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.
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