The Utopian Glimmer of Fiction: On the Novels of Ben Lerner

Everyone can probably agree that, as a species, we’re facing some pretty dark times. The systems we’ve come to rely on are daily bumping up against their limits, the planet appears to be hurtling towards a climate crisis and famine and war are becoming international fixtures. And that list, frankly, doesn’t begin to cover it. The future looks increasingly uncertain, if not outright bleak. But “uncertain” and “bleak” do not amount to inevitable. Human beings need to make urgent, and probably drastic, changes to how we live, but we are not doomed. Going forward, people seem to be in desperate need of something like an optimistic imagination. And given the severity of the problems we’re facing, things like art and literature, begin to seem frivolous. But if part of what we face is a crisis of imagination, an inability to summon an intelligent and realistic optimism, it would seem that artists, who traffic in imagination, and who can, sometimes, render and reframe human experience in a way that can be edifying and allow us to imagine believable alterities, have a role to play.

Ben Lerner, who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship this year for his work “exploring the relevance of art and the artist to modern culture,” has written two novels that depict contemporary doubt without resorting to fatalism. Lerner started his writing career as a poet and had already won considerable acclaim before deciding to write his first novel. That book, Leaving the Atocha Station, emerged from a small publishing house and became a small-scale hit. His follow-up, 10:04, was widely hailed as one of the best novels of 2014. In both of his novels, Lerner is concerned with the role the fictions we create for ourselves — either through art, or through the everyday narratives that govern our lives — affect our contact with reality and the future. For Lerner, the future is a fiction augured from the present that can determine people’s experience of, and behavior in, the present. (Extreme example: if everyone believed that the world was going to end tomorrow, it’s safe to say we’d see some drastic changes in people’s behavior today, to understate things). And because the projected future affects our experience of the present, which is the portent we used to project that future in the first place, our projection of the future alters, placing the relationship between the present and the future on a constantly shifting continuum. That may seem overly conceptual and recursive, but what it amounts to is an expression of faith in people’s ability to change their future. The formulation is hopeful, in its way.

“A failure of language equal to the possibilities it figures”

In many ways, Leaving the Atocha Station is a typical first novel; it presents itself like a bildungsroman, with an aimless young narrator who goes to parties, smokes hash, chases women and contemplates fraught concepts like “authenticity” and “purpose.” But Lerner is not content — or perhaps, unable– to write a traditional bildungsroman. The book’s narrator, Adam Gordon, is so smart and self-aware that he seems immune to the sort of epiphanies that tend to shape protagonists as they “come of age.” He uses his intelligence to maintain a complicated distance from things and preserve an odd sort of stasis. His ability to deconstruct his surroundings and his own proclivities seems to disenchant everything, which leaves him unable to experience anything like discovery or awe.

Adam is a poet who’s won a fellowship to spend a year in Spain based on a trumped-up proposal to write a “long, research-driven poem” about the legacy of the Spanish Civil War. But Adam knows nothing about the Spanish American Civil War and is having a crisis of faith in the effectiveness (or point) of poetry. Instead of research, he reads, smokes, experiments with the dosage of his antidepressants and courts Spanish women.

Adam’s torpor is not a unique quality for a young protagonist; but where Adam (and Lerner) distinguishes himself is in the precise descriptions of amorphous concepts like inertia and doubt. Consider Adam’s relationship with art which, since he is a young poet, one would imagine is deep and somewhat romantic. Instead, Adam says, what interests him about art is “the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf.” The only “profound experience” he is capable of having through art is “a profound experience of the absence of profundity.” He is more concerned with parsing how he experiences art, rather than the art itself, which stops him from engaging with it.

That problem extends to nearly every aspect of Adam’s life. He gives detailed descriptions of all of the reasons why engagement with the world, with art, with women, etc., is not possible in any meaningful way. This crisis is essentially one of communication — Adam has severe doubts about what he and everyone else, is capable of expressing. Art is an imperfect mode of communication and because it does not affect him profoundly, Adam assumes that it fails. Instead of struggling to calm those doubts, in other words, fight to find an effective mode of expression, Adam is content to dwell in the realm of possibilities. He says that he finds poems moving only when he “encounter[s] them quoted in prose” so that “what is communicated was less a particular poem, than an echo of poetic possibility.” Likewise, he engages in a relationship with a Spanish woman who speaks no English, so that he has “an excuse to speak in enigmatic fragments or koans…without crossing whatever invisible threshold of proficiency [that] would render me devoid of interest.” Adam is attracted to forms of expression that allow depths to be intuited without having to be realized. These expressions, of course, are entirely impotent. He denies his own agency, making him a spectator in his own life. When it comes to imagining the future, then, he is powerless. “I was destined to reproduce the bourgeois family, no matter how much I dreaded the prospect,” he says towards the end of the novel. As if the course of his life were preordained.

Adam’s perspective shifts when he re-imagines his relationship to “poetic possibility.” For Adam, poems fail because they can never be equal to the impulse that spawned them. That is, they are never as pure or as “good” as their author intended them to be. A poem, Adam says, is “understood as referring to a failure of language to be equal to the possibilities it figures.”

But the fact that poems are failures, relative to their intention, does not mean they cannot communicate. They still harbor the “echo of poetic possibility” that Adam can detect when he sees poems quoted in prose. And by focusing on this possibility, Adam realizes he can locate hope and imagine alternative futures. He begins to imagine a more functional role for literature. “Perhaps literature’s role was to help us keep our perspective, to take the long view,” he says.

Adam’s concerns about the future are, ultimately, a failure of imagination. And by transforming the role of literature in Adam’s life from an affectation to a source of hope, Lerner suggests that an engagement with fictions — not just literature, but the stories we tell ourselves — may be one way we can alter our future. By imbuing the present with hope, we can find the energy to change what it augurs.

“The possibilities of experience”

Lerner opens 10:04 with an epigraph referring to a Hassidic parable about the “world to come.” In the coming world, “everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” It implies that a better future is somehow knowable; it can be imagined without having to conceive of a utopia. But that idea is a stark contrast to the situation the novel’s narrator finds himself in at its start.

The narrator is faced with several encroaching crises, all of which make the future seem like a fragile proposition. He is diagnosed with a genetic disorder that leaves him with “a statistically significant chance that largest artery in [his] body could rupture at any moment.” On a larger scale, the fear of environmental disaster is pervasive. A young boy the narrator tutors casually tells him that all the skyscrapers in the city are going to freeze and topple over. And the city is preparing for an “unusually large cyclonic system” is scheduled to make landfall in the next couple of days. The narrator, and the citizens of New York, viewing the future in the context of looming environmental catastrophes.

But the storm, the over-hyped and ultimately harmless Hurricane Irene, falls flat, and the narrator is left to consider how the fear of the encroaching storm created a dark future that needlessly led him to experience moments of doubt and fear in the present. “Those moments,” he says, “had been enabled by a future that never arrived.” The narrator, who is also a poet and a novelist, is forced to confront how powerful the fictions he projects onto the world can be. Fiction as a general concept — not just literature, but narratives used to create coherence — affects how the characters behave. Instead of an escape from reality, fictions become a way of interpreting reality.

Which fictions characters choose to engage with, then, becomes crucial to how they see themselves in relationship to the future. When an elderly former-professor, Bernard, ends up in the hospital, the narrator is surprised when his teacher asks him to bring him books of poetry: “I realized that if I were in Bernard’s position, I wouldn’t even think about literature, would just be asking for morphine and distracting myself with reality TV.” But Bernard chooses to engage with literature, not escapist fiction. A fiction that is edifying. A fiction that has a future.

This consideration begins to affect how the narrator views his own fiction. He receives a “strong six-figure advance” for a novel based on a short story he published in the New Yorker, but it is a story about a writer who forges correspondences with famous, dead, writers so that he can publish them. This notion of writing about a fraudulent correspondence with the past becomes increasingly unattractive, however. A friend mocks the idea and tells him “you should be finding ways to inhabit the present.” He begins to imagine inhabiting “an actual present alive with multiple futures.” A present filled with “more possibility than determinism, the utopian glimmer of fiction.” Finally, the narrator resolves “to become one of the artists who momentarily made bad forms of collectivity figures of its possibility, a proprioceptive flicker in advance of the communal body.”

Again, Lerner is dealing with failures that can figure possibilities. Here, though, he is dealing with something more concrete than the transcendence figured by “poetic possibility.” Instead, he imagines collectivity as an ideal that can point towards something like salvation. Currently, the possibility of collectivity exists mostly as a fiction, as inchoate “bad forms.” For example, at one point the narrator is in Marfa, Texas and confronts a phenomenon known as the “Marfa lights.” People gather to watch a couple of pale, distant orbs of light that appear otherworldly. Legends start to accumulate around the lights — they are attributed to UFO’s and called “ghost lights.” The actual explanation, that they are most likely distant headlights, does not interest the narrator. He is drawn to them because they represent a binding fiction: “I saw no spheres but I loved the idea of them — the idea that our worldly light could be reflected back to us and mistaken as supernatural. “The lights figure a possibility — of a supernatural element — but they also represent a shared fiction. In a way, this is more awe-inspiring than the notion of the supernatural: the idea that people are capable of collaborating, almost by accident, to co-create a fiction. The result, in this case, is meaningless. The capacity for collaboration the myths surrounding the lights demonstrates, however, is an encouraging figure.

The world to come

Ultimately, these are just novels. Like the fictions inside Lerner’s fiction, however, they serve as a vehicle for making contact with concrete realities. They are intelligent and honest about contemporary problems without despairing. In his work, Lerner celebrates the human capacity for fiction, and literature, and suggests that these capacities offer not only an escape from despair, but offer us ways to engage more deeply and positively affect reality. The future is a necessary fiction, and it determines the texture of our present. In that sense, we are always living in relation to a fiction. Literature alone cannot alter the future. But it can serve as a figure for optimism.

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