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Author Ben Lerner discusses role of fractured narratives in ‘The Topeka School’

Poet and author Ben Lerner joins English professor Mona Simpson to discuss his newest book “The Topeka School,” which marks the third book in a trilogy. He spoke about his transition from poetry to prose and how he wrote his characters’ voices. (Keaton Larson/Daily Bruin)

By Kaia Sherry

Nov. 20, 2019 2:33 p.m.

Ben Lerner’s latest novel is the only one he wrote with intention to be a novel.

The poet’s first two novels, “Leaving the Atocha Station” and “10:04,” were tied more closely to his poetic work, which coalesced together into a novelistic structure as he wrote them. However, his latest work in the series, “The Topeka School,” was a more intentional effort. Operating as the third book in a trilogy, “The Topeka School” forms a semiautobiographical narrative that follows high school senior Adam Gordon as he grapples with adolescence and family strife. Lerner elaborated on the process of transitioning from poetry to prose when discussing his book with English professor Mona Simpson on Tuesday in the Grace M. Hunt Memorial English Reading Room.

“When I had kids, I started thinking about childhood from my parents’ perspective, in part just the realization that they also didn’t know what they were doing,” Lerner said. “But I also realized in an authorial sense I have more access to the voices of the parents than I do to the adolescent version of myself.”

The novel, narrated by an older version of Gordon piecing together his childhood, blurs the line between first- and third-person perspective, Lerner said. The elder Gordon’s narrative, rife with the inconsistencies of memory, attempts to reconstruct the voices of his parents.

But there are ruptures in these voices, Lerner said, which is precisely the goal of his narration technique. They serve as a reminder that the younger Gordon, as well as his parents, are not perfectly rendered spheres – rather, they are Gordon’s attempt to ventriloquize the past. Fifth-year human biology and society student Annika Karody, who attended the event, said she wanted to utilize this varied texture of voices in her own poetic work.

“We had an assignment to write an autobiographical story in my class and I was talking to my professor about the different voices in my story, like how adult voices are told from a childlike perspective,” Karody said. “It’s interesting to think about making a voice that’s a collective of all of them.”

For the voicing of other characters, this unreliability is used to dramatic effect with the younger Gordon’s girlfriend, Lerner said. Her lines are directly taken from the character Isabel in Herman Melville’s book “Pierre; or, The Ambiguities.” The character, prone to intense displays of jealousy, is less reflective of Gordon’s girlfriend than it is of the cracks in Gordon’s narration, Lerner said.

“(The lines are) not meant to realistically represent her speech and goes out of its way to say he doesn’t have access to her interiority,” Lerner said. “For me, that was the goal, not to perfectly inhabit the consciousness of another.”

“The Topeka School” then becomes about the composition and decomposition of Gordon’s voice, Lerner said. In one scene, Gordon’s friend Cyrus tells him about a horrific experience he has in Mexico – only for Gordon to tell the story as if it were his own 20 pages later. Lerner said he uses this vocal construct to dissect the genealogy of the voice that’s writing the narrative, showing how a supposedly individual speaker is merely a product of the social languages Gordon encounters.

“What do you do with the fact that there’s all these voices within your voice that you don’t want, that you’ve picked up from places you can’t control?” Lerner said. “How do you edit it out and avoid transmitting them to the next generation?”

In crafting the voices of his characters, Lerner compared his writing with video game glitches. They become features, or permanent parts of the program, in subsequent games if these coding errors become popular with players. Poetic form is a glitch in an established pattern, like a stanza structure, that becomes a feature, he said.

With his poetry and prose, Lerner said his process involves a dialectic of establishing a structural pattern that he can either strategically fulfill or disappoint. Fifth-year Chicana and Chicano studies and English student Joshua Castillo, who attended the event, said the analogy of glitches illuminated the similarities between the creation of prose and poetry.

“While there’s a difference between poetry and fiction, a lot of the transitioning has to do with the author’s particular take on whatever story he’s telling,” Castillo said. “There’s not a fundamental difference between the two art forms, but it’s more about the execution of it.”

As the discussion shifted to his writing process, Lerner said knowing how to push past this pattern was more difficult in novelistic form than in poetry. He reminisced about his wife forcing him to finish “Downton Abbey” and compared the writing process to a TV series that goes on for too long, reflecting upon the need to know when a certain strain isn’t advancing the narrative.

Lerner said novels like “The Topeka School” are a reflection of resisting closure, ultimately ending on a threshold of indeterminacy. The previous novels in the trilogy end in a similar state of ambiguity, with “10:04” asking if the protagonist has truly undergone any character arc. He said his latest book promises the same lack of resolution.

“For me, the experience of writing is about avoiding certain modes of closure that present themselves to me as I go,” Lerner said. “It’s almost as much of a defense against the closural possibilities that come at me as it is about needing to have an end that I’m writing towards.”

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Kaia Sherry | Alumna
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