A Sit Down with Author and Professor Ben Lerner

Written By Ian Ezinga

   Shortly before the winter break, I sat down with Ben Lerner and interviewed him about his new book, The Topeka School, which came out in October 2019. The book comes in the midst of a distinguished writing career and takes its place on the mantle alongside two other novels and a number of poetry books. Being a distinguished professor of English and a MacArthur Genius are just two of the many accolades Lerner has amassed over the last few years. While fulfilling his obligations to the vanguard of contemporary fiction, Lerner has made important contributions to our ideas about whiteness in America and ways to inhabit our increasingly tense and stratified experience. 


   I read Lerner’s second novel 10:04 following a friend’s recommendation. The day I finished it, I ordered his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. Moving cities, finding work, enrolling in a new school and a few other wrenches tossed my way meant that I didn’t get to pick up Leaving The Atocha Station until early November. With his new book coming out soon, I made quick work of the first novel and reached out to Lerner for an interview for The Topeka School before I had even received my copy. After some back and forth, we found time for an interview in his office in Boylan Hall. 


   Tragically, I left his office with only twenty minutes of recording from our hour-long conversation. I am left with a few hastily taken notes and some disconnected memories, all of which had particular resonance to both my own station as an undergraduate student and today’s cultural and political landscape. In regards to my own situation, and I believe that of many other current students, The Topeka School offers a refreshing invitation to “inhabit the present without irony.” This invitation comes conveniently at a time that is marked by extremely high tensions due in part to a national identity crisis which sees growing partisan politics and entrenched factions forming on either side. Throughout both his book and our conversation, Lerner was able to shed light on parts of this landscape and provide glimpses as to how to move forward. 


   It goes without saying that The Topeka School is not a master key to understanding all there is to know about identity politics. The book does offer, however, an exceptionally well written and rewarding narrative which provides insights into poetry, irony, and some of what being white in America entails. Writing about how white people are problematic and how white supremacy is sometimes unassuming are hardly new topics. Lerner doesn’t waste time exploring these ideas in a laborious fashion, but instead presents the audience with a history of a voice that is in conflict with this dissonance. The voice in question belongs to a teenage Adam Gordon growing up in Topeka, Kansas during the 1990s. This history shows the ways in which a white midwestern teenager has grown and responded to a locality that is simultaneously isolated from most of the cultural touchstones, while also being the home of the Westboro Baptist Church. 


   Adam is not a new character, having also been the subject of Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. In both of these books, Adam borrows a large amount of biographical details from Lerner’s own experiences. Through both the real and the fictionalized voices of Ben and Adam, the novel is able to provide a colorful and unique perspective which adds to our collective understanding of whiteness in America.


   In an earlier interview Lerner gave at the London bookstore, Foyles, he spoke of a “tremendous violence of Topeka, a kind of masculine, unmotivated violence.” Adam serves as a vessel to explore and interrogate this violence. Adam is a champion highschool debater and the son of two psychologists; one a famous author. With this affluent domestic background underpinning his experiences, Adam’s own yearnings to associate with this violence exposes the fraudulence of his performance. 


   Adam and his friends demonstrate this fraudulence by picking up the clothes, lingo, and mannerisms of some of the 90s most popular icons—hip hop artists and rappers from the coasts. The fraud inherent to white midwestern teenagers simulating mannerisms and dress belonging to black artists is, of course, problematic, but Lerner is also able to let us in the hilarity of it. 


   The appropriation of black culture is a common enough story, but in Lerner’s narrative, this appropriation is displayed largely as a means for kids to commit violence while wearing a disguise. For Adam specifically, although he largely keeps his hands clean from physical violence, he is quick to use his dominance as a public speaker to deal tremendous amounts of hilarity participating in backyard freestyling circles. Lerner writes about one such circle where, “Adam managed to rise above the stupid violence of the battles and misogynist cliches and enter a zone in which sentences unfolded at a speed he could not consciously control.” This moment of bliss, achieved while performing under comically problematic circumstances, draws the reader to consider a present without irony. 


   Before discussing the role of irony in popular culture, Lerner set the record straight about where these performative antics fit into a broader story. He brought up James Baldwin as an earlier artist who masterfully exposed and presented the disastrous fiction that white people have been telling themselves and the world for centuries. This fiction arose as a means of constructing and maintaining social structures necessary to support slavery, revolving around the notion that to be white, you must simply not be black or brown. Once the identity of whiteness has been assumed, or in many cases, assigned, the theatrics follow suit. 


   The disastrous fiction, which is more of a structure of language that Lerner explores in the novel, has been created not only to construct racist ideologies, but also to maintain their effects long after coming into existence. This discreetly informs the worldview of many people and in turn, has tremendous political, economic, and social implications. Whether in the subtext of the slogan “all lives matter,” or in federal legislation that penalizes one form of a drug harsher than another, language has continually been used to tell and enforce a story. This story continues to shape history and although easy to decry, it has proved difficult to uproot.  


   So what is to be done about this disastrous fiction which permeates the present? In short, we need a new story to tell ourselves. Lerner sees his role, along with other contemporary authors who may still be living within the confines of the old fiction, as to hold a place in time for that new story. As the new story emerges, whenever that may be, it will be aided by works of fiction that have set out to expose the fraudulence of the old story and the different ways it has shaped our culture. 


   The significance of exposing and dismantling language, as opposed to direct aggression, is rooted within the profound effects it has while remaining beneath the surface of our collective conventions. This language underpins much of our most basic politics and continually asserts a hierarchy while not outwardly marching underneath a banner of hate. Being able to document this language’s history and the way it has mutated over time is paramount to dismantling it. It is important to note that this should not be interpreted as a call for passivity but instead presupposes a direct confrontation against outward hate and encourages a continuation of that struggle into everyday interactions.


This book, and Lerner’s other work, are leagues away from just being a righteous manifesto against white supremacy. Recommending this book and Lerner’s other work is easy. What was a little more difficult was confronting one of the other explorations Lerner takes up that strikes close to home. For an undergraduate student who is most comfortable cloaked in irony, The Topeka School offers a sobering narrative that has graduated from the cheap uses and abuses of ironic storytelling. 


   “The irony is that it’s not ironic,” said Lerner about his latest novel’s handling of poetry. Differing from his earlier work where the subject is handled with uncertainty and ambiguity, The Topeka School explores the idea that there is still a tremendous amount of value that can be extracted from poetry – and its many forms. 


   Although a larger comparison can be made about all three of his novels, The Topeka School on its own demonstrates a noticeable development in the handling of irony over the course of Adam’s growth. While the younger Adam is torn between saying what he truly feels in place of something that would signal his intellect, the character is often reminded of the power of the genuine. The bliss achieved during his freestyling seance or the simple power of a meaningless poem, amongst other examples, all serve to communicate value in what can often be written off. Towards the end of our conversation, I felt a call for a sort of meditation that evaluates not just art, but the present as well, and seeks to sift out that which is needlessly ironic. 


   This calling comes at a time where it seems as though the very pillars of our society are built upon a cruel irony. We have an electoral system that doesn’t elect the most voted for candidate. We have a news media that spends just as much time debunking fake news as it does reporting it. We are at war in an attempt to stabilize a region that we have directly made unstable. And while my political engagement is at an all-time high, much of my commentary is communicated by saying exactly what I don’t believe. 


   While onboard the great train going nowhere that is popular culture, it is easier now than ever to simply resign to irony. So although it arguably shouldn’t have to be, Ben Lerner’s Topeka School reads as slightly radical when it asks the reader to observe the events earnestly and to inhabit the present without irony.