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Ben Lerner on Adolescence and His Forthcoming Novel

Your story “Ross Perot and China” opens as the protagonist, Adam, is in the middle of a lake. (The lake is man-made and surrounded by houses.) He’s been talking to his girlfriend Amber and, now that he’s stopped, realizes that she’s no longer in the boat with him. Did you have this scenario in mind for a long time as the setting for a piece of fiction?

I think setting came before scenario. What I’ve had in mind for a long time is how to represent tract housing, or identical McMansions—how to get at the texture or texturelessness of that kind of planned “community.” It’s one thing to depict a very particular place vividly, but how do you capture the absence of particularity, the phenomenology of standardization? Given how much our economic system tends toward sameness—a Chase Bank on every Manhattan corner—I think this is a challenge for many sorts of fiction, and for a lot of poetry and visual art. I wanted to get at both the boredom and flimsiness of it but also at its power—how your sense of self and scale might dissolve in that landscape of interchangeability.

Right. Adam assumes that Amber must have gone back to her home, but, looking for her, he ends up in the wrong house. He thinks, “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.” He’s in all these houses, yet he can also float above them, “because he’s no longer bound to a discrete body,” and he recalls the feeling he used to have of toggling between perspectives when he used to play with his train set as a boy. How close a correspondence does that have with the act of writing fiction?

It’s close, I think—especially when there is more than one time period and perspective at play: there is Adam, the adolescent, lost in the identical houses in 1996, and there is the narrator in the future, our present, capable of saying things like “It would take Adam twenty years to realize . . .”—so the consciousness is mobile, double, a shuttling back and forth. Writing and reading can catalyze a kind of vertigo not unlike what Adam is experiencing.

I visit the bonsai at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden a lot with my daughters. When I look at the bonsai, I always imagine myself underneath them, since they look like giant, fully developed trees, but of course I’m actually looking down on them from above—so then I’m experiencing two scales at once. (This was part of the pleasure of looking at Liliana Porter’s recent show at El Museo del Barrio, by the way—her use of miniaturization.) As unlikely as it sounds, I was thinking of the bonsai when I wrote this passage about these cookie-cutter houses. And maybe I experience this more intensely in the company of my daughters because having a kid both makes you remember what it was like to be a kid, looking up at the adults, and makes you acutely aware of the present, in which you’re caring for them as a grownup. So yeah, it’s an experience linked to both writing and parenting for me, that modulation of times and perspectives. Speaking of gardens and scale, I think Barbara Guest’s amazing poem “Wild Gardens Overlooked By Night Lights” is kind of about this.

When he finally finds Amber, she doesn’t apologize for vanishing. Instead, she tells a long story about her stepfather and an incident when she slid from the dinner when he was talking. Amber’s voice is very different to the close third person you use in much of the rest of the excerpt. How conscious a decision was that?

It was conscious. The story has much more access to Adam than it does to Amber. As I mentioned, I think of the perspective as moving between Adam in 1996 and the later point at which he’s recalling the experience. So Amber’s voice is what the teen-age Adam is hearing, but it’s reconstructed by the older Adam. One of the reasons I didn’t use quotation marks is that I want to acknowledge the writtenness of that language. I want to try to capture real intonations and speech patterns, but I don’t want to pretend to have unmediated access to Amber’s actual voice.

The young Adam is trying to imagine a future Adam that will look back on his experiences with Amber ironically—he’s trying to summon that detachment in the present so he can be cool. The older Adam does look back with a kind of irony, but not the kind his younger self expects. The irony is that the older Adam realizes that Amber’s speech was lost on him.

“It would take Adam twenty years to grasp the analogy between her slipping from the chair and from the boat.” When do you imagine the reader will grasp that analogy—in this moment or earlier in Amber’s narrative?

Probably earlier? But whether or not the reader grasps the analogy, I wanted to make it clear that the younger Adam hadn’t.

The story is taken from your new novel, “The Topeka School,” which will be published in October. The novel is set in Topeka, Kansas, where you grew up. The events in this excerpt take place in 1996, in the run-up to the Presidential election. How present were the nineties in your mind before you started working on the novel? How immersed in them did you feel by the end?

The nineties are always present in my mind since so much of my mind was formed (or malformed) during that period, my teen-age years. I do think there is something fascinating about the nineties and all the “end of history” narratives that were circulating at the time (maybe most famously via Francis Fukuyama’s book). I mean the idea that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western-style liberal democracy was going to triumph everywhere and ideology would give way to technocratic solutions to all our problems and so on. (I’m not representing Fukuyama’s position, such as it is—I’m just saying this was the reductive rhetoric in the air.) Like Adam, I did high-school debate and public speaking, and the tournaments were full of (predominantly white) kids like me in ill-fitting suits proclaiming some version of this nonsense. When Bill Clinton beat Bush and then trounced my fellow-Kansan Bob Dole, it seemed to many that the baby boomers, with their comparatively liberal social attitudes, had defeated conservatism once and for all. I wanted to remember that triumphant and mainstream (at least among the pundit class) political fantasy that characterized a lot of the nineties—to remember it from the disaster of the Trump era, and to think how the latter was of course already present in the former. “The Topeka School” is about many things, but it’s definitely about a violent identity crisis among white men that was taking place at the same time as American Empire had supposedly brought history to a benevolent end. (There were a lot of end-of-history narratives as the millennium approached; Heaven’s Gate was 1997, for instance.)

I also think of the kind of interchangeable architecture in which this excerpt takes place as very much of the nineties. And while it’s probably obvious, maybe I should mention how much the fantasy about interchangeability is a fantasy of whiteness, of maleness, of privilege. If Adam were African-American and lost and wandering around this community, he would be in mortal danger, maybe most immediately from the police. I don’t think he would have time for those reveries.

Adam’s parents are psychologists at a prestigious psychiatric clinic, making him a “Foundation kid.” How much does that identity inform Adam’s sense of himself whether piloting a boat, making his way through a subdivision at night, or getting ready to debate?

It’s crucial because Adam feels a tension between his lefty psychologist household, where talk is valued, and the culture outside his household, where manliness means something else and he’s desperate to pass as a “real man.” In a sense, “The Topeka School” is the history of Adam’s voice—a voice that is influenced by the Foundation vocabulary of emotions and family systems (how Adam asks about Amber’s biological father, for instance, or how his consciousness is inflected by his relationship with Klaus) but also by adolescent shit-talking in his milieu (which is often a white mimicry of gangsta rap) and debate and political speech (recidivism statistics, etc.).

Toward the end of the evening, Adam’s telling Amber about the phosphenes he sees (“tiny fading Rorschachs formed by the inherent electrical charges the retina produces while at rest”) and pressing her closed eyelids gently to see if he can summon up the same experience for her. He wants her to see what he sees, and wants to imagine seeing with or as her. Is that an impossible desire for a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old?

Well, Adam is always a composite of two Adams, the older and the younger, so I’m not sure it’s just the desire or voice of the teen-ager there. But, regardless, I hope it’s not impossible! If it is impossible for a teen-ager to want to imagine such a thing, then it’s because it’s a desire the teen-ager has lost: little kids are always trying to figure out what part of their experience is shared and shareable and communicable. Really, if you’re not interested in that question, you’re a sociopath. You might as well be President. Like many people obsessed with language, Adam is always running up against its limits, wondering what is before or beyond words. And I’m interested in literature’s ability or inability to capture these barely perceptible sensations that can be difficult to verbalize. (Rei Terada’s book “Looking Away” has some brilliant insights about this sort of thing.) I think Adam’s wondering about phosphenes is also linked up to the themes of interchangeability or toggling between scales that we’ve been discussing. Can he see with, can he see as, can there be a bridge across consciousnesses, which would also be a way out of the solipsism that can attend all his anxiety and posturing? But this is also Klaus haunting the scene, since Adam knows the term from him—and in the novel Klaus (an émigré analyst, a Holocaust survivor, Adam’s dad’s mentor, a kind of grandfather of affinity to Adam) represents a rich and complicated history. So even here, in his ’89 Camry (a car from the last year of history!), in the driveway of a McMansion, as he’s engaged in this little ritual of great intimacy, other voices and historical rhythms are present for Adam. Even when the retina is at rest.

ViaNewYorker