Bookforum talks with Ben Lerner

Leaving the Atocha Station BY Ben Lerner. Coffee House Press. Paperback, 186 pages. $15.
Ben Lerner

Two pages into Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, his protagonist, a choleric young poet on a year-long fellowship to Madrid, confesses, “I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew.” This concern animates Lerner's debut novel, a wry take on the challenges of producing art in the age of technological mediation. Set shortly before the 2004 terror attacks, Leaving the Atocha Station—named after a John Ashbery poem—follows Adam Gordon as he obsesses over feelings of fraudulence, indulges in prescription pharmaceuticals, attends art openings, reads, struggles with Spanish (or so he claims), and occasionally writes poetry. Leaving the Atocha Station is Lerner’s first venture into fiction after publishing three critically acclaimed books of poetry: Angle of Yaw, Mean Free Path, and The Lichtenberg Figures. Lerner, who teaches at Brooklyn College, has also been a finalist for the National Book Award, a Fulbright Scholar in Spain, and the first American ever to receive Germany's Preis der Stadt Münster für internationale Poesie. He agreed to chat with Bookforum via Google Docs.

JESSICA LOUDIS: After publishing several books of poetry, what prompted you to write a novel?

BEN LERNER: Strangely, I didn’t experience it as a decision. In fact, part of what enabled me to write the novel was the fiction that I wasn’t writing one: I was sitting down and writing prose for hours without interruption, something I very rarely do, maybe had never done, and I kept saying to myself: if I were writing a novel it might look like this, if I were to write dialog it might look something like this, if I were giving shape to something like a chapter it might have this kind of trajectory, and so on—but the condition of possibility for going on was reassuring myself that I wasn’t actually writing a novel, or at least I hadn’t yet begun to write a novel, etc. If somebody asked me what I was working on under no circumstances would I have allowed the words “novel” or “fiction” to pass my lips. Maybe the preposterous fiction that I wasn’t writing fiction protected me from a feeling of genre perfidy, from the fear that if I wrote a novel then I’d be a novelist and once I was a novelist there would somehow be no going back to poetry which, although I hate it half the time, is my central commitment. But more importantly I think this idea that I wasn’t actually writing a novel was to a certain extent the idea of and for the novel itself: that is, the narrator is a young poet (and since he’s narrating the novel he is also a young novelist) who is trying to figure out if he’s really a poet, if poetry is at present a viable art form in general and for him in particular, if he can paradoxically anchor his approach to the arts in his anxiety about their viability, and so on. So I think I was in fact assuming or producing the psychological disposition of the narrator—whose language is often self-questioning or self-canceling and who at one point in the novel promises himself that he will never write a novel. I realize I haven’t exactly answered your question.

JL: How did you arrive at what Adam Gordon's voice was going to sound like? Were you reading anything in particular, or was there some kind of overarching idea you followed? At times, he reminded me of a character from Bernhard.

BL: I can see why you’d think of Bernhard; others have as well. Bernhard is one of the masters of making narrative art out of spiraling contempt and my narrator is certainly contemptuous, especially towards himself, and often contemptible. And Bernhard interestingly conflates his historical biography with his narrators’, so I suppose that’s another area of overlap. But I think of “Adam Gordon” as young and anxious and tentative and not as embittered or as secure in his ruthless and totalizing denunciation as most of Bernhard’s characters.

I suppose one could answer the question of voice two ways—by describing his narrative voice or his narrated voice. Our ability to get a sense of Adam Gordon’s voice from the actual speech that’s reported in the novel is complicated by the fact that he’s usually speaking Spanish (and we’re reading translations) which he claims he can’t speak or understand well, by the fact that he often deliberately speaks in fragments in the hope that others will invest them with a mystery or authority that exceeds his actual powers of eloquence, and by his tendency to steal language from other characters (e.g. he retells a friend’s traumatic experience as his own). So to a certain extent the novel willfully complicates our sense of what a conversation with Adam would really be like, and we have to rely to an unusual degree on the second level of voice for our picture of the first: the prose of the novel itself. And the constitutive formal irony of the book is perhaps that the literary quality of Adam’s prose is in tension with his repeated claim not to know anything about literature or have any serious interest in literature, etc., so that the reader has to decide how to reconcile the form and content of his self-characterizations. It’s his signature form of unreliability. And this might be as close as I got to a “guiding idea” about his voice—that it would issue from this unfolding contradiction between his purported voicelessness within the novel (doesn’t speak the language, plagiarizes, relies on facial expressions, etc.) and the texture of the prose itself. Or maybe I should say that the problem of what Adam Gordon’s voice is going to sound like is a problem for Adam Gordon—and that for me the question was how to dramatize that problem formally.

My friend Aaron Kunin’s novel, The Mandarin, probably influenced my thinking about voice. Even though his novel has a ton of characters, and even though it consists almost entirely of dialog, I feel like there’s really only one voice, that in his novel voice compellingly fails to differentiate characters. He’d say he got that from Henry James. Anyway, my novel is quite different, but I think Kunin helped me see the problem of voice as a marker of individuality in new ways.

JL: I'm curious about how you decided to incorporate the 3-11 Madrid attacks into the plot—was this something you initially set out to do, or did you find yourself moving in that direction while writing the novel? Also, were there any particular reasons you chose to set the novel in Spain?

BL: I don’t think I initially had a conscious sense of the role the bombings would play. While I set the novel in Madrid in part because I’d spent a year there, I didn’t plan on specifying the date. But as my sense of the narrator developed the bombings and their political aftermath seemed to present an opportunity to address the relationship between aesthetic forms of mediation and spectacular violence. Maybe this was always the plan, but I had to discover it through writing. It’s also a way the protagonist experiences the inescapability of the American as the attacks were motivated by Spain’s support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. So while he’s ostensibly in Spain to study the literary legacy of the Spanish Civil War he ends up encountering the effects of the flailing global hegemon from which he hails. It’s funny how that begins to feed back into the project he’s set aside, or a parodic version of it: he’s an American writer (of a sort) trying to figure out his relation to a political event in Spain that’s largely narrated as a battle between the Spanish right and left but is also a flashpoint for global politics. It’s like For Whom the Bell Tolls if Robert Jordan were replaced with Holden Caulfield (the preposterousness of that counterfactual is the point). Basically I’m trying to say that his official reasons for being in Spain interact tragicomically with what transpires there and thus offer the novel an opportunity to raise some questions about how Adam’s slippery sense of what’s actual and what’s virtual corresponds or fails to correspond to political reality.

I also became interested in writing something willfully other than the “9/11” or “post-9/11” novel, in writing a book that complicated and estranged that periodization by situating itself around an outsider’s view of a related but ultimately distinct tragedy and response.

JL: Speaking of mediation, one of the most striking scenes in Leaving the Atocha Station is an instant message conversation between Adam and a friend in Mexico, who recounts trying—and failing—to save a young woman drowning in a river. The conversation is conducted in English, and reads differently, more candidly, than any other part of the book. What does technology—as opposed to translation, pharmaceuticals, or any of the other smokescreens Adam is fond of—offer as a mode of literary estrangement?

BL: That’s an interesting question, although I’m not sure instant messaging is any more or less technological than, say, SSRIs. I think you’re right that that scene is different, more candid. It’s his most sustained interaction with a relationship that precedes his coming to Spain and he isn’t performing some new identity or struggling to maintain an image he’s projected; he’s concerned about his friend, Cyrus. And I think the technology of instant messaging can convey that more readily than his more literary prose because it records hesitation and interruption and because we don’t have a lot of conventions (or at least I don’t) around online chatting that can assimilate the trauma Cyrus is describing into a familiar genre. Speaking of genre: in a way the chat is closer to poetry than prose in so far as the fragmentation of syntax bears an emotional charge.

At a number of points in the novel a character speaks about confronting a death and these scenes always involve the mediation of a technology. Teresa recounts being in New York and suddenly being hit with the reality of her father’s death and calling her mom in Spain from a payphone and weeping; in the chat Cyrus describes calling his father in Kansas from a payphone in Mexico to describe what’s happened. When Adam pirates Cyrus’s experience and tells Isabel about the drowning as if he had been there, she recounts a story about dealing with her brother’s death that involves another kind of technological mediation: a notebook wherein he’d written a long list of years he was supposed to memorize for a history test but that Isabel fantasized was some sort of coded message to her. I’m enumerating these scenes (and there are others) because I think your question correctly suggests that mediation isn’t treated exclusively as a way of distancing from reality but also as a way of calibrating distance so that reality can be experienced fully. With the exception of chat, it’s the older media that tend to enable this experience of presence: payphones (phones are important in the novel), the notebook, maybe poems. Perhaps the power of instant messaging in this context—and the scene you mention is literally central to the book—derives from its being a mash-up of the old and new: it’s faster than email but slower than speech; it has the grammar (or lack thereof) of speech because of its simultaneity, but it’s obviously a written form. Presenting a chat allows you to collapse the distinction between writing and speech and maybe that links up with your earlier question about voice: the two levels of Adam’s voice—the narrating and narrated—are dissolved by the technology of instant messaging and so the new media allows us to hear his voice immediately.

But then: Adam writes very little in the chat!

JL: What are you reading/watching/listening to at the moment?

BL: I am reading Cyrus Console’s (the same Cyrus who appears in my novel) new book of poetry, The Odicy, just out from Omnidawn. He manages beautifully to combine traditional prosody with very contemporary speech and the book is deftly organized around the topic of artificial sweeteners—which link up our domestic gluttony, environmental degradation, and foreign wars (as the same chemicals circulate in our bodies, our manicured lawns, and our weapons). A few recent books of poetry are using traditional meter in compelling and innovative ways. I think here of Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s brilliant Metropole or Mark McMorris’ Entrepôt. I’ve been re-reading those volumes alongside Cyrus’s.

I just saw the Ryan Trecartin videos at PS1 and found them disturbing and overwhelming and ultimately quite impressive; I’m still trying to figure out why and how. I mean, the language and acting and editing are all pitch-perfect exaggerations and accelerations of our period style, of the grammar of spectacle. He produces a world made entirely out of the materials of bad TV/video/YouTube tropes. It’s like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse directed by Fassbinder on an iphone with those twins from The Shining as special guests. In other words I have no idea what to liken it to. But one feels a real rigor behind the work, a precision to every gesture—not just the look mom everything is permitted mediumlessness that characterizes so much contemporary art.

JL: What’s next on the agenda?

BL: I’m working on a book of poems loosely organized around the notion of corporate personhood—the legal fiction by which corporations are ascribed the rights of persons. I’m trying to think through or fantasize about an older sense of corporate personhood, a transpersonal subject capable of pursuing something other than profit. This has led me to think about and imitate and argue with Whitman, among other figures—the way he wanted to develop a poetic structure that could formally model federalism, for example: all these distinct classes united in their difference in his famous (or infamous, depending on your temperament) catalogs. I’m also interested in what I see as this weird thing about Whitman’s line. On the one hand it signifies a kind of exuberant overflowing of pentameter—a poetic energy that exceeds available verse forms. On the other hand it threatens to become prose in so far as it abandons enjambment as a technique and wants to make a bid for a kind of demotic directness. So it simultaneously can be read as signifying heightening and flattening relative to the tradition it’s working against. I’m using a long line in most of the poems in this book and playing with that to create a tone that alternates between—or is suspended between—exuberance and flatness, between verse understood as intensification through patterning and prose understood as the language of information. This relates to the novel in various ways, maybe most directly to how Adam Gordon is always talking about the difference between virtual poems (the abstract possibility of Poetry with a capital “P”) and actual poems (which always fail to realize that possibility as soon as they become actual). By working with a line that flirts with or evokes prose I’m in part trying to keep poetry virtual, to keep it in potentia, to forestall mere actuality.

But here I am describing a book that doesn’t yet exist, projecting a fiction of the book towards which I can write. And based on how I answered your first question, I probably shouldn’t be trusted.