We prompted this year’s Sami Rohr Prize awardees to write about “how they came to write their book.” Over the next several weeks, we’ll share their responses. Today, Ben Lerner discusses his novel Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press).
A little more than halfway through my novel, the narrator claims: “I will never write a novel.” It’s only one of many lies the radically unreliable Adam Gordon tells, but, like most of his lies, it contains an element of truth, indicating his resistance to many of the more conventional attributes of the genre: a tendency to reduce the irreducible messiness of experience to a neatly symmetrical plot, the way so many protagonists undergo an unambiguous journey of redemption. Adam Gordon — like me — is largely interested in something else: in depicting the arc and feel of (often neurotic) thinking, the texture of time as it passes in both dramatic and non-dramatic experience, and changes in personality that are too subtle or ambiguous to register in novels concerned with grand transformations. I came to write this novel, then, in part by working against an image of the conventional novel — by writing my resistance to the form into the form, narrating the pitfalls of narrative. Adam Gordon is a young poet abroad trying to figure out if he’s worthy of his art, if his art can endure in an age of mass media and spectacle, and so his coming of age as an artist — or, depending on your reading, his failure to come of age — isn’t just something the prose describes: it’s enacted in the writing itself.
Increasingly I feel that explanations of how a fiction arises are part of the fiction — that writers necessarily tell themselves a story about the origin of a work because it helps the work get written, or helps integrate it into a narrative that lets them move on to the next book. That said, part of why and how this novel originated feels clear to me. I’d just finished my third book of poems and felt like I’d temporarily exhausted my sense of the poetic line, that I wanted a break from the particular maddening challenges and pleasures of that form. Around the same time, I’d finished a long academic essay on the poems of John Ashbery, a poet who figures prominently in my novel (I stole the title, Leaving the Atocha Station, from one of his poems). Many of the concerns that I’d pursued in my poems and essays — how one makes verbal art with a language saturated by commercialism and militarism, the distance between what a poem aspires to do and what it can actually do, how the flow of time can be captured and intensified in a work of literature, etc. — remained my obsessions. I wanted to take these ideas about poetry and the arts and place them in a life, watch them spread out into a character’s experience, track their effects once they were placed in a particular body, mind, and time. One reason I love the novel — when I love it — as a genre is that it’s so absorptive; it can incorporate poems, the language of criticism, historical events, personal drama, etc. I think Leaving the Atocha Station came into being because at that particular juncture the novel allowed me to assimilate all my different languages and concerns into an overarching form.
Actually, I’m not sure I think that; I believed it when I wrote it, but now (a few days later), I think even that general description exaggerates the amount of conscious control I have over the direction my writing takes. As many writers would probably tell you, the form and content of an artwork largely have to be discovered in the act of composition; otherwise, what’s the point? Maybe I should just say that one day I started writing — I’m not sure why — sentences whose syntax captured the rhythm of this Adam Gordon character’s thinking. Even when I’d tried to write poems, all I could generate were more of Gordon’s sentences. In some ways he’s an exaggeration of my most unfortunate tendencies, and in other ways he’s entirely strange to me. The book that unfolded was as much an effect of his language controlling me as it was of my controlling his language. Tolstoy once told an acquaintance that he was hurrying home to see what Vronsky would do next, indicating, I think, how much a book develops according to concerns outside of authorial control. I suppose the novel itself is as close as I can get to an account of its genesis, describing, as it ultimately does, a young poet’s futile resistance to a novel’s demand to be written.
Ben Lerner is the author of novel Leaving the Atocha Station and three books of poetry. Lerner has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Northern California Book Award, a Fulbright Scholar in Spain, and the recipient of a 2010 – 2011 Howard Foundation Fellowship. In 2011 he became the first American to win the Preis der Stadt Münster für Internationale Poesie. He teaches in the writing program at Brooklyn College.