Ben Lerner on Writing and Magic Pills

The poet and novelist goes home

Catherine Barnett
Author Photo
Photo by Catherine Barnett

At a friend’s book party last spring, we were politely asked to leave our belongings—shoes, coats, bags—in the vestibule. As I was getting ready to leave, bending down for my boots, I saw Ben Lerner’s name on a bright yellow book in among the lagan: an advance copy of The Topeka School that someone had carefully balanced on top of her things. I briefly considered stealing it.

Lerner, the author of three books of poems and, now, three novels; the recipient of a 2015 MacArthur Genius grant; a writer whose mind is highly attuned to pattern, collage, and accident, would surely find metaphor in the image of his galley left in a vestibule.

What is a vestibule? A forecourt, an entrance, a mediation between an outside and an inside world, which seems apropos. In the interview that follows, Lerner calls The Topeka School, which came out last fall, a “prehistory” of his earlier novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04. The Topeka School relies on four alternating points of view. Adam, a brainiac Topekan filled with language and intensity, questions and analyzes everything (Adam will be familiar to anyone who has read Lerner’s earlier novels); Darren, a troubled young man whose chaotic, violence-tinged, hallucinatory inner life seems to represent both a psychiatric and a cultural illness; and Adam’s parents, Jane and Jonathan. The chapters featuring Adam and Darren are written mainly in a close-third-person point of view, while those featuring Adam’s parents—and the closing chapter, which leaps again in time and is narrated by Adam, who has become a father—are in the first person.

The first time I sat down with Lerner to talk about his novel—about these shifting points of view, the unreliability of the narration, the way thinking and feeling dissolve into each other, how “knowing” functions and fails the characters—we stayed past closing in a loud café and then ended up talking on the grass beside the Bailey fountain in Brooklyn, eating Walgreen’s dark-chocolate almonds inside the traffic circle.

The second time we met for this interview, he teased me via text for not being on time. I wrote back saying I was sitting inside at the café where we’d arranged to meet. “You’re not here,” he texted. “You’re gaslighting me again.” He insisted he was right there, sitting at the café, which he named correctly. For a moment, time and place became both fixed and unfixed, as they are in his new book. Once we understood the problem—there were two downtown cafés with the same name—he was kind enough to come find me. He was hot and sweaty and brilliant and hilarious, pointing out every stain I would otherwise not have noticed in his black clothes. In truth I couldn’t even see them. They might have been fact, or fiction—or both simultaneously—like almost everything Lerner writes.

Catherine Barnett

Catherine Barnett What drew you back to Topeka?

Ben Lerner I’m not sure I’ve ever entirely left. It’s in all my books. Maybe going at it and through it is a way of finally leaving.

One thing that I felt could make it an interesting setting for a novel is the unlikely juxtaposition of two cultures there, especially in relation to speech. There was this big international psychiatric clinic in Topeka—the Menninger Foundation—where talk, where expressivity, was emphasized. It was an institution that ran on talk. But that was set against a backdrop of a very red state where expressive speech—especially for men—was considered a kind of weakness.

It wasn’t that simple, obviously, but the collision of those two cultures fascinated me, and I existed between them. My parents, as you know, are both psychologists and were there because of the Menninger Foundation.

I also wanted to return to the nineties, to revisit the middle west white middle class back when people were proclaiming that we had reached “the end of history,” the notion that, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union, liberalism—capitalism—had triumphed once and for all. But we were the generation of Columbine, more or less—not all was well with the privileged subjects of the empire that had supposedly brought history to a benevolent end.

I also wanted to write a family prehistory that was a window, one window, onto the prehistory of the Trump era. And I didn’t want to write another novel set in a cosmopolitan urban center—I wanted to reckon with my hometown and explore the prehistory of the other two novels.

CB There are tears in space and time that happen both within and across chapters. Why?

BL One answer is that I couldn’t represent the way I talked as a teenager. I could have done it comically, but I didn’t know how to do it without irony. When I realized I couldn’t write in the first person with a tone that could hold the emotional material I wanted to deal with, I decided to write about the character who most resembled the younger me in the third person, and I began to experiment with writing versions of the parents in the first person. So the problem of representing “my” first-person speech opened onto this experiment in writing in the voices of parents—which was a kind of time travel for me. Because I’m a parent now, and around the same age my parents were when I was my girls’ age, I feel as if my present has been brought into new relation with their past—and the book aspires to make felt these shifting correspondences.

CB This book is a departure from your previous two novels, in that there are radical shifts in point of view. What were the difficulties and pleasures in making this cast of voices?

BL A lot of conversations about fiction emphasize the importance of imagining other minds and voices, asserting that that’s the core moral project of fiction. And there’s something to that idea. But in this book, which is very much a genealogy of the voice that’s writing it, I wanted both to depict other voices and to depict the limits of my access to those voices. I wanted to demonstrate that the parents’ voices are being ventriloquized by the grownup Adam who is writing the book, for instance. I wanted there to be tears in the voices. Glitches in the matrix of the voice.

Which made me think about how a voice isn’t some irreducibly personal thing that issues from inside us but a composite, made up of recycled speech and found language and so on. Adolescence, maybe particularly for Adam, isn’t just bodily change and sexual experiment; it’s about trying on different ways of speaking, trying to figure out what voices he’s going to admit or try to exclude. And he’s worried about what voices he can’t edit out. Like his grandfather’s. An individual voice is always really corporate—I mean made up of various voices, a conglomeration—and beyond the control of the speaker, I think.

CB In one of the first chapters, when the main character, Adam, is trying to impress his girlfriend Amber, you mention “the problem of other people’s minds.” This novel seems to press into and up against the limits of access into other people’s points of view even as it’s playing with point of view, blurring boundaries.

BL Yes. Sometimes that shows up in the novel’s uneven use of quotation marks. Many passages of speech are not in quotations, which emphasizes their constructedness, their writtenness—or that they’re projections, that it’s me kind of throwing my voice; the voices are collaborations. It’s not claiming, even within the fiction, that this is what the character “actually” said. I mean more that it’s deliberately acknowledged as in part the recollection or projection of the grownup Adam writing the book.

CB I don’t feel it so much as a construction but rather as a lack of boundary, a slipperiness between participant and observer, which animates the whole novel.

BL The absence or uneven use of quotations blurs the boundaries of the voice, and blurring boundaries is a—maybe the—major theme of the novel: good and bad forms of this kind of blurring, like the terrible boundary blurring that is the grandfather’s sexually abusive behavior, or the problem of marital transgression, or the blurring of therapeutic and personal relationships at the foundation. The book is about how boundary blurring recurs across generations, and the book is also an instance of it, in that it’s a blurring of fact and fiction.

And then there is the blurring between the two Adams—the adolescent Adam and the adult Adam writing the book, who speaks in his own voice at the book’s end.

CB How do the two Adams—which I heard initially as “two atoms”—bump against and into and through each other?

BL Adam exists in the first and third person simultaneously. I came to understand that the Adam described in the third person is the younger version of the person writing the book, and that those sections ostensibly written from the perspective of the parents are channeled through the adult Adam’s imagination.

The young Adam is trying to summon a future Adam who’s going to look back on the scene with irony. But the real irony is that the older Adam is looking back without irony—he takes these experiences very seriously.

CB As I encountered the different voices, I began thinking about questions of empathy and logic that seem central to the novel, perhaps most evocatively in the Darren chapters. Can you tell me about this tension?

BL The Darren sections are in a close third-person point of view, even closer, in a way, than Adam’s. These chapters are inflected with Darren’s language or perspective, but they also get very literary, which I think makes clear that the limits of access are a central problem of the novel. Adam’s voice is always a crossing of the teenage Adam with the Adam who’s writing the book in the present tense: Clinton-era Adam and Trump-era Adam.

Similarly, the parents’ voices are sometimes mimetic of these Baby Boomers who are doing the talking, but they also break down in moments where it becomes clear that the older Adam is writing in the present, trying to reconstruct and inhabit his parents’ voices. The goal of the book is to make felt the drama of that effort to imagine the other voice, not to realize it in a way that encourages you to forget that it’s a reconstruction. For me the empathy isn’t the accomplished access to other minds and voices; it’s the dramatization of the effort with all its hazards and limitations.

CB I don’t know if you like Marguerite Duras or not, but in The Lover the moments of greatest intimacy are written in the third person and the moments of greatest distance are written in the first person. It’s moving because it’s counterintuitive. I felt this in your novel, too.

BL I suppose it’s common for people to describe intense first-person states as being out-of-body experiences, or something they experience from the outside and the inside simultaneously. Many of my most intense memories I remember in the third person.

Like I remember hitting my head as a kid—my concussion—in the third person. It’s not a false memory exactly; it’s more of a corporate one. In the novel—as in life?—some memories are in the first and third person simultaneously, especially childhood memories, in part because they are so inflected by the stories others tell us about what we experienced. They are collaborative productions. Always involving an element of fiction, subject to revision. And then there is the special case of dissociation and trauma that is recovered memory, which comes up in the novel.

Adam as both a kid and an adult is always narrating his experience as it happens. Maybe you have to narrate your experience as it happens in order to experience it as real.

CB Does that narration get in the way of experience, or enable it?

BL Maybe for me and for the characters that resemble me it can do both—limit and enable. Sensation can be smothered by language. But I also think language can amplify something that might otherwise disappear. That’s a concern of the novel. Take the stuff with phosphenes—those little patterns that float across your field of vision when your eyes are closed. Adam wonders if others can see them, wants others to see them: he’s wondering what can be named and shared and what must remain irreducibly private. It occurs to me that the question of phosphenes and the question of trauma are actually related in that sense—even if one of the experiences threatens to disappear because it’s so faint, and the other threatens to be unshareable because it’s so overwhelming.

CB In the penultimate chapter of the book, there’s a passage describing Adam’s limited understanding of female sexuality. The diction is the opposite of erotic; it’s highly Latinate, mentioning “the dialectic of circular and vertical motions” and “the choreography of his fingers.” There’s even a joke about cunnilingus, which sounds like “cunning linguist,” “a joke that might have been made for [Adam], he who tried to cover the body in speech.” These passages don’t exactly intensify the erotic—they’re kind of skittering away from it—but they do assert the connection between mind and body in no uncertain terms.

BL Again I think it’s both erotic and can cancel the erotic: language sometimes defends against experience and sometimes amplifies experience. At least in this book. Even the depiction of a kind of defensive formation can be really vivifying or erotic in literature, because when you’re reading you’re not putting your hand on someone’s skin: what you have is the language. Language is the skin. I’m trying to say that part of the pleasure and even the erotic power of reading about people who are “covering the body in language” is that for the reader the language is the first-order experience, not a secondary one. I mean, that’s Proust for me: he prefers the literary description of the cathedral to the cathedral, but the reader is experiencing the mediate immediately. For Proust the second-order experience is the real one. He has to withdraw into his room to experience the outside.

CB In the novel’s moments of more global eros, there’s often a breakdown, a colliding of body and mind, and I notice cognition comes in to give us—or to force upon us—more distance from the sensory world.

BL There’s no imagination of the erotic in the book that is divorced from language. And in fact your question makes me realize that the only sexual experience divorced from language in the book is the parental abuse, because the child is incapable of talking back. That’s the bad silence that the modes of therapeutic listening (the good silence of the therapist?) are supposed to counter.

CB Does this out-of-body dissociated state have its use for you as a writer?

BL Well, I think writing is dissociative in a good way. You have to forget what you know, or think you know, to write. You have only very imperfect knowledge of your own intentions.

CB The book vibrates with a sense of the present absence—with a sense of the “unthought known,” which is a term from the British psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas that kept coming to mind as I read.

BL You’re right that the book is interested in what it means to know, what knowledge might be worth. The Foundation parents, the psychologists, think their kids will “know better” than to participate in a violent and misogynistic social world, and the kids do know better, but knowing is a weak state. Knowing is a weak state compared to wanting to participate in the libidinal economy.

The father, Jonathan, knows, when he talks about his desire for Sima, that it’s driven by his family history, by the effect of his wife, Jane’s, fame, etc., but the knowing if anything enables the behavior by giving the participants a fantasy of control. Jane knows there is something she doesn’t know. The book is maybe about the weak force of a certain kind of knowing versus the strong force of embodied intergenerational memories that aren’t necessarily conscious. There are the unthought knowns. And the unknown thoughts. I sound like Donald Rumsfeld.

CB I was just with the poet Ilya Kaminsky, and he asked me—he’s always asking wonderful impossible questions like this—“Who is the greatest poet of emotion?” And because I needed time to think, I gave him a puzzled look, to which he said, “Well, which poets make you cry when you read them?” How would you answer?

BL I’d dodge it by saying it doesn’t remain the same, you’re moved by different things at different times, and that you might be moved by a single poem one way but by a body of work another, etc. Recently, the book that most moved me was the Natalia Ginzburg novel All Our Yesterdays, which is really beautiful in part because of its restraint and its limited access to characters. A kind of lyrical materialism that doesn’t rely on psychological clichés.

I guess I would say, all the poets I care about are ultimately poets of emotion. Increasingly—maybe I’m getting old?—I don’t know what it would mean to be a great poet who’s not a great poet of emotion. Which is not the same thing as embracing sentimentality. Of course, sometimes a work can be powerfully cold. Emotion can be felt as a loss.

Recently I’ve found not just Fred Moten’s work but his way of inhabiting that work—as he does for example in b jenkins—really beautiful, emotional. Alice Notley has written poems I find incredibly moving. “At Night the States” probably is the poem of hers that I find most moving. And I find the moments of beauty and possibility opening up in John Ashbery’s work inexhaustibly beautiful.

CB You’ve called Ashbery one of your heroes in poetry. In fiction, who is your greatest enabler and who is your greatest threat? Are they one and the same?

BL The good thing about being such an accidental novelist is I kind of bypassed a lot of anxiety of influence, or whatever, because it just never seemed like part of my identity. I had a great sense of purposelessness reading novels. And the novels became vehicles for my thinking through questions of influence and transmission as a poet—talking about Ashbery in the first novel, thinking about Creeley and Whitman and others in the second. This one is a little different. I think I am indebted to Virginia Woolf in ways I am still only starting to see, for instance, but I don’t experience anything about that as threatening.

CB You’ve said that you’re much more interested in the questions than in the answers. As a teacher, I find my students often have too much knowing in the work.

BL Yeah, a lot of teaching probably is subtractive. A kind of decomposition class. Unlearning assumptions. Teaching somebody to be alongside the language as opposed to just trying to transfer their image of what they want to say into a verbal form—maybe a good writing teacher teaches in part a different relation to intentionality? I guess the best and worst thing about it is that you have to discover what’s sayable on each occasion. Anyway, this is why restraint is so generative.

CB Can you tell me about your teaching, and your having been taught? Can writing be taught?

BL I’ve had great teachers. I learned from my mom. I learned a lot about sentences from a high school teacher named Faith Adams, although I didn’t know it at the time. I learned from all these other Topeka writers—Eric McHenry, Ed Skoog, Cyrus Console, my friend Stephen Davis, who is a writer and a firefighter. All these Topekans, it’s part of the joke of the title of the book. I didn’t know all these other people—Anne Boyer, CAConrad—but they’re also from Topeka. Kevin Young. At Brown, I knew the Waldrops and C. D. Wright, and they were amazing teachers, but the way they taught was by example. They were practicing artists who read everything and made incredible things, and they were, all of them, really catholic in their tastes. Even though the place was identified with avant-garde writing, they didn’t actually have any of those pieties. They had a levity and a rigor and an openness. Now I have absolutely crucial interlocutors I don’t think I could write without. Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Maggie Nelson, others.

CB Do you think you are to your students what your teachers were to you?

BL One thing I’ve taken from the Waldrops is a simultaneous reverence for the art and a sense of its absurdity. A sense that part of a rich literary life is also understanding that there’s something clownish or embarrassing or impossible about it. I think about how much the Waldrops loved really, really, really bad poems. Like in that anthology of horrible verse Keith edited [Pegasus Descending: A Book of the Best Bad Verse]. I try to give to my students a sense that rigor can exist alongside a sense of humor or the absurd. And that part of what’s interesting about poetry is the embarrassment it can cause; our resistance to it; the spectacular failures so many poems are.

Ambivalence about the value of writing is actually really interesting material for thinking about writing. Because poetry and writing are always, to a certain degree, happening in a space where there’s a crisis of value. That clichéd accusation—“Why don’t you get a real job?”—also contains a substantial claim about poetry, which is that there’s some alternative regime of value being implied by the activity of poetry or art making that isn’t compatible with the mundane economy.

CB When I read The Hatred of Poetry, I had the feeling it was like a debater who had been assigned that side of the argument, and so he was—you were—going to make the case. I’m sure you’re going to disagree. But it seemed to me that the essay was nodding all the time to the exact opposite argument. It doesn’t seem like a hatred. I was wondering if it was almost a one-sided riff.

BL Well, that book—or essay—is full of love for poetry. I was really taken by that Allen Grossman way of talking about the actual and the virtual and about all poems in some sense being a failure. And the thing that’s debater-like about it is, yeah, it’s not about believing it as a stable truth. It’s about testing it out as a way of talking and seeing what it reveals. I believe it’s one interesting way of talking about poems. It’s an account which I think helps reveal why poetry is so often denounced and then defended or proclaimed dead. I was trying to use Grossman’s way of talking in part as a way of understanding the rhythm of denunciation and defense that characterizes poetry.

CB I took it as somebody with a logical mind exploring this claim, as opposed to an impassioned stance.

BL It’s an impassioned argument that the historical denunciations of poetry are a sign of the relevance of poetry and an anxiety about space for the imagination in our lives. And it’s an attempt to show how a white male fantasy of universality often lurks behind the claim that poetry is dead or insufficient for our times.

CB You told me, before your first novel was going to come out, that I was not going to like the narrator.

BL Did I? I feel warmly towards that young man. He’s older and younger than the Adams in this book.

CB One sign of the success of this book is that I really didn’t want the chapters to end; I got attached to each point of view.

BL I’m glad you think it’s a sign of success. I was definitely aware of the fact that there’s a kind of frustration in getting ejected from the voice and having to start over with another one. But it felt worth it to me because I wanted the accumulation of patterning to happen across sections. I wanted the patterns to accrue across different perspectives and that couldn’t happen if I didn’t break them up. And breaking the mode the fiction has established felt related to all the scenes of linguistic collapse in the novel.

CB How did you learn to tell a story? Does story itself interest you?

BL Well, patterning more than plotting is how I think, and that surely has to do with being a poet first. And being alive to the possibilities of patterning involves some of what we’re talking about—a wavering between knowing and not knowing. One mystery of patterning is that you can’t not do it. It’s really interesting that they have to use computers to generate random numbers. Because if people just start listing numbers, you start to form patterns that you’re unaware of. The dialectic of patterning is that you have to stop knowing what you’re doing in order to discover what you’re doing. Patterning is more about receptivity than it is about administration. Or it’s a dialectic. It’s the glitches becoming features thing.

CB Glitches?

BL A long time ago, I talked to this video-game guy who said that many popular video games, like SimCity, or The Sims, or whatever it’s called, would have a version where somebody could accidentally walk through a wall, and that accident would become a really popular thing in the game. It was just a programming error. And they would preserve it in the next iteration because a glitch had become a feature. I feel like a lot of patterning or writing happens when you do something accidentally which you then retrospectively will when it happens a second time. Or you re-describe a contingency as necessity: You say, OK, I’m writing, I’m playing around, and I keep tending towards quatrains—I keep almost having four- or five-line stanzas. So now I’m going to make the rule that there are going to be poems of alternating four- and five-line stanzas. This is something you can teach, I think—how to get students to perceive the possibility of pattern-making in what might at first appear to be pure contingency. In this particular novel, patterning is the plot—because so much of it is about how events get repeated across generations.

CB You’ve spoken about how that happened in your first book of poems, The Lichtenberg Figures—about the pressure and the freedom, I guess, that the sonnet form or any form gives you.

BL Yeah, because restraint, however arbitrary, forces you to make decisions you wouldn’t otherwise make, and that both reveals and breaks patterns and gives you the opportunity to establish new ones. This is the oldest idea. And it never gets old.

That idea that pattern-making is as much something that you discover as something that you administer is, I think, a kind of psychiatric idea, too. The first patterning that made this book possible was to think about a series of theaters of speech breaking down.

CB The seeking—the seeing—of patterns seems more available to you than to most of us. It seems to me that your mind is so metaphoric that even in the accident you can find a pattern, the way the world and its accidents correspond to the feeling, the trouble, the otherwise inarticulable.

BL Well, there is only underreading or overreading. Madness is at either end. There is the paranoid overreading, seeing pattern everywhere. A yellow bus goes by, and then three yellow buses go by at the same interval, and then: I’m being watched by the yellow buses. So it’s about getting those levels right. I’ve always thought of fiction making and poetry as about patterning, and not about plot. I mean, there is plot, too, but it’s more about correspondence.

CB What was it like to try to write in your mother’s voice? Your father’s?

BL The mother’s voice sounds a lot like my mother (I think so, anyway; I’m not sure what she would say about that); the father’s voice doesn’t really sound like my dad. Jonathan sounds more like me. Certainly I felt vulnerable and disoriented writing in my mother’s voice about some of the things in the book. I’m sure this sounds like a horrible cliché but becoming a parent makes you realize in a deep way that your parents were just two more people figuring it out as they went along. Becoming a parent has both deepened my admiration for my parents and ended idealization, if that makes sense. Anyway, this book is in so many ways a tribute to them.

CB But isn’t that also part of the material, since they’re analysts?

BL Psychologists, not analysts. They can be pretty anti-analysis.

CB And still, the parents in the novel seem very psychoanalytical in their approaches.

BL Well, all psychologists are influenced by psychoanalysis, right? Part of the book’s project is that it’s an act of Adam’s radical identification with his mother: he’s going to write in her voice. But also it’s radical dis-identification, because he’s going to see his mother as an adult, remember her at the age he is while writing, briefly become her peer in that sense. And so he’s both writing in the voice of his mother and having to see his mother not as a mother but as this separate adult.

CB In the book, the parents see objects or actions or statements in terms of what they’re signs of. They seem to read the world as metaphor. I wonder if being the child of psychologists makes you more alert to these possibilities, this way of reading the world?

BL I definitely grew up with the idea that symptoms were expressions of what couldn’t be expressed consciously in healthier forms, and that if you don’t express things in language, you’ll express them some other way.

CB I also love the novel’s moments of glossolalia, which are filled with wild leaps in time and subject, with juxtapositions that illuminate the interior worlds of the characters, the permeability of inner and outer worlds.

BL Glossolalia is both pre- and post-linguistic. It’s babble. You know how babies are able to produce all these vocalizations that they unlearn when they learn an actual language, right? So that learning a language is also forgetting; it’s shedding a kind of originary formal capacity. All these moments of linguistic collapse in the book—they are both catastrophes and shot through with possibility because they are moments of returning to the irreducibly social potential of sound. It’s like with the debate stuff. On the one hand, speed in debate is totally grotesque, and disturbing, the shell of meaning, but it also becomes a kind of poetry, a kind of lyric stretching, a kind of return. It’s touching the basic physicality of language. It has a little to do with what Moten in another context called “antepolitical”—not anti-, but prior to, pure potentiality. I want the decline of speech into nonsense to be felt as an end and as a beginning.

CB The glossolalia is also just really very human, letting us enter the characters’ minds more intimately. Sometimes, even outside of the more overtly staged moments of glossalalic breakdown, your sentences just break down.

BL Syntax is an image of thought, of the rhythm of thinking. That’s the way in which prose escapes paraphrase as much as poetry. And sometimes dramatizing the collapse of a sentence might intensify that correspondence for a reader.

CB Syntactically speaking, which conjunction is your favorite?

BL I need the complete list of conjunctions again.

CB Think of cause—because, since; think of time—while, when, whenever; of place—where, wherever; of agent—who, whoever; etc. You can just throw them into a sentence and let them open doors.

BL Can I fail to answer by saying: the semicolon? It does the complicated work of conjunction because it can be temporal, and logical, and causal—it can be chronology and causality simultaneously, and it can raise a question about that relationship. It can be vaguer and more prosodic than deploying a particular conjunction. So probably the semicolon is the way I transpose that particular activity of ambiguous conjunction that is enjambment into a prose sentence.

CB What are the ratios of history, memory, and storytelling in The Topeka School? Would you alter them if you could?

BL I’m probably not clear on some of the ratios. I mean, Jonathan’s dissertation was my dad’s dissertation. His mother did die when he was young. He did live in Taiwan. He did make an incredible Ziegler film (though I take all kinds of liberties in the description). But again Jonathan doesn’t really sound like my dad. It’s not his consciousness, as anybody who knows him would immediately recognize. Sima is made up. Jason is made up. Tons of people are made up.

But through that fiction I’m representing something that touches history and memory. I did wrap my genitalia in gum as a child (which is probably the most embarrassing thing I can reveal!). I had a terrible concussion. (Actually I had two.) Darren and Klaus have vague antecedents in the real world. A kid did throw a cue ball randomly into a crowded basement party in Topeka, but it wasn’t a kid who resembled Darren, etc.

My mom is a well-known author, and we have talked at great length about her father, but the actual section where Jane addresses Adam is not based on the transcript of any real conversation. But the relationship it describes with her father and his behavior—while fictionalized—is basically accurate. I wouldn’t have made that up. But then my mom and I have discussed this book so often, and she was such a crucial interlocutor about it that the historical person enters it that way, too—not just my relationship with my mom but my mom as an editor. My dad was also an indispensable reader for this book. I don’t know how to generalize about it beyond saying it’s personal history I had to get told but the way of telling required patterning that involved all kinds of manipulation of the facts and aesthetic decisions.

Here’s one example, or indication of the complexity for me: My older brother and I are very close, but I decided I couldn’t have him in the book because when I tried to place him within the scenes I was, on the one hand, overly concerned about how he’d respond to his depiction and, on the other, constantly having to double each story—where was the brother while X was happening, etc. And there isn’t a brother in the previous books, in what I largely consider the trilogy. So I decided I would write the book without Matt but dedicate it to him—and in so doing emphasize its fictionality at the outset.

CB On Goodreads, your new novel is called “coming-of-age fiction.” What does that get right? Wrong?

BL It’s as much about having kids as being one.

CB In an interview of Cyrus Console, you ask him about “the manchild.” What is your own relationship to the manchild, and has it changed as you’ve aged?

BL I’ve always wanted to write something that is in some way about that fascinating figure—a figure at the heart of this book. A figure of arrested adolescence, the persistence of the child into adulthood. A figure like Darren haunts all the communities in The Topeka School. He can’t be integrated fully into the medical pastoral of the Foundation. His inclusion in the social scene of the high school kids is a violent disaster. He’s too old for his mom to discipline but incapable of being assimilated into the larger economy through some kind of stable job—he’s the bad conscience of the community, in a sense.

At the novel’s end there is a glimpse of him among the Phelpses, those radical homophobes, the only ones who will have him. Instead of speaking, Darren is mutely holding a sign of hate when we last see him. He is badly disfigured by his desire to be “a real man,” and of course he represents in part the white surplus anger that is weaponized by right-wing movements. He is also somewhat of a John Clare figure (lines of Clare’s are scattered throughout the Darren sections)—a poetic figure, a teller of fantastic tales, who cannot find his place. Darren is on the one hand part of a long line of literary loafers or “village idiots” who embarrass the mainstream of their community, but he’s also a distinctly nineties figure of white surplus rage.

The novel orbits around him. And of course Adam fears he is himself a “manchild” in a certain sense—not a “real” man, always at risk of being revealed to be posing among the tough kids, also prone to magical thinking and the uttering of spells. And Adam and Darren are linked, unbeknownst to them. Their fates are linked, and that connection animates much of the novel. Certainly, the entire book is the prehistory of Darren throwing the cue ball at the party. An effort at the radical contextualization of that random act of violence.

CB Why cannibalize your other writing/essays to write your fiction? In The Topeka School, some of your wonderful Harper’s essay about your experiences as a debate champion show up with minor changes. And there are other instances of this in all your novels. What are the advantages of doing this?

BL It’s kind of like the readymade in visual art. I like to see what happens when language from one genre is transposed into another. Fiction is really curatorial in that regard. Sometimes putting a sentence from one genre into another causes it to ramify. Or crystals start to form or something. It’s also a way of acknowledging the unstable boundary between fact and fiction, which is often thematic in the work. And it’s a mode of repetition across books, which I feel is another important kind of patterning, in the same way repetition within a work can be. I also think I sometimes use one genre as a laboratory for developing an idea that has to be pursued in another genre. Although that makes it all sound more deliberate than it is. I don’t really know what I’m doing.

CB Is there any sense in which your skills in debate and as an extemporaneous speaker have harmed you? Is there a cure?

BL Oh, I’m sure they contributed to my being insufferable company, because they can train you to think of language as combat and to privilege scoring points over subtler forms of engagement. Maybe I thought of poetry as a cure—the privileging of polysemy and ambiguity? But one thing this novel tries to track is the strange way that at its limit—when debate became an experience of pure prosody evacuated of content—those strange forms of “competitive speech” opened onto poetry.

CB How is a poem “a mysterious pill,” as is claimed in one of Adam’s chapters?

BL Stephen Crane used to call poems “pills.” Adam and his mother’s ritual game around “The Purple Cow”—an unreal animal made out of language—is a kind of spell that brings them closer and also, late in the book, blocks the grandfather’s voice. The poem is a high dose of language that acts on the world. Very concentrated. But there are a lot of other pills circulating through the bodies in the book—tranquilizers, SSRIs. Poetry and pills are very related in the other two books as well. I’ve always been fascinated with speech acts, how speech acts on the mind and body. Like a medicine or poison or hallucinogen or whatever. Even when the effects are very subtle.

CB I know your mother has recently written a book about apology; I once gave a talk on how often poems are apologies. In The Lichtenberg Figures you wrote “As a policy // we are generally sorry. But sorry doesn’t cut it.” In what way might The Topeka School be apology?

BL A speech in one’s defense, an acknowledgment of wrong—I like the two often contradictory senses of the term. Both are speech acts, magic pills—close to poetry. I think that’s an interesting way to think about this book, and maybe my other novels, too.

Catherine Barnett is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Solutions for the Problem of Bodies in Space. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a 2022 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among other honors. She teaches at New York University.
Originally published:
January 1, 2020


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