'It made me really crazy': Ben Lerner on confronting male rage and family trauma

As the final book in his acclaimed trilogy is published, The Topeka School author reflects on writing as his mother and ‘pompous’ Great American Novels

Wandering around a Vija Celmins retrospective at the Met Breuer gallery in Manhattan with the poet-turned-novelist Ben Lerner, I sensed that I had walked into a trap. We had met to discuss his new book, The Topeka School, the third and most intricate in his acclaimed trilogy of novels featuring a Lerner-like character named Adam Gordon, and yet it wasn’t easy to tell who was interviewing whom. Lerner turned to fiction only after publishing three volumes of poetry (the second, Angle of Yaw, got him shortlisted for a National book award in 2006), and his novels share a disarming, conversational tone, a taste for collage, and a playful attitude to the line between life and art – a line poets have never been called on to respect. Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) features a callow American poet lounging around Madrid on a Fulbright scholarship (as Lerner once did); 10:04 (2014) incorporates some of Lerner’s art criticism and a magazine story he published, and opens with the narrator and his agent celebrating the “strong six figure” advance he’s received for the novel you’re reading. Neither is autobiographical in any straightforward sense: 10:04 focuses on a single man’s plan to get a platonic friend pregnant, while the real Lerner had been happily married for years.

His creative work now seems pleasantly bifurcated: he still writes poems for experimental collaborations with visual artists and intellectuals, while collecting mainstream accolades as a novelist. He has received a Guggenheim and a MacArthur “genius” grant, and has been named in the New York Times as the most talented writer of his generation. Being with him in the museum, looking at Celmins’s series of mesmeric images, felt eerily like being in a Ben Lerner novel (one work by Celmins that juxtaposes a starry sky with a plummeting warplane even appears in 10:04). “The fact/fiction divide is like a therapeutic frame,” he says. “It’s some creative pretending about your relationships.” And as we made our way through the galleries he brought up disparate things I’d said in order to draw thematic connections between them, as if sketching out the start of an autobiographical novel on my behalf, or serving as a therapist.

Perhaps that’s unsurprising, since Lerner is the child of therapists, raised in Kansas where both his parents worked at the renowned Menninger Foundation, and where his mother, Harriet Lerner, wrote her bestselling books, beginning with The Dance of Anger. It’s also where the teenage Ben first learned to talk rings around people, becoming a state and national champion in competitive debate and holding his own against the other boys at parties – where middle-class white kids strove to outdo each other in appropriating some version of rap culture – with the superior quality of his freestyling. All this is the territory mapped by The Topeka School, a prequel to Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 that completes the story of Adam Gordon’s coming of age by excavating his beginnings, while also offering, as Lerner puts it, “a prehistory of the regression to fascist unreason in the present”. The book is written, he notes, “in a way that basically avoided the representation of a lot of adolescent speech, because I couldn’t really show all the obscenities – racial, sexual, etc – that would exist in that environment ... It was interesting to try and write a book about weaponised speech but to have to figure out modes of indirection. In a way, that was good for the book, because it produced some innovation, but it also at certain moments felt like maybe I should have just gone for broke and written this much more disturbing version.”

Now 40 and the father of two young girls with his wife Ariana Mangual Figueroa, a professor whose own research focuses on people’s use of language, he says he “knew that if I was going to write something in relation to the other two books that was about the thinking that comes out of being a father – or the feeling more than the thinking – that the way to do it would be to write it in Topeka in the 90s. And I’ve always been interested in the 90s, right before Columbine, and the ‘end of history’ discourse, and the advent of the Clinton dynasty.”

Lerner has partly built this novel by reconstructing “Contest of Words”, a 2012 magazine essay about his youth in Topeka that set out some intriguing arguments about the deterioration of US political discourse and the roots of a frighteningly empty, unaccountable form of white male rage and violence. Coming out now, under Trump, the book’s examination of these large public questions has inevitably attracted a lot of attention, and yet its treatment of them feels far stranger, more laceratingly personal, than you might expect – the novel’s heart is a startling, rich experiment in voice, in particular that of Adam’s mother Jane, who is modelled on Harriet Lerner. Jane appears in a first person that seems at times as if it must have been transcribed directly, though Lerner explains that he wrote it by inhabiting her – as with any character – except that “I know her voice in a different way. And it sounds more like her.” For Lerner, “the whole drama of the book is the present-tense Adam remembering his childhood from his parents’ perspective, because he has more access to their voices than he does to the child version of himself.” Jane describes aspects of their family life, the institutional sexism she faced in her career and the misogynist trolling (as a child Adam often picks up the landline phone and encounters men calling to whisper abuse at the famous feminist) and damaged friendships that resulted from her success.

But before any of that, Jane begins with an account of the halting process by which she first confronted the memory of being sexually abused in childhood by her father. Lerner describes this section as “the big psychological gamble” at the core of the book, and it’s also the place where it becomes clearest that Lerner’s interest in language that conceals rather than reveals has never been only intellectual or artistic – it’s also connected to intergenerational trauma. In a crucial passage, Jane describes the moment when her speech began “fragmenting under the emotional pressure, became a litany of non sequiturs, like how some of the poets you admire sound to me”. (The novel’s title partly plays on the New York School poets Lerner grew up admiring – John Ashbery gets a cameo here when Adam goes to hear him speak.) The novel is full of these instances where language gets away from the speaker or hearer, or different registers collapse into one another. Jane figures out a way to handle the men who whisper obscenities at her by asking them repeatedly to speak louder, forcing them to inhabit and take responsibility for their own speech (at which point, spooked, they hang up).

This novel is the first time Lerner has explicitly approached the subject of his parents and their enormous influence on him, but throughout the trilogy the impulse towards writing fiction, and ambivalence about that impulse, is tangled up in questions of parentage. One of the funniest recurring episodes in Leaving the Atocha Station is the narrator’s spur-of-the-moment lie (to impress a woman) that his mother is dead. Having first feigned tears, he soon bursts into real ones at the thought that his disloyal words might really kill his mother or that in the future, “whatever she suffered would be traceable in some important sense to this exact moment when I traded her life for the sympathy of an attractive stranger”. This lie reappears in 10:04 in an altered, sadder form. The real parents only come into focus in the new book, but Adam’s confusion about the limits and dangers of his own power has been a constant through the trilogy – and “all three books,” Lerner says, “are about the risks and possibilities of ventriloquising.” “I don’t have a full psychiatric account,” Lerner says, “for why, when I started writing fiction, it was suddenly about parents and parental mortality. Some of it is that my parents have been very influential on my thinking about systems and patterns, and that’s how fiction is made, in a different way, for me. And family systems therapy is very novelistic, it’s thinking about the architecture of relationships and the way that political or social circumstances … get repeated over generations.”

He pauses and adds “and then part of it is deeper and more complicated”, an attempt to work through his own childhood as well as the legacy of his grandparents. “I do think I was working my way to writing about having certain kinds of knowledge about my parents that are difficult to have, about sexual abuse, about different kinds of transgression.” The novel is a homage to his mother, yet it involves a “separation”, because writing in her voice requires not seeing your mother as your mother. It requires seeing her as “somebody else’s child”. And also as a parent who was getting by as best she could, just as Lerner himself is now. The point of autofiction, for Lerner, has never been self-revelation. He has used himself as an instrument for examining other things, while also “aggressively disavowing” the Great American Novelist position of white universality, which he considers at best “pompous” and pretentious, at worst a “real political danger”.

Ben Lerner mother Harriet, author of  The Dance of Anger.
Lerner’s mother Harriet, author of the bestselling book The Dance of Anger. Photograph: Sunflower Publications/Jason Dailey

Yet exploring some of the more intimate territory in this novel clearly affected him in a new way. He found that “inhabiting [his mother’s] speech also brought me closer … to the disorganising potential of the event”. “It became clear to me that if I wanted to write about this pretty constitutive sense of the divide between different regimes of language in which I was raised, and different kinds of men, there was just no writing it that wasn’t going through my grandfather, my mom, the legacy of that stuff – coming into knowledge of that, thinking about that as a parent. I just couldn’t not write about it if I was going to write the book, but it fucked me up. It made me really crazy, sometimes.” (He jokes that after this “I’m going right into genre fiction. I’m going into a saga about teenage vampires who cover their genitalia in gum,” as seven-year-old Adam does in The Topeka School.) In an especially powerful scene, Adam and his parents listen together to a recording of his grandfather’s voice. At first expressing a kind of inchoate anger toward the grandfather that tends to repeat his domineering brand of masculinity – he keeps saying “I would have destroyed him” in a debate – Adam then refers back to a childhood game he had with his mother, in which he misquotes a little rhyme called “The Purple Cow” and she corrects him. It’s a restorative moment between mother and son. Lerner calls it “the central loving scene in the book, because it’s about intergenerational transmission – like I’m passing this thing on – and then the ritual of misquotation is this way of creating a new tradition that’s about the malleability of what’s inherited from the past.”

Pain reverberates through generations, but it’s not fated to recur indefinitely. For Lerner, the Purple Cow game and Adam’s “ventriloquising of the mother’s voice are symmetrical in the book”: the blending of their two voices is a version of the blurring of boundaries between parent and child that’s benign. It’s an experiment that establishes the possibility of other patterns of communication,” and that, “by exposing what would otherwise be unspoken and repressed, is a bid for not repeating it”. In a way the trilogy culminates in the understanding that “there are no grownups”. Adam must come to terms with his own helplessness in a hostile political environment, with not knowing what he’s doing, even as he understands that he’s responsible for himself and his daughters, that there is no higher authority to appeal to – certainly not the state, and not his mother either. Parts of the book, it seems, were also conceived in that strange, lively, generative place just slightly beyond the author’s own control – a bold, unusual experiment to undertake at a point in his career when he is getting more attention than ever. “The thing I’m proud of about this book,” Lerner tells me, “is just that I didn’t know what I was doing, and it was hard and upsetting. That I didn’t write a book where I knew what I was doing.”

• The Topeka School is published by Granta (£16.99).


Lidija Haas

The GuardianTramp

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