Ben Lerner’s Quandary

The Spread

Ben Lerner at the crossroads between poetry and fiction.


Ben Lerner’s first two books of fiction—Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04—stand at a cautious remove from the novel form. Reading them, you sometimes suspect they don’t want to be novels at all. Often classified as “autofiction” because of the close correspondences between their protagonists and their author, they might more aptly be understood as “poet’s novels.” This is not simply because Lerner is a poet—he brought out three highly lauded volumes of poetry before publishing Leaving the Atocha Station—and not just in the mildly pejorative sense that book reviewers sometimes use the term, to censure pretentiousness. They’re actually about poetry: Significant stretches of them are devoted to analyses of poems, statements of poetics, or defenses of the poetic undertaking.

Nothing is more important to Lerner or his narrators than poetry, and yet they’re aware that nothing, in the 21st century capitalist culture they inhabit, is less important to everyone else. Indeed, this lack of social importance is a perverse point of pride. “If I was a poet,” muses Adam Gordon, the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station, “I had become one because poetry, more intensely than any other practice, could not evade its anachronism and marginality and so constituted a kind of acknowledgment of my own preposterousness, admitting my bad faith in good faith, so to speak.” For Adam, “poet” is more of an identity category, an orientation toward capitalist society, than it is a profession or practice. In point of fact, Adam doesn’t even like poetry all that much. “Although I claimed to be a poet,” he confesses, “I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.”

This fictional admission lays out the basic terms of Lerner’s formal cosmology. Poetry represents possibility, utopia, the virtual; prose stands for the existent, the immanent, the actual. The novel, it seems, enables a kind of compromise between these categories, a book written in the prose of the world but containing suggestions that another world is possible. Thus a poet like Adam, or Lerner, may write a novel, but we shouldn’t expect them to be happy about it.

In 10:04, ambivalence toward novel writing—an ambivalence bordering on embarrassment—is a running theme. “I decided to write more fiction—something I’d promised my poet friends I wasn’t going to do,” the narrator, Ben, declares. This decision is motivated not by aesthetic ambition but by financial incentives and ethical responsibility: His “strong six-figure” book advance will be used to fund fertility treatments for a friend who wants to have a child. Since novels have not (yet) become as unpopular and economically marginal as poetry, fiction writing represents the only way to transform his otherwise valueless art into a viable commodity for a bourgeois audience. But what Ben ultimately produces is “a novel that dissolves into a poem.” In 10:04’s increasingly desultory second half, he goes to a writers’ retreat to work on his novel, only to find himself working “on the wrong thing.” “Instead of earning my advance,” he admits, “I was writing a poem…. Having monetized the future of my fiction, I turned my back on it.”

But Lerner himself keeps writing fiction, and he keeps getting better at it. The Topeka School is, if not his best, certainly his most novelistic novel yet. Unlike its predecessors, which were essentially interior monologues delivered by characters with voices all but indistinguishable from Lerner’s, The Topeka School features four distinct protagonists, their narratives presented variously in the first, second, and third person. One of these is Adam Gordon, the neurotic hero of Leaving the Atocha Station, who appears here as a promising teenager on the verge of leaving his hometown of Topeka, Kansas, for an Ivy League university. But whereas Adam’s voice completely dominates the earlier novel, The Topeka School is more dialogic in its structure than Lerner’s predecessors. Adam’s parents, Jonathan and Jane Gordon—both psychologists—narrate two chapters apiece, and the novel is punctuated by a series of italicized interludes written from the perspective of Darren Eberheart, an emotionally disturbed boy in Adam’s class who has dropped out of school and is living, barely tolerated, on the margins of Topeka society. The Gordons are displaced East Coast intellectuals making a life against the “almost exotically boring backdrop” of a midsize Midwestern city. Both are employed at the Foundation, a fictionalized version of the Menninger Foundation, the world-famous psychiatric institute where the author’s own parents were employed. Jane is a best-selling Oprah-endorsed author (just like Harriet Lerner, Ben Lerner’s mother). Jonathan specializes in working with “lost boys”—alienated young men unable to adjust to the demands of adult society. Darren is one of his patients.

Unlike his first two fiction works, which both seemed to be trying to evade the history of the bourgeois novel, The Topeka School flirts with a half-dozen traditional novelistic genres at once. The Topeka School is a family saga, and it’s a historical novel, scrupulous about the surface details of the summer of 1996: Tupac Shakur on every sound system, Bob Dole and Bill Clinton on every TV, dial-up modems downloading pornographic images to desktop computers with excruciating slowness, “the striptease of slow bit speed.” It’s a regional novel, attempting to portray an underrepresented corner of America in all its peculiarity. It’s a bildungsroman, chronicling its hero’s progress toward maturity, and a Künstlerroman, telling us how and why he becomes an artist. And it’s a novel of adultery. (How bourgeois can you get?) It is even, in its own way, a tale of suspense, suffused with dramatic tension and the threat of violence. At this juncture in Lerner’s career, the traditionalism of The Topeka School is far more surprising than its avant-gardism. The book finds Lerner at a crossroads, tempted by the conventions of the novel even as he continues to insist on the priority of the poetic.

As distinct as the narrative voices in The Topeka School are, they also echo one another. The novel’s realism exists in tension with its formalism. The book is structured around a series of repeated phrases that constantly send the reader back to hunt for cross-references, somewhat impeding the narrative’s momentum. People speak of remembering things “in the third person.” Sentences from Herman Hesse’s 1908 story “A Man by the Name of Ziegler,” which Jonathan reads on the advice of his analyst and later adapts into a film, recur frequently, as do references to the Thematic Apperception Test, which Jonathan administers to his patients, and to Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Madonna and Child. Ordinary social rituals are observed, again and again, “with the distance of an anthropologist or ghost.”

These uncanny repetitions work, first and foremost, as an aesthetic device: They give the novel a symphonic quality. There are similar leitmotifs in Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, but the device operates differently here. In the earlier books, the repetitions seemed to betoken an obsessive attraction to pattern for its own sake. In The Topeka School, this is still true, but the expansion of the novel’s cast allows Lerner to achieve other effects as well. In the case of Adam and his parents, for example, the mysterious parallels among their narratives can be understood as a way to stylize the tenets of family-systems theory, as developed by Murray Bowen and practiced by Jane (and Harriet Lerner). Bowen’s theory states that “families so profoundly affect their members’ thoughts, feelings, and actions that it often seems as if people are living under the same ‘emotional skin.’” Children can’t help taking on their parents’ stresses. Parents experience their children’s suffering intensely, even when they have no idea what’s causing it. Jane worries that a campaign of misogynist harassment against her is unconsciously affecting her son. Adam overhears his parents arguing and feels that he “couldn’t have explained his desire not to understand the nature of their fight.” Ben Lerner is exquisitely sensitive to these psychological dynamics, and the echoes across the Gordons’ narratives are one way of registering their interconnectedness within the system that is their family.

At other times, the correspondences exceed the familial frame. Topeka itself is subject to doubling. At the beginning of the novel, Adam enters what he thinks is his girlfriend Amber’s lakeside house, only to find that he has trespassed accidentally into an almost identical prefab unit:

Along with the sheer terror of finding himself in the wrong house, with his recognition of its difference, was a sense, because of the houses’ sameness, that he was in all the houses around the lake at once; the sublime of identical layouts. In each house she or someone like her was in her bed, sleeping or pretending to sleep; legal guardians were farther down the hall, large men snoring; the faces and poses in the family photographs on the mantel might change, but would all belong to the same grammar of faces and poses; the elements of the painted scenes might vary, but not the level of familiarity and flatness; if you opened any of the giant stainless steel refrigerators or surveyed the faux-marble islands, you would encounter matching, modular products in slightly different configurations.

This doubling—of both space and consciousness—is not only a literary device; it helps Lerner tell us a larger story about human life in the age of late capitalism, an era defined by a mode of production that standardizes experience. This “sublime of identical layouts” can also be found in the proliferation of fast-food franchises (Adam and Darren appreciate the “familiar contours of the molded seating” at McDonald’s) and on the shelves of big-box stores, whose aisles full of identical packaging give Adam a “thrill…that banal but supernumerary sublime of exchangeability.” As elsewhere in Lerner’s work, an anticapitalist rhetoric indebted to critical theory is wedded to a lyricism that finds an eerie beauty in what it negates, like a black light.

As a prose performance, The Topeka School is an unqualified success. It proves that Lerner, without sacrificing the idiosyncratic charms of his earlier books, can do more things with the novel form than we thought he could and perhaps more than he thought he wanted to. As a piece of urgent social critique—which The Topeka School, his most overtly political novel, also aspires to be—the results are more mixed. Although its action mainly takes place two decades ago, Lerner is obviously eager to make statements about contemporary politics. At several crucial moments he jams the fast-forward button, escaping the 1990s and returning us to our regularly scheduled dystopia of pussy grabbing, mass shootings, and family separations.

Some of these gestures toward the present work better than others. A central theme of The Topeka School is the recrudescence of various forms of what we now call toxic masculinity. Jane uses the term in her present-day narration (it would have been anachronistic in 1996) to describe the anonymous harassers who call her at home after her appearance on Oprah. “They would often start off very politely, in a normal voice,” she recalls, but when “I said, ‘Hello,’ the voice would typically drop into a whisper or a hiss; then—almost without fail—I’d hear the word ‘cunt.’ Sometimes they just wanted to let me know that I was a cunt who ruined their marriage, or that cunts like me were the problem with women today, a bunch of feminazi cunts, or that I should shut my cunt mouth (stop writing).” The line that travels from these hateful men (styled “the Men” throughout), steeling themselves to commit little acts of domestic terrorism over land lines, to their current counterparts, their rage enabled and emboldened by high-speed Internet connections and the protection of online anonymity, is one that Lerner only needs to indicate. The story tells itself.

The Men don’t much bother Jane, who is too shrewd a psychologist to be rattled by them. For her, they’re nothing more than “specimens of the ugly fragility of masculinity.” But she also acknowledges that they’re symptoms of a larger pathology, one that regularly produces terrors that are less easily dismissed: “If we’ve learned anything, it’s how dangerous that fragile masculinity can be.” The avatar of that danger and that fragility is Darren. To Adam and the other members of his high school class, he’s a comic figure, “the man-child, descendant of the jester and village idiot.” Most of the time, he’s excluded from their social circles entirely. When they do include him, it’s usually to mock his cluelessness. This is not just ordinary adolescent sadism. Darren is an object of his peers’ “anthropological fascination.” To them, his social failures “performed a critical social function: he naturalized their own appropriated talk and ritual; Darren helped them keep it real.”

Darren’s abjection is bound up with his masculinity as well as his whiteness. The man-child must, Adam insists, “be not only male, but also white and able-bodied: the perverted form of the empire’s privileged subject. If he were a woman or a racialized or otherwise othered body, he would be in immediate mortal danger from sexual predators and police. It was his similarity to the dominant that rendered him pathetic and a provocation.” It is not surprising that Darren, the white guy who just misses a state of privilege and is made a scapegoat by those who embody it fully, absorbs hatred and resentment like a sponge. He is indoctrinated in misogyny and racism by hanging out with an angry ex-Marine named Stan at the Army surplus store, and “particles of Stan’s anger would get in him.” Today he’d be an easy mark for the incel community or the alt-right. In the novel, he ultimately aligns himself with as extreme a form of reactionary hatred as Topeka can supply.

To Lerner’s credit, Darren isn’t villainized. In fact, he’s treated with considerable empathy and is established early on as a counterpart to Adam, whose precocity and ability to master social codes contrast with Darren’s utter ineptitude, his “deep incomprehension of the language game in which he was attempting to feign fluency.” Adam, it’s made clear, has been one of Darren’s principal tormenters for years. In a key scene about halfway through the novel, he and his friends abandon Darren sleeping next to a lake, forcing him to walk home. (He ends up walking 20 miles in the wrong direction.) When Adam has a nervous breakdown in college, he confesses to a lingering sense of guilt about Darren, who continues to haunt the edges of the Gordons’ middle-class melodramas, quietly suffering, occasionally disturbing the peace. If Adam is the anthropologist of bourgeois Topeka, Darren is its ghost.

Closely related to The Topeka School’s interrogation of masculinity is its treatment of language. It’s consistently implied that Darren’s marginality and his anger arise out of a lack of facility with words. As a child, he’s verbally bullied by his peers for his slowness: “The grown-ups had equipped him with weak spells to cast back against the insults,” but they’re so clichéd (“May break my bones but words. Bounces off me sticks to you”) as to be utterly ineffectual (“Nice comeback, Darren”). He’s a Caliban who never learned how to curse.

Whereas Darren’s “weak spells” fail him, causing him to look for more powerful language (hate speech) or to abandon words in favor of physical violence, Adam proves to be a successful verbal magician. The teenage Adam wants “to be a poet because poems were spells, were shaped sound unmaking and remaking sense that inflicted and repelled violence…and could have other effects on bodies: put them to sleep or wake them, cause tears or other forms of lubrication, swelling, the raising of small hairs.” It’s not Adam alone who respects the power of language: “Almost everybody [in Topeka] agreed language could have magical effects.”

Adam channels his poetic impulses into more worldly pursuits like high school debates and freestyle rap battles, both of which earn him social capital by weaponizing his natural eloquence. “Poetry could be excused if it upped your game, became cipher and flow, if it was part of why [your girlfriend] was fucking you,” he reflects. “If linguistic prowess could do damage and get you laid, then it could be integrated into the adolescent social realm.”

Debate, in particular, is treated as poetry’s dark doppelgänger. Coached by Peter Evanson, a former national debate champion who is now a rising Republican political consultant, Adam is encouraged to play to the judges’ right-wing attitudes, deploy “quick swerves into the folksy,” and, when on the ropes, resort to a style of verbal overkill known as “the spread.” “Spreading” one’s opponent means “to make more arguments, marshal more evidence than the other team can respond to within the allotted time, the rule being among serious debaters that a ‘dropped argument,’ no matter its quality, its content, is conceded.” It’s a kind of rhetorical carpet-bombing.

The sections of The Topeka School chronicling Adam’s debate career—which recycle, update, and fictionalize material from Lerner’s 2012 Harper’s essay “Contest of Words”—are rich in realistic detail, but they’re also the novel’s most tendentious. It’s the one area where Lerner consistently overreaches, attempting to transform his own extracurricular activities into an improbable allegory for the decline of American public discourse. The spread, in Lerner’s eyes, is not just a debater’s tactic; it comes to epitomize a multitude of national sins. “Corporate persons deployed a version of the spread all the time,” he writes, in television commercials for prescription drugs and “the list of rules and caveats read rapid-fire at the end of promotions on the radio.” The spread is yet another form of verbal spell, a use of language not to communicate but to dominate:

These types of disclosure were designed to conceal; they exposed you to information that, should you challenge the institution in question, would be treated like a “dropped argument” in a fast round of debate—you have already conceded the validity of the point by failing to address it when it was presented. It’s no excuse that you didn’t have the time. Even before the twenty-four-hour news cycle, Twitter storms, algorithmic trading, spreadsheets, the DDoS attack, Americans were getting “spread” in their daily lives; meanwhile, their politicians went on speaking slowly, slowly about values utterly disconnected from their policies.

This passage is a tour de force, but it’s a tour de force of conspiracy theory, uniting a range of complex phenomena under a penumbra of paranoia. Lurking beneath it is the evergreen populist idea that ordinary Americans are actively deceived by cynical power elites, that the masses’ false consciousness is the result of a manipulative and dishonest use of rhetoric. (What’s the matter with Kansas?) But such an argument—and Lerner must know this—is in fact an instance of “spread” in its own right, hiding a fuzzy causal logic under a false sense of comprehensiveness. Did Donald Trump get elected by people who were confused about what he really thought? Who needs the spread when you can simply pander to your base’s basest instincts?

A similar problem arises with Peter Evanson, Adam’s debate coach and the novel’s flattest character. He’s clearly cast as The Topeka School’s Mephistopheles (or is it Darth Vader?), tempting Adam to use his verbal gifts for evil. As the child of transplanted coastal liberals—a “red-diaper kid from a red state”—Adam is inoculated against Evanson’s right-wing ideology, but even if he “was rarely if ever swayed by a position…he was with every passing hour absorbing an interpersonal style it would take him decades fully to unlearn.” (And this style, we’re given to understand, is not unrelated to the wider culture of misogyny in Topeka and America at large. Adam’s parents, watching him in competition, are dismayed by his aggressiveness, his propensity for rhetorical bullying. Jane worries that she has “offered my boy up to the wrong tutelage…offered him to the Men, thinking he would somehow know better.”)

In 1996, Adam blithely assumes that Evanson is “on the wrong side of the history that ended with [Bob] Dole,” that American conservatives are “doomed…. The electorate, Adam had read in The Economist, would grow increasingly diverse and the Republicans would die off as a national party…. Adam wanted to believe it was the end of the age of angry white men proclaiming the end of civilization.” In passages like this, Lerner’s irony—usually so finely calibrated—is a blunderbuss. The links he wants to make, here and elsewhere, between the libertarian conservatism of 1990s Topeka and the virulent ethnopopulism of the current administration feel strained, a novelistic conceit rather than a political insight. Whatever one can say about the ideological and demographic continuities underlying the evolution of the Republican Party since 1996, it’s a long way from Bob Dole to Donald Trump.

The Topeka School, when all is said and done, is still a poet’s novel, in both its language—subtly studded with phrases from and allusions to Dante, Keats, Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, and John Ashbery (Adam’s idol, who makes a cameo appearance as a character)—and its themes. This accounts for its many strengths as well as its occasional weaknesses. Poets are prone to overestimate the political importance of language—it’s an occupational hazard—and to decry the distance between public rhetoric and poetry. Practitioners of what Lerner has called an “art [that] assumes the dislike of its audience” are inclined to associate one kind of speech (poetry) with all that is righteous and holy, and its putative opposite (prose, in its various forms—high school debate, novels, advertising, economics textbooks) with the worldly and the fallen. This kind of adversarial discourse, as Lerner observed in his 2016 critical treatise The Hatred of Poetry, goes back at least as far as the 19th century, when poets felt the need to “assert the relevance of the art for a (novel-reading) middle class preoccupied with material things.” They did this by recasting poetry’s “distance from material reality as a virtuous alternative to our insatiable hunger for money and things, credit and cattle.”

Note that Lerner here puts the novel on the side of material reality and the middle class, poetry on the side of the virtuous and the virtual. The contest of forms that has been raging throughout his literary work is apparently resolved in favor of poetry—but only apparently. After all, if novels are expressions of middle-class materialism and poetry is a “virtuous alternative,” why write novels (unless you need the money)?

This is the theoretical question that Lerner’s practice—his persistence in writing novels—continues to put to him. In The Topeka School he tries to keep faith with the poetic, rejecting a debased public, prosaic rhetoric (“the spread”) for the unworldly, utopian language of poetic possibility. But he does so, paradoxically, through a novel, not a poem. By embedding a utopian faith in poetry within the bourgeois compromise of the novel, Lerner makes his most compelling case yet for poetry. Which is perhaps why it’s a good thing that he keeps on deciding to write fiction, whatever his poet friends may think.

On its own terms, Lerner’s neo-Romantic theory of poetry as pure potential is a bit thin and self-serving; it seems designed to assuage poets’ sense of obsolescence rather than make a real claim for their art’s significance. Enveloped within a fictional narrative, though, in tension with other ideas (family-systems theory, free-market economics, fundamentalist dogma, teenage macho bullshit) that are shown to be just as compelling and just as inadequate, it takes on a dialectical strength it wouldn’t have on its own. Which is only to say what the poet in Lerner may not want to admit but The Topeka School, almost despite itself, confirms: I think he’s a novelist.

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