Time Is A Flat Circle: Ben Lerner Interviewed
, February 8th, 2015 09:59
Karl Smith sits down with poet and novelist Ben Lerner to discuss his latest work, 10:04, the fragility and fictionality of the Self, the poetic versus novelistic impetus and the impossibility of experiencing the future
I meet Ben Lerner at Shoreditch’s branch of the Ace Hotel where, as I order our coffee and explain to the author of 2013’s Leaving the Atocha Station the difference between a latte and a flat white, the Brooklyn-resident poet and novelist finds himself locked out of his hotel room for no less than the third time in less than twenty-four hours.
It’s the 13th of January 2015 – six days after the attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo – and Lerner has flown in to London today from Paris. When I ask him what the atmosphere is like right now, whether it’s strange to see the city, under heavy police presence, in such a militarised state, he points out that even now it’s practically hands-off compared to policing in New York on any given day.
It’s also the 13th day of Lerner’s second novel, 10:04, being released in the UK to the same kind of near-univocal acclaim it received in the US. In many ways it’s a further examination of the ideas the author dealt with so deftly in his first book of narrative prose – those of poetry, relationships, time and the tenuous construction of the Self in the face of the super-thin membrane that separates it from reality and reality from itself in the wake of events – using the “I” as a weapon to explore its own fragility.
With this, only his second full-length book of fiction - and those having been released across the short span of as many years - Lerner is, despite having three books of verse to his name, already more widely known as a novelist than a poet. This seems like a solid place to begin a conversation that will, in its course, tread ground far, far less firm.
Both of your novels so far have started life as poems: do you feel at all like the novel-writing instinct has usurped the poem-writing instinct?
There’s a weird way in which the novels had a relation to poetry: with 10:04 I wrote that long poem, the one that’s excerpted in the book, before I wrote the novel – but I had no idea that it was going to have a life in the novel. The novelistic frame got built up around it. And, in Leaving the Atocha Station, I had written some academic criticism and kind of soured on that and I had written a book of poems but it had really exhausted me with thinking about the line. And so the novel became this way of thinking about some of the ideas that had concerned me, both in poems and in thinking about poetry, but letting them spread out in to a world with these different characters.
I’ve been thinking of the novel a lot as a kind of curation; like the way you can stage encounters with works of art. So it’s less that it’s usurped poetry but more that it’s a framework for dramatising a certain kind of engagement with poetry. But I don’t know – I seem to have no fucking control over what I write. I didn’t mean to write either novel. I was really resistant to the idea of writing a novel at first and then with the second one I was like ‘okay, I’ve written my one novel’ – poets get one novel, right? – and then I worked on this poem and I worked on some art criticism but it started growing in to this book despite my self. Now that I want to write a novel and I’m thinking that means I’ll probably never write another novel.
It’s all poetry from here on out.
I know. Exactly. But I am still writing poems… they just come a little more slowly.
So, you’re finding it a harder process?
It’s all hard for me. My three books of poems were really like book-length serial works. I wanted to write a book of discreet poems that could stand on their own but that is apparently harder and slower for me and, in fact, I think in a way what happened is that as soon as I made that rule for my self, that’s what started causing me to write novels. When you’re writing a series, like a sonnet sequence or something, the seriality of the work always helps to indicate the next move – you always have something to work against.
Reading 10:04 I’m struck by a similarity in effect to O’Hara’s poetry, in that the narrator is traversing this hulking city in the face of these totally mammoth moments and movements but it’s the miniscule points of grace that last for only a second or two that seem to matter more than anything.
Part of what happens when you’re a poet is that you get more interested in pattern than plot; you get interested in how a patterning of events and a patterning of language relate, as opposed to the big dramatic transformations. If you write a novel in which nobody gets blown up or nobody turns in to a wizard then everybody says your novel’s plotless, but a lot of my favourite novels are “plotless” by that standard.
What some people love about the novel is its ability to be kind of cinematic in the sense of presenting these big events in a spectacular fashion. And there are novels that do that really well. But I’m much more interested in the way that the rhythm of a character’s thinking shows up in the prosody of the syntax. I don’t think that’s just a poet’s concern – any serious novelist cares about that – but I think that it’s primary for me, maybe in a different way.
You use the word cinematic and that can throw up a couple of different ideas: in terms of Michael Bay films – the heaving, pointless and strobing action of it all – but 10:04, reminds me more of the sugar cube in Three Colours Blue; how they tested various brands until they found one that took exactly five seconds to soak up her coffee…
Definitely. I think there’s the bad cinematic sense of the novel, but there’s also the good cinematic sense which is a medium that’s concerned with time.
It’s an interesting way of thinking about – of being made to think about – time.
Narrative is always about the organisation of time, right? The meaningful organisation of time. But there’s a kind of a novel that makes you want to forget that – there’s a kind of novel that makes you want to forget its constructedness and wants to make you feel like you’re transported to place outside of time. I’m not interested in novels that make you forget that they’re novels: I’m interested in the way that the construction of a book or work of art can be dramatised by that book or work of art. I think that comes from poetry, I mean, that could come from anywhere, but it comes for me from poetry in the sense that you think about the artwork not just as a description of an experience but as an object to be experienced. The relationship between the time of reading – the present tense of reading – and trying to imagine the past or thinking about the reach of the book in to the future; all of that is really alive for me.
It reminds me in a sense of Ulyssean time or the kind of time that Russ Cohle tries to describe in True Detective, flattening his beer can: the sense that everything is happening all at once. At any one moment everything is cut and dried and is all to play for – ‘time is a flat circle’.
Your experience of time, your experience of the present, is so shot through with the fictions you tell about the future that, in this kind of Bergsonian sense, there’s really no such thing as the present without a story about the past and a projection in to the future, which produces a funny kind of simultaneity – you never experience the future except as a texture in the present.
In that sense everything that’s going to happen has already happened in one way or another.
Except in those moments of crisis when the fictions that you’re telling about the future or the past get reorganised. That’s one of the things that I’m very interested in in the book: like when your father turns out not to be your father and your identity is up for grabs, when capitalism feels fragile, finally and it calls in to question your notion of the future that you had when you were fifteen – your remembered notions of the future that have kind of failed.
Your pre-constructed future that has never come to be. In the novel there’s frequently this idea that life reorganises or is constantly reorganising itself around people in the wake of certain small events – the idea that everything, really, hinges on more or less nothing at all.
Yeah, it’s both a moment of vertigo and possibility, right? If you think about the present as determined by the stories you’re telling about the future and the past, when those narratives become fragile the future is really up for grabs, too.
I’m interested in the way that things that feel like essential aspects of your identify can be liquefied by new information and suddenly you have to reorient your whole identity. And I’m interested in the way in which that can be kind of a catastrophe but also how that can show you the possibility of the reorganisation of experience through fiction. You have to tell a new story and it’s tentative and vulnerable but it has real effects; I’m interested in how fictions have real effects. David Graeber talks about how capitalism has been a total failure as an economic policy – most of us don’t believe it can go on, we think it’s going to destroy the planet if it hasn’t already, that it depends on the immiseration of all these people, it doesn’t deliver the shit it says it’s going deliver except for the very rich and so on and so forth. Graeber says it’s an amazing failure as an economic system but it’s an amazing triumph as an ideology: everybody thinks it can’t go on and nobody really believes it can be replaced, right?
You only have to read one of Žižek's books to get a handle on the total lack of ideas of things to actually put in capitalism’s place…
Right. And in the book, with seas rising and with the insanity of a kind of fragile capital, that’s the macro-political equivalent of learning that a story you had about the future or the past of your own identity is suddenly up for grabs. To see that indeterminacy and that possibility of imaginative redescription as both vertiginous and scary but also as fecund and having possibility.
I think about it the way Wallace Stevens thought about fiction: the necessary fictions, the supreme fictions, but not in terms of a genre of literature. We don’t experience reality, we organise it through a fiction – that’s what we experience, and I’m interested in a novel at a moment where the fictions we’ve been telling ourselves, personally, politically, whatever, feel fragile. It’s not like I have solutions, it’s about representing that moment of contradiction. An artwork can remind you of the fact that the human construction of fictions and not some inevitable natural process is what determines experience to a large degree, you know?
There’s a part in 10:04, the short story that was in The New Yorker, and you can think about that as a literary commentary on the publishing industry but it seems more like a commentary on the way that people construct their own lives. The narrator in that story has taken someone else’s life and woven it into their own and I’m reminded of friends who, or times that even I, I’m sure, have taken stories that other people have told and replaced the ‘I’ with their own – purposefully or otherwise – and it’s become part of their life even though they never lived that moment.
Totally. Part of one way that the book is concerned with that kind of thing is, for example, when it talks about the Challenger disaster – which this whole generation of Americans remembers live but actually nobody, or very few people, actually saw it.
I’m interested in how a lot of memories that we feel provide our identity are social fictions – they’re not individual experience. One way to think about the movement between the two books is that there’s a scene in Leaving the Atocha Station where the narrator steals his friend’s experience of having been around a drowning and retells it as his own, trying to pass it off as his experience and get mileage out of it and, in this book, there’s a lot of shared circulation of stories and information. But instead of it being about passing something off as yours it’s about language that transcends authorship and an experience that transcends an individual body – the way that the self is a tissue of social experiences and not just a private domain.
The self is like a permeable membrane. And even between the two books there’s a sense, a spectre or vague implication, that the protagonists of Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 aren’t entirely distinct as Selves…
It’s willfully confusing, but I think it’s more that the narrator of 10:04 is the author of Leaving the Atocha Station – but then it’s unclear how much the author of Leaving the Atocha Station was the narrator within it, so there are all these different kinds of divisions of fictional levels. What I’m interested in in 10:04 is the way that experience becomes fiction and the way fiction becomes real; has like a lived effect, even in small ways.
If you write a book, once the fiction becomes a fact in the world, it starts to exercise its actual control over your life and I wanted to track that. How do you transpose experience in to fiction? How does it get made back in to fact? And sometimes that’s a great thing and sometimes that’s a horrible thing. Ronald Reagan would be an example of a bad transposition of fiction in to fact – of an actor in to the realm of politics, crossing a border with disastrous effects.
I get a sense from how things in the book weave around the big things – the hurricane and the Occupy movement – that there’s an idea that people are always waiting. Waiting for the next big thing. That everyone feels that their life is always leading up to something and then when it comes it’s just gone and they’re waiting again.
In the first book I thought a lot about Stendhal, The Charterhouse of Parma, where Fabrizio is wandering around thinking ‘Am I in a real battle yet?’ – he’s at Waterloo and he’s like ‘Am I in history yet?’
I think that the novel has often been about, in its radical tradition, the disconnect of individual experience and social experience. The novel is really good as a technology in capturing the distance between internal experience and the big historical events. Frank Kermode talks about being at war and when he’s finally in a battle he’s only in the background when history’s happening. And that’s what it’s really like, right? You’re never identical to the experience: if you’re really at the centre of it and you get killed then you’re not there, and if you’re nearby then you always have this mixture of proximity and distance. The novel is a form that’s about that distance and its calibration. In this book there’s still some of that, but there’s also this idea that collective disaster or collective outrage always have a utopian dimension that; they produce this moment of collectivity that dissolves or gets perverted really fast.
You only need to look at the Charlie Hebdo scenario to get a sense of that – of this brief unity (rightly intentioned or otherwise) followed by a backlash more or less immediately.
Right. And it’s horrifying. It’s the wet dream of the Far Right when this kind of stuff happens. And the American example, the September 11th example, is just the most parodically extreme example of using that vulnerability. It’s like when Naomi Klein writes about shock doctrine, about shock capital. I’m not necessarily as interested in the psychology of shock, but there’s a brief constitution of a collective subjective and the powers that be now know how to exploit that for a further move toward the privitisation of everything. It’s about keeping alive the possibility that there could be that glimmer of collectivity that could go in a different way.
The idea of keeping possibility alive is quite central to 10:04. The whole thing is reminiscent of Schrödinger’s Cat, in a way: from almost the very beginning the narrator is told that any moment he could die – and from that moment he’s in the box. You never know really whether you’re dead or alive until someone checks what’s in the box and then you’re fucked.
Right. And there’s a sense that his biological fragility is another kind of temporal disconnect. His own experience of his body and mortality changes. His mentors are dying and his friend Alex wants to have a kid before she gets too old – although people have kids at every age now – and her mom is dying and the city feels like maybe it’s dying too. But that also makes it feel more alive. It’s about that great unevenness of the experience of the present. And with the medical shit, it’s really important that his condition is totally asymptomatic in the sense that he’s not in pain or limited; it’s just that somebody’s telling him a different story about his body. But you could get hit by a car the next day or whatever, right? It’s another example of the redescription of experience that comes form a story, whether or not the story is accurate.
It’s not totally asymptomatic, though: there’s a latent symptom – his slightly elongated limbs which call up the octopus from the opening of the novel.
Yeah, when he gets the evaluation it talks about him feeling that his limbs have multiplied. Also it’s that sense of being broken in to your parts – the distribution of consciousness across your body: it’s both a good thing, like a social possibility, consciousness going across all these bodies in the collective, and then this horrifying dissolution of the self in to this weird medicalised object which is also the thing he eats at the beginning of the book.
The octopus is a kind of organising metaphor: the idea that the cost of the octopus’s incredible sensitivity and distribution and flexibility is that it doesn’t have proprioception, it doesn’t know where it is – that’s where you’re at in a moment of fragility.
There’s almost a trade off in that the octopus has this great gift and this massive, massive hindrance to its life in the same way that there are jellyfish that will live forever without being capable of thought.
The octopus has this incredible intelligence that then gets caught up in this network: somehow you can be an octopus in an artisanal Portuguese fishery and end up massaged to death by a Japanese chef in Chelsea the next morning, you know? The incredible flow of capitalism and the incredible kind of insanity of eating this creature.
He’s eating the octopus at the start and in a way, at the same time, he’s slowly becoming the octopus and cannibalising himself in the way that history is always eating itself .
That’s nicely thought. I hadn’t explicitly though of it in those terms but that really sounds right to me – that he’s becoming the thing he eats in the same way he’s becoming material for fiction.
Have you actually eaten the baby octopus?
I did. I got taken out – not by an agent, the whole thing about getting the advance and all that, none of that’s true, I turned the book in finished. But I did have a meal and I did eat some baby octopuses at this incredible Japanese restaurant. I will kind of eat anything, but I had never eaten an in tact really brilliant thing before. I wasn’t really up on my octopus knowledge and then I told a friend about this meal and I got bombarded for a year with octopus YouTube videos.
I am guilty of eating those baby octopus – they were delicious, by the way. It’s the specialty at this one Japanese restaurant in New York where they brag on the menu about how many times they’ve massaged the octopus.
As if there’s a good death of some sort, right?
Well, yeah. Also I think the other thing about the “massaged to death” thing is the mixture of the incredible violence and the incredible luxury, right? It’s murder by a word we associate with a decadent sensuality. It’s probably the slowest, most horrifying death imaginable but it’s the language of luxury.
When, to an extent, you’re also sort of cannibalising your own life – for elements of autobiography to insert in to fiction – does it matter at all how true to those elements you are?
I don’t think they need to be true at all. I do think different historical materials have a different responsibility to how you handle whether it’s fact or fiction, but when it’s “did I walk on this bridge or not?” it’s really just about the work of art.
I’m very interested in the way the conflation of fiction and non-fiction feels within the book. Some people are interested in actually collapsing the border between art and life, their book is going to be like a tell-all even if it’s called fiction, and I’m interested in complicating that border – but only within the aesthetic form. I’m not interested in getting rid of form and writing everything down. Sometimes people do that in a way I find really compelling, but I don’t do that at all.
If you think about Knausgård, his gamble is that it’s all that kind of anti-fiction. He’s like “I’m going write everything down and I don’t care who it hurts, I have this obligation to the truth,” whereas I’m really interested in fiction. This book is really kind of a defence of literary form. It’s one thing if you’re writing about your life and exhibiting it and it really matters that it’s true and it’s another if within the work of art you want to play with the border between reality and fiction, because that’s another way of thinking about the porousness of that membrane.
Some people really hated the narrator of my first novel – I was kind of fond of him as a kid or whatever – people have stronger emotional responses to him than they do to narrators who are rapists and murderers. It’s interesting to see what kind of anxieties or responses it’s triggered. I’m baffled by the degree to which some people really think of the narrator of that novel as similar personality-wise to the new novel. I understand that there’s a relation, but the first narrator was so unable to make space for other people out of his own anxiety and this narrator is…
So filled with other people all the time.
He’s emptying himself out, passing the microphone, or telling so-and-so’s story. I think there’s a really big difference.
Do you think it’s just because people are quite keen to assume that they’re both you, be it out of laziness or for whatever reason?
I think some of it’s that and I think some of it’s related to that. I wanted to take all the things that could be kind of irritating – you know, all the ‘advance’, ‘Brooklyn’ shit – and deny any of the contemporary trappings of privilege that attach to the narrator; to totally aknowledge the specific material conditions of the book. I want all that in the book and I think for a lot of people, for a certain category of people, any kind of self-reference codes as solipsistic when in fact, for me, in this book the self-reference is a way of acknowledging honestly the ground for the social experiment the book is.
Being self-indulgent and self-reflective aren’t the same thing.
Exactly. For me what’s really self-indulgent are the novelists, some white guy whose like “I’m going to write this book from the perspective of a six year-old Afghan girl,” you know? That to me seems really self-indulgent compared to the idea of saying “I’m really going to inhabit the contradictions and possibilities of my position in the world.” Even if the work is a work of fiction it’s a work that acknowledges and responds to those pressures
Yeah, I mean, you can’t use a position of privilege to inhabit the position of someone with no privilege right?
Right. The fictional renunciation of privileges for narrative purposes is the extreme expression of privilege.
The difficulty for people, my self included, is thinking on the relation between self-indulgence and self-reference. If you write something that’s meta-fictional people assume that it’s all a trick, whereas – again – I’m really interested in the way a work can acknowledge its constructedness. Not to show in some post-structuralist way how you can never access reality, but as a way of making contact with the way we construct our own lives.
There are all sorts of things that are true and there are all kinds of ways that I invite the conflation of historical author and the fictional author, because I’m interested in that border. I loved reading Knausgård, when his kids were born and all the outrageous shit he did or whatever, but that’s just not my thing, you know?
Art figures pretty prominently in the book in various forms – at the start you’re talking about Back to the Future in conjunction with Jules Bastien-Lepage – what some people would call High Art and Low Art and I wonder if you draw a line between those two at all; whether you consider there to be High and Low art? There are people who would consider Back to the Future, regardless of enduring cult status, a product of Low Hollywood cinema.
I think it’s a complicated question that I don’t feel like I have an easy, general answer to – but it’s a really good question. I think that kind of High/Low distinction has been collapsed in so many ways forever that it’s really hard to generalise. I believe that there are certain kinds of objects that are interesting to analyse; they’re criticisable without that necessarily meaning that they’re works of art I admire in the same way that I admire a great novel. I definitely think that works of popular culture have real energies and real collective fantasies in them and can sometimes be beautiful or horrifyingly stupid or whatever, but that they’re certainly worthy of a kind of critical investment that once was reserved for High art. But it’s been a long time, before I was born, since it was reserved for High art.
I do believe in works that resist a certain kind of smooth consumption; I do believe that there’s a difference between a work of literary art that actively enlists the participation of the reader versus a kind of work that’s designed to pacify her or be consumed in advance, like “I buy this kind of book because I know what kind of ending it’s going to have and it requires as little of me as possible.” But that’s not to say one of those works can be pure pleasure and the other has to be a difficult moral lesson. I think you can still have an exciting or entertaining book or whatever.
The good thing about starting as a poet is that I’m still so surprised and amazed to have more than 400 readers. I know writers who are like, “I’ve only sold 8,000 books” and actually think about changing the way they write. It’s not like I’m so courageous or pure it’s just that logic was never my logic; I was already committed to an art that I knew was going to have its relative marginality – but marginality’s not a bad thing – the things I care about are almost all marginal to a certain extent. So, for me, the test is less about High and Low and more about whether the work can be a site for some kind of critical or felt reflection.
I wonder how much of it is down to perception. In the west – certainly in the UK and the US – we fetishise Murakami’s novels, hold them up to high philosophical criticism, but in Japan, at least in terms of the “literary community”, they’re rejected as kind of pulp fiction.
A lot of work that wasn’t really considered literature, like noir writing, has been so incredibly influential and so amazing. Look at Dashiel Hammett’s stuff – I do think it’s really serious work; there is always a shifting domain of what’s considered serious or not serious. One of the things that’s kind of amazing about Knausgård is that it’s suspended undecidedly between this incredible literary ambition and just seeming like a kind of blog post. That’s part of the power of the work: it makes you worried, like “Is this like reality TV or is this literature? Or both? Or neither?”
Am I just watching someone wanking in to a tissue?
Totally. And not even in to a tissue.
Just everywhere. Talking about reality, the reality of geography in particular, I was reading in the Guardian interview that there was a vague urge for you to resist the idea that this is a Brooklyn Novel and I wonder how something that’s so heavily rooted in place in terms of how it’s mapped out – in the same way that Ulysses is so inextricably linked to place – can really resist that?
Well, I can't apparently. A certain number of people won’t see this but it’s a really different Brooklyn to what’s normally represented in the Brooklyn novels I know and a big part of what I’m trying to depict are the contradictions of a kind of economic and demographic moment. I didn’t want to write a novel in which the Spanish-speaking population of Brooklyn was somehow invisible: I think a novel has to represent, without pretending to be able to resolve, the kind of class contradictions or the social inequalities or whatever. Not just dogmatically dwelling on it, but with figuring out a mode of representing. I needed it to be set in Brooklyn, but I didn’t want it to be a whitewashed Brooklyn.
What’s the point of being an asshole Brooklynite writing a novel about asshole Brooklynites for asshole Brooklynites?
The whole point, then, is that you’re not setting yourself up as having any of the answers – it’s about rendering and representation rather than solutions?
Fredric Jameson talks about how Hollywood cinema offers imaginary solutions to real problems and that’s like the traditional Marxist understanding of art; but there’s also this idea that you can attempt to really present and bring in to the domain of experience and criticism the contradictions of your moment. And contradictions can be really moving and beautiful in addition to really hilarious and disturbing, you know? I think that’s the space of the book for me.
There’s a part in the book where you’re talking explicitly about place – about how memories are tied to being in various places, about dropping pins on Google Maps: the population en masse now has camera phones, has the ability to record more or less every moment – do people even have space to remember all those moments or do you think people will create and attach memories to those photos or videos?
I think it’s complicated. We don’t really have many of these things yet in the US – these things that help you take selfies; this little rod – I think I’ve seen one or two on the Brooklyn Bridge, but I haven’t really seen it yet as a ‘thing’. It’s kind of hilarious and sad because it actually pushes people away from you; it’s like a cattle prod that keeps other humans away so that you can focus on curating your thing. I mean, on the other hand, I think that we shouldn’t make too much of a fetish of new technologies as if experience hasn’t always been technological.
I suppose for me it’s not so much about technology as being given the option to actively curate memory rather than create memory.
Totally: curation in a bad sense. The spectacularisation of individual experience via this technology is just the further penetration of the culture of spectacle in to experience and, to a certain degree, is a way of killing experience and killing history. Wherever you are you’re really on Facebook.
I think that it’s got to be the role of the novelist to think beyond just what’s horrible about that because the power is just so undeniable. It’s kind of pointless to be pro or against the internet or something like that – it’s about thinking what an old technology like the novel can do in relation to those new technologies.
10:04 is out now, published by Granta