#childpredator | Ben Lerner’s Quandary | The Nation

Illustration by Tim Robinson.

Ben Lerner’s first two books of fiction—Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04—stand at a cautious remove from the novel form. Reading them, you sometimes suspect they don’t want to be novels at all. Often classified as “autofiction” because of the close correspondences between their protagonists and their author, they might more aptly be understood as “poet’s novels.” This is not simply because Lerner is a poet—he brought out three highly lauded volumes of poetry before publishing Leaving the Atocha Station—and not just in the mildly pejorative sense that book reviewers sometimes use the term, to censure pretentiousness. They’re actually about poetry: Significant stretches of them are devoted to analyses of poems, statements of poetics, or defenses of the poetic undertaking.

Nothing is more important to Lerner or his narrators than poetry, and yet they’re aware that nothing, in the 21st century capitalist culture they inhabit, is less important to everyone else. Indeed, this lack of social importance is a perverse point of pride. “If I was a poet,” muses Adam Gordon, the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station, “I had become one because poetry, more intensely than any other practice, could not evade its anachronism and marginality and so constituted a kind of acknowledgment of my own preposterousness, admitting my bad faith in good faith, so to speak.” For Adam, “poet” is more of an identity category, an orientation toward capitalist society, than it is a profession or practice. In point of fact, Adam doesn’t even like poetry all that much. “Although I claimed to be a poet,” he confesses, “I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.”

This fictional admission lays out the basic terms of Lerner’s formal cosmology. Poetry represents possibility, utopia, the virtual; prose stands for the existent, the immanent, the actual. The novel, it seems, enables a kind of compromise between these categories, a book written in the prose of the world but containing suggestions that another world is possible. Thus a poet like Adam, or Lerner, may write a novel, but we shouldn’t expect them to be happy about it.

In 10:04, ambivalence toward novel writing—an ambivalence bordering on embarrassment—is a running theme. “I decided to write more fiction—something I’d promised my poet friends I wasn’t going to do,” the narrator, Ben, declares. This decision is motivated not by aesthetic ambition but by financial incentives and ethical responsibility: His “strong six-figure” book advance will be used to fund fertility treatments for a friend who wants to have a child. Since novels have not (yet) become as unpopular and economically marginal as poetry, fiction writing represents the only way to transform his otherwise valueless art into a viable commodity for a bourgeois audience. But what Ben ultimately produces is “a novel that dissolves into a poem.” In 10:04’s increasingly desultory second half, he goes to a writers’ retreat to work on his novel, only to find himself working “on the wrong thing.” “Instead of earning my advance,” he admits, “I was writing a poem…. Having monetized the future of my fiction, I turned my back on it.”

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