The Future of American Fiction: An Interview with Ben Lerner


If you haven’t noticed, we spend a lot of time thinking about literature here in the Flavorpill offices, digging through its past, weighing its current state, and imagining its future. Take a look at our bookshelves and you’ll find us reading everything from Nobel Prize winners to age-old classics to paperbacks printed at the bookstore down the street. Call it Chick-Lit, Hysterical Realism, Ethnic-Lit, or Translit — if it’s good fiction, we’ll be talking about it. So this summer, we launched The Future of American Fiction: an interview series expanding on that endless conversation about books we love, and yes, the direction of American fiction, from the people who’d know. Every Tuesday through the end of August, we’ll bring you a short interview with one of the writers we think is instrumental in defining that direction.

This week we spoke with Ben Lerner, an acclaimed poet whose first novel Leaving The Atocha Station was indisputably one of the most talked about novels last year. The book is set in 2004, as America wanes in influence and its international carnage multiplies. That year, the novel’s narrator Adam Gordon receives a prestigious scholarship to research Spanish poetry in Madrid. However, little research is done. In the meantime, Adam smokes a lot of hash; abuses the family credit card; and gets involved with two girls: one rich, one poor. All this expat debauchery collapses during the March 11 bombing of Atocha Station, which America has indirectly triggered. Lerner’s prose is cleverly moving and wryly funny as he examines the nature of lived experience — and the limits on how to articulate it — both on a personal, aesthetic, and political level.

When James Baldwin wrote about his experiences as a gay African-American writer in Paris, he said he discovered himself to be “as American as any Texas G.I. And I found my experience was shared by every American writer I knew in Paris.” Is that something you (or perhaps Adam) can relate to?

I don’t believe I can relate to what it would be like to be a gay African-American writer in Paris — making that discovery or any other.

Adam does feel a reluctant kinship with Americans abroad, particularly those Americans who “made Spanish friends and eschewed the company of their countrymen, who refused to speak English and who, when they spoke Spanish, exaggerated the peninsular lisp.” Such Americans, he says, were “irritating reminders that nothing was more American, whatever that means, than fleeing the American, whatever that is, and that their soft version of self-imposed exile was just another of late empire’s packaged tours.”

In your novel, Adam is equally repelled and moved by poetry, because of the disparity between what poems aspire to reach and what the poems actually are. Now Adam seems to regard himself as a fraud and a failure, deeply hesitant to assume the roles expected of an American poet living in Spain. I wondered if you ever found a similar tension between yourself as a novelist and your characters. Do you think that characters, in all of their flaws and aspirations, are structurally foredoomed in a similar way as poetry?

I think you’re right to suggest that Adam thinks of himself in a similar manner to how he thinks of a poem: a poem is a failure, he believes, but its failure can be a figure for what escapes it, a negative figure for the abstract potential of the medium. Adam is always attempting to speak in enigmatic fragments that his interlocutors can then unfold into profound pronouncements; they project onto him the intelligence they think they discover, which is basically what he thinks happens when people read bad poems. This confusion of art and life, of poem and poet, ultimately gets Adam into a lot of trouble. Whether or not a person and a poem can share the same logic is a theme in the book. But that’s more Adam’s problem than mine.

I do experience some version of the tension or gap between the virtual and the actual whenever I write: there is always a difference between what I intended to make and what I’ve made. The materials always resist. But this doesn’t have to be described in terms of doom. It can also be described as discovery, that you discover the form and content of the work in the act of writing.

Much of the novel’s latter half centers around a community of glamorous, privileged artists and patrons that Adam finds himself involved in. How would you describe the effect the March 11 bombing of Atocha station had on that community, and why were you drawn to write about that milieu?

As I mentioned, the novel tracks how Adam’s ideas about art spread out into other areas of his life. I’m certainly interested in how artists register or fail to register political violence, how they participate in or withdraw from political action, how they take up questions of memorialization, and in the cozy relationship between artists supposedly critical of commodification and the gallery system that sells their critiques.

Where do you see American fiction headed? Or perhaps, where do you hope and/or dread it will go?

I hope it’s not a homogenous enough entity to go in a single direction, whatever that direction might be.

We’re in a moment where the relative merits of (and the borders between and the nature of) fiction and nonfiction are being questioned. How could this not be the case in a culture in which what passes for the real — real TV, real threats to America, real men, real food and drink, etc. — are so clearly artificial? Some version of this problem is of course as old as the novel itself, but I think it’s a good thing that even relatively mainstream American fiction writers seem to be increasingly suspicious of the conventions of a realism that wants to make the reader forget its own constructedness.

If that’s the (old) hope, I guess I have two species of dread: one is that uncritical fiction will just be supplanted by an uncritical nonfiction that forgets its own dependency on artifice. The related dread is of the aggressive mediocrity of a certain kind of prose that congratulates itself on being no more well-wrought than your average blog post, a kind of anti-literary literary fiction that seems to think the remaining vanguard gesture is not trying very hard.

But the real answer is I don’t know. And while I wouldn’t say I don’t care, I feel very distant from contemporary fiction conceived in national terms. Maybe we should hope for the category of American Fiction itself to dissolve into a more variegated and transnational set of artistic practices, literary and otherwise?

Illustration by Geoff Mak