiction worried some of his fellow poets.

“Poets really haven’t gotten the news that the novel is also dead,” he says, of the opinion among some poets that writing in prose is a capitulation to market forces. Still, the poets tolerated a single attempt – even Ashbery wrote a novel. “It’s like some weird homeopathic myth, that you avoid the novel but you are allowed to write one,” Lerner says. “You can write one novel in your life as a poet.”

The title 10:04 references the moment the lightning strikes the clock tower in Back to the Future.
The title 10:04 references the moment the lightning strikes the clock tower in Back to the Future. Photograph: PR

Afterwards, Lerner began work on a long poem. Then he wrote some essays, some art criticism and a short story. A frame started to grow around them, and that frame became 10:04. “I decided to write more fiction – something I’d promised my poet friends I wasn’t going to do,” says the main character in his book.

Like Leaving the Atocha Station, 10:04 has an early scene in a museum. Lerner’s 33-year-old narrator stands in front of Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. He gazes at the painting alongside his best friend, a woman named Alex. The narrator here could be seen as a continuation of Adam Gordon: he is a poet who has recently published his first novel; he is also from Topeka; he is a few years older. But for Lerner the parallel gazes mark “Ben” as different – he is far more aware of the concerns of others around him.

As they stand side-by-side before the painting, Alex breaks the silence: “I’m 36 and single,” she says, “apropos of nothing.” Then she asks Ben if he will donate his sperm to her so she can have a child. He agrees.

The close platonic friendship between Alex and Ben has no precedent that I can think of in recent fiction, despite the prevalence of such relationships in the world around me. If the question put by Nora Ephron in the 1980s was “Can men and women be friends?”, the question today might be “Why can’t men and women who are friends just marry each other and start families?” It’s not that Alex and Ben are suppressing the question of sex, it’s that, for all their intimacy, they don’t love each other in that way (eventually, to see if it can hasten the pregnancy, they try having sex – “a passion I did not feel, but which rose within me as I faked it”). Now, due to the time limitations of reproductive biology, such friends must confront the problem of producing a family outside the structure of a monogamous relationship.

Lerner himself has been married for eight years. His wife, Ariana Mangual, is a professor of education at Rutgers University. Her name appears twice in 10:04, but she does not figure as a character. Despite the traditional structure of his own nuclear family (Mangual was pregnant with their daughter during much of the time he was writing the book), Lerner wanted 10:04 to address the expanded spectrum of domestic arrangements.

In the 1980s Nora Ephron asked whether women and men could be friends, a topic Lerner explores.
In the 1980s Nora Ephron asked whether women and men could be friends, a topic Lerner explores. Photograph: Linda Nylind/Guardian

‘The novel has to respond intelligently to this fact, which is that when you see a kid, you no longer necessarily assume the kid was made by two people having sex,” he says. “It’s a huge change for our lives but also a huge change for the novel.” What was previously the material of dystopian science fiction has become everyday reality; new novels can reassure us that it’s possible to explore new modes of reproduction without becoming the totalitarian, Shakespeare-rejecting eugenicists of Aldous Huxley’s most pessimistic predictions.

The story of this irregular conception causes Ben to reconsider his relationship to the world around him. If humans can reinvent even basic facts of biology, what other seemingly immutable problems can be solved? Can he do good in the world, or do all of his attempts to assert political will devolve into banal consumer choices?

In between storms, the narrator gets a book deal, tutors an eight-year-old immigrant from El Salvador, takes ketamine at a writing residency in Marfa, Texas, and navigates the donation of his sperm. He wanders the bridges and parks of New York City, watches Christian Marclay’s film The Clock, and goes to the Met and the Museum of Natural History. He reflects on certain cultural totems of his childhood in the 1980s: the explosion of the Challenger spaceship, which killed seven astronauts; the movie Back to the Future; and how Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter, introduced the budding poet to his first inklings of rhyme and metre.

“I think a lot of the time the book is talked about, like, ‘Oh here’s another Brooklyn novel by a guy with glasses,’” says Lerner, who wears glasses.

The vain attempts of America’s middle-class liberals to put their “first‑world problems” into context and acknowledge their disproportionate share of the world’s limited resources have been highly satirised in recent fiction, where Jonathan Franzen’s Walter Berglund (in Freedom) can be read as the literary heir to Charles Dickens’s Mrs Jellyby. In 10:04 the attempts of thirtysomethings in Brooklyn to live ethical lives is not taken as an object of derision but is treated rather earnestly. Ben goes to museums instead spending all day and night at Occupy Wall Street, but that does not mean he has given up on the promise of the latter.

“I can see why, if I, the historical person, choose to write a book that’s set in Brooklyn and talks about book advances and eating bluefin tuna or whatever, that it’s just automatically in the category of the self-absorbed,” says Lerner. “The book wants to acknowledge all of that as an attempt to see what spaces for healing can exist, as opposed to the model of fiction that’s like ‘The way I deal with the political is that I pretend to have access to the mind of a nine-year-old boy in Sudan’ – instead of evading the material conditions of the book.”

The result can make for an uncomfortable reading experience. I was ashamed that the narrator’s biography, place of residence, membership of the Park Slope food co-op and sometimes insipid ethical dilemmas so neatly mirrored my own. But Lerner is interested in what agency is actually available to his characters to address the great problems of the world, what he calls “modes of care”.

One of the reasons why Lerner enjoys writing novels is the possibility of indulging in the subjective experiences of looking at art that traditional criticism avoids. He likes being able to write about looking at art and also about “all this other kind of contingent stuff, like how you feel and how you slept, and who you’re in love with or not in love with”.

After talking in the cafe for a while, we ascend several floors to watch a work of video art that Lerner marked as his favourite piece in an exhibition of work by Brooklyn artists. The video is called Personal by Steffani Jemison. It shows different shots of East New York, a neighbourhood in Brooklyn. In a park and a basketball court, black men and boys walk or run or play on paved suraces. Sometimes they are walking backwards, sometimes forwards, and sometimes they have been edited to move in reverse. In one shot, a man strolls back and forth in front of a mural of Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama.

“There are moments when you can’t tell which direction time is going when he stands there, and I was just thinking about progress in some state,” says Lerner. “It’s really weird to have these figures of post-apartheid, post-racial America and then have this man in front of this peeling mural and not know if history was happening or going backwards.” He adds, of the artist: “But I don’t know what she was setting out to do.”

We watch in silence, then Lerner says he can’t help thinking about Eric Garner. Earlier that day, a grand jury had declined to indict the police officer who killed him. We sit in the museum and think about this.

Emily Witt

The GuardianTramp

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