Ben Lerner Talks to Ocean Vuong About Love, Whiteness, and Toxic Masculinity

The Author of The Topeka School in Conversation with a Former Student

I first encountered Ben Lerner as an undergraduate in one of his poetry workshops at Brooklyn College. Ten minutes into our first class I flipped open my schedule to double check that I had not, in fact, accidently stepped into a graduate course. Ben spoke to us as if we were his peers, a portion of the campus citizenry assembled to assess a crisis ahead of us—not his subordinate charges. Although Hurricane Irene (category 3) was set to make landfall in a week, the crisis, Ben made clear, was language.

That was what made his class so captivating to a young writer like myself: he grounded the discussion with stakes rooted in our lived world. We did not, as in other classes, catalogue literary epochs like distant names on a map, but asked how national, social and personal crises inflected literary innovations within the tradition. We were all, it was soon evident, not receiving knowledge from a teacher but collectively thinking through strategies to process the culture around us, one where the shouts of spill-over protestors from Occupy Wall Street and those fighting tuition increases in the CUNY system echoed through our windows.

In other words, we were in a Ben Lerner novel—or rather, we began to ask of language what his protagonists ask of themselves: can art make the impossible thinkable and the unknowable felt?

At that time, Ben had just published his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, while experiencing what would lead to his second, 10:04. Having established a formal restlessness through his poems, Ben extended the propulsive derangement of language in the novel, mapping its collapse in real time, its repercussions through the temporal friction of lived bodies and the aftermath of political and linguistic failures those bodies sought to outlast.

It has been a luminous pleasure to observe, learn from, and inquire alongside him through the years and to watch his work expand and stratify their modes with each successive project. We caught up via e-mail ahead of the release of his third and arguably most ambitious novel, The Topeka School.

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Ocean Vuong: Publishing a book can be a strange, disembodied experience. How are you feeling about the release of your third novel? Is the experience any different from the release of your debut, Leaving the Atocha Station? Also, more urgently, what do you usually have for breakfast?

Ben Lerner: In the morning I ask the girls what they want for breakfast, give it to them, and then they reject it and demand something else, so I serve that and eat what they’ve discarded. Today I had two waffles, one cut in half, as Marcela prefers, one quartered according to Lucía’s specifications. This is actually a good system for me: I get to eat stuff an adult might be embarrassed to choose freely, claiming I’m just preventing waste.

When you say “release” I think first and foremost of being released from the novel, a sense of melancholy relief, how I can’t make any more improvements or mistakes, how I don’t know what I’ll do next, etc. I think of this book as the last term in a trilogy and so it feels like the end of more than one thing; that’s certainly different from my first work of fiction. I feel like it’s my last novel, but what do I know.

OV: Your novels have expanded, in succession, in scope, taking on larger social and personal themes as they go. With The Topeka School, you’ve now widened your lens further—this time encompassing time and casting a family’s pre-history through one of America’s more disorienting eras, the 1990s. Some novelists find a niche and hunker down. You seem to be clearing space and making room—now holding your largest cast of characters. What propelled this widening? Do you see yourself going even wider after this? Will we see a Ben Lerner space narrative? Will you go intergalactic?

BL: This book mentions my childhood fear of being forced to go into space—I didn’t understand becoming an astronaut was exceedingly difficult; I thought it was more like how they used to impress people into the British navy against their will. You might just wake up in orbit if they needed more bodies. So no—no willing venture into real or fictional outer space, but I do think the lens has widened, that the books are to an extent about that effort at widening.

Maybe love is a way of acknowledging the force of the past while insisting it’s not determinate, not totally.

The other two novels are very much first person explorations—even if there’s a change from the comic solipsism of the first novel’s narrator to the more engaged but still largely unencumbered narrator of the second. The Topeka School has multiple perspectives and characters and involves more vulnerability and risk for Adam—both for the young Adam described in the third person and the older Adam who is writing the book.

To a large extent this is a book about prehistory: about how family patterns recur or are broken across generations, about how the triumphalist “end of history” discourse of the ’90s masked an accelerating identity crisis among certain white men of which Trumpism is one manifestation, and so on. I had to widen the lens and grammar of the book to try to get at the intergenerational. I had to throw my voice.

OV: This novel, perhaps more so—or in different ways—than your others, examines the motives and potentials of love, particularly within a family dynamic. What you so expertly display here is that love, in any system, does not arrive without incredible political and personal costs. How do you see love, a term so heavily abstracted both in literature and the cultural lexicon, working in our era? What might it look like and how does it function in the future while holding, as it does in your novel, the past? I’m thinking specifically of the role fatherhood plays in the book.

BL: That’s a beautifully put question and I don’t pretend to have an answer. Writing about parents, about versions of my parents, involved a mixture of identification and dis-identification. A dialectic of empathy and separation. To know a person and also respect their unknowability. Which I think is always part of the work of love.

You know how in the book Jane, Adam’s mom, and the young Adam play that game at bedtime with the nonsense poem “The Purple Cow?” Jane recites it and then asks Adam to repeat it and he messes it up on purpose and she pretends to be exasperated by his inability to memorize it. I think that’s a central scene of familial love in the book, their little ritual of misquotation.

They are playing at a failure of intergenerational transmission—­­Jane pretends to be flummoxed by the young Adam’s inability to memorize the poem her mom had taught her—but through their joking performance is disclosed a real potential to alter the form and content of transmission, to form a parent-child relationship that isn’t just repetition of the past, which matters particularly here because Jane’s father represents a pattern of parenting that must be broken.

So they are practicing a loving form of poetic irony. And it reveals that there is freedom within the system, within the family—not a freedom from the past (that would be a fantasy based on repression that can only lead to repetition), but a freedom in how you work with the past’s materials. Maybe love is a way of acknowledging the force of the past while insisting it’s not determinate, not totally, that there are an array of possible futures? How a parent and a child negotiate that together or fail to—I think that’s crucial. I also think that’s something your own novel explores powerfully.

It’s also a scene of education, that passage. One of the many “Topeka schools.” It’s about transmission and relationality but also how love can pass through language rather than just hate or alienation. It’s a counter-discourse to some of the other “schools” in the book: the homophobic Phelps of Westboro Church, the high school bullies, the right-wing debate coach. Love is a school and the school teaches one how to speak but also how to listen to others.

OV: Something I’ve always appreciated about your thinking/writing is how you negotiate failure, specifically the failure within whiteness to see itself, name itself and, ultimately, confront itself. I’m thinking of the scene in 10:04 where Adam, the straight white male protagonist, listens as a woman, Noor, shares the details of how her mother told Noor that she was not, in fact, of Lebanese origin, that her Beirut-born father was her adoptive one; that she was suddenly, as an adult, white.

They are both putting in service hours at the neighborhood co-op in Brooklyn where they are members, bagging dried mangoes. Adam feels both arrested and saddened by this deep history coming from a stranger—but perhaps also helplessness, guilt? He then walks to a park wishing he could have comforted her without it sounding like “presumptuous co-op nonsense,” but instead sits on a bench eating an “irresponsible” amount of dried mangoes. What struck me about this passage is its depiction of white frustration while refusing formal or moral closure. It doesn’t force, within the tantalizingly infinite possibilities of a novel, an answer that resolves the protagonist’s discomfort, and by extension, that of white privilege.

I’ve read the build-up to scenes like this before in other books, where a white writer might deploy his white character to solve, liberate, or rescue a potential character of color, resulting in a “well-intentioned” yet reductive treatise on race and the white liberal role as a necessary agent in its resolution. Or worst, the actual embodiment of bodies of color (sans proper research) by writers in order “to give voice,” and thereby creating the precarious project of “[insert skin color] face” as charity.

In other words, you didn’t allow Adam Gordon to animate what so many white writers have given their literary stand-ins; you refused him the mantel of a savior, insisting instead on the reckoning a white character undergoes when confronting the white supremacist system he lives in and benefits from. In all my reading of novels by white authors, I never saw whiteness become so intimately powerless with itself until then. It was such an illuminating moment for me. Can you talk a bit about your approach to writing about whiteness—and how that inquiry deepens in The Topeka School?

BL: Whatever my “approach” is—my conscious thinking through of these issues—I’m not in a position to know everything about how whiteness inflects or determines or delimits my writing. Part of what makes writing worthwhile—for the writer and for the reader—is not just what artistry achieves but how it fails, how it is necessarily disfigured by history, which includes, which is dominated by, what Baldwin called the “lie” of whiteness. Certainly this is a book about whiteness, is more intensely focused than my others on how racist (and other forms of) violence fills the vacuum at the heart of privilege for white boys on the cusp of becoming white men, how whiteness is a radical imaginative poverty. But I don’t pretend I got it right or that getting it right is the point of making art.

One might say that The Topeka School is an intense prehistory of the moment where Darren hurls a cue ball into a crowded basement in Topeka during a house party.

I like what you say about the powerlessness of whiteness, which is why I thought of Baldwin’s “On Being White and Other Lies,” and the “terrible paradox” with which that little essay ends: “those who believed that they could control and define Black people divested themselves of the power to control and define themselves,” which makes me think, too, of Fred Moten’s urgent and loving demand in The Undercommons, which you no doubt know: “The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us. I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?”

I feel hailed by that—as a person, as a writer, as a member of an interracial family—that I need to work towards the recognition he’s describing, without pretending I can achieve it singly or finally, without reinscribing some kind of white victimhood (the flipside of the savior complex), without expecting to be congratulated for it, and so on. And/but to keep faith with that possibility of emergent “coalition,” new modes of filiation, a sense of a future beyond repetition. I guess I haven’t even started to describe an “approach” to writing about whiteness, but maybe I’m describing a disposition?

OV: It’s interesting you mention Baldwin because while reading The Topeka School, I kept circling back to two novels: Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury and Baldwin’s Go Tell it to The Mountain. Both books are concerned with constructing a prehistory that builds into a dramatic epicenter for their specific milieus, the post-Reconstruction white southern family and the post-Great Migration black family in Harlem, respectively. This strategy of loading the lives of each character expands and haunts every action in these books.

This is most evident in the character, Darren, whose life you map from a mentally unstable high school outcast from the “fly over” state of Kansas to a seething adult Trump supporter, red hat and all. Can the work of fiction, if ultimately being the manipulation of time, be the work of archeology? Do you see yourself explicating, uncovering, or enlarging via complication, a milieu that might have otherwise been swallowed in the undertow of larger hegemonic narratives?

BL: I mentioned wanting the book to be—and be about—prehistory and on the level of plot one might say that the book is an intense prehistory of the moment where Darren hurls a cue ball into a crowded basement in Topeka during a house party. The book is an excavation of that moment of apparently unmotivated violence.

Darren and Adam are on the one hand as different as can be; Darren has few resources and barely speaks; Adam has all kinds of privileges and many forms of fluency. But they are also intensely linked—not just by Adam’s role in bringing Darren briefly into the social fold, not just by the fact that Adam’s dad is Darren’s therapist (unbeknownst to Adam), but by the fact that they both feel a tremendous pressure to pass as “real men,” are disfigured by that pressure. (There are other similarities, like their tendency towards magical thinking; they are both poets in a way, believing in the real effects of certain utterances; they both know language is dangerous).

None of Topeka’s communities can quite assimilate Darren: he’s dropped out of school, he can’t hold down a job, he can’t afford “in patient” treatment at the psychiatric clinic where Adam’s parents work, he wouldn’t be accepted into the army (at least not in the ’90s; they might take him now). Darren hangs out at the military surplus and he is a kind of surplus without any meaning-making structure in his life besides his tall tales and, increasingly, his racism and homophobia. The cooler seniors, Adam among them, mockingly include Darren in their scene for a while, but that results in the violence mentioned above.

In the glimpse of him we catch at the end of the book, in the present, he has entered the only Topeka community that will have him: the infamous Phelps of Westboro church, fixtures of my youth, who stand around on street corners with signs that say things like GOD HATES FAGS, a dead end of masculine terror. So yes, the project of the novel is to unfold from Darren’s concentrated act of violence many orders of time, many kinds of meaning and breakdowns of meaning, many failures of love.

OV: Finally—and perhaps most importantly—what are three things that bring you joy?

BL: The girls are getting older so I don’t know how long this will last, but I love reading with one of them napping on or beside me. Something about the proximity and distance, being that close physically but also in our private worlds, dreaming and the waking dream of reading. I’m tempted to delete that because it’s too sentimental but why not speak of it.

I feel joy—not always, but often—when the B or D emerges onto the bridge, that sudden sense of prospects opening up, I feel it most often and most acutely if it’s night. A third thing is the distinct note of autumn in the air while it’s still warm, although that’s also full of pathos, sadness. But it’s beautiful.

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Ben Lerner’s third novel, The Topeka School, is out now from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Ocean Vuong
Ocean Vuong
Ocean Vuong is the New York Times bestselling author of the critically acclaimed poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds, winner of the Whiting Award and the T.S. Eliot Prize. His writings have also been featured in The Atlantic, Harper’s, The Nation, New Republic, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, he currently lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is his first novel.





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