The Books Interview - Ben Lerner

The NS meets the American poet and novelist.

Ben Lerner
Ben Lerner

You’re a poet and a novelist. What’s the relationship between your poetry and the prose in your novel Leaving the Atocha Station?

On the most literal level, some of my poetry is in my prose: the novel contains lines and fragments from poems I’ve written and quotes a sonnet from my first book in its entirety. It also incorporates a passage from an academic essay I wrote on John Ashbery’s poetry. And ideas about poetry and poetics are everywhere in the book. So it’s a porous relationship in that language and concepts migrate from one genre to the other. The second section of my book of poetry Mean Free Path begins with the line: "What if I made you hear this as music?" I feel a lot of art making and art criticism has to do with that "as" - with testing out modes of thinking and feeling through our capacity for imaginative re-description. So in that sense fiction and poetry are inextricable for me.

Does your novel try to complicate the relationship between author and narrator?

Absolutely. So much of the book is about the difficulty of distinguishing self from self-projection that the conflation of historical author and narrator seemed to me essential to the fiction. I felt that blurring that boundary would add another dimension to the book's investigation of authorship and fraudulence.

Adam Gordon, the narrator, is obsessed with questions of authenticity - especially the authenticity of aesthetic experience. Do you think his is a historically specific predicament?

This is a question Adam himself has. He wonders "if the incommensurability of language and experience was new". I do believe that Adam could be read in relation to what Frederic Jameson has called the "waning of affect", the "emotional ground tone" he described long ago in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. My sense is that these problems are fundamental to art making, but arise differently and with different qualities of intensity in different historical moments. Certainly these are problems fundamental to the novel as a historical form.

Adam shares some of these concerns with characters in a number of American novels written over the past decade or so doesn't he?

I should probably concede how few American novels written in the last decade I have read, but I was, of course, aware that Adam Gordon's circumstance - his privilege and his anxiety - is highly contemporary and typical of many of his literary peers. He feels his education equips him more for stylised disbelief than serious intellectual commitment.

It’s a very funny novel and much of the comedy derives from Adam’s acute sense of his own inauthenticity.

I’m glad you find it funny. I think the humour issues from Adam’s brutal candour about his attempts to manage his social self-presentation. And I think his problems with [speaking] Spanish help focus attention on how any linguistic exchange (even among native speakers) involves posturing, facial expressions, gesturing, nuances of accent and implication – how all interlocution is to a greater or lesser extent a comedy of errors.

The critic James Wood has compared Adam to the “frustrated” anti-heroes of 19th-century Russian fiction. Is that accurate?

Yes, I recognise the lineage of the unreliable anti-hero whose pursuit of something like authenticity often takes the form of self-laceration.

Why have you included images in the book?

One thing that fascinates me about including images in fiction is how it can relieve the prose of the burden of a certain kind of realistic description. Even grainy photographs are more optically realistic than the most realistic novelistic prose. So, in a sense, I'm interested in the literary equivalent of how painters have responded to the threat and promise of photography. I want to activate the relationship between reading and looking within fiction. In a way I’m back to that “as” – how can prose make you see an image as one thing and then another, to see the instability of seeing?

Ben Lerner's "Leaving the Atocha Station" is published by Granta Books (14.99)