Building My Own Strange Machines: A Conversation with Jonathan Lethem and Christopher Boucher

Time flies. Six years ago Jonathan Lethem published The Ecstasy of Influence, a sprawling collection of essays, sketches, interviews, and fiction, knitted together with candid autobiographical notes. Since then, he’s brought out his ninth and 10th novels -- Dissident Gardens and A Gambler’s Anatomy -- as well as a story collection, Lucky Alan and Other Stories, and apen monograph on the album Fear of Music. A new year, another book. More Alive and Less Lonely collects literary essays, introductions and book reviews from the last 20-plus years. The book was edited -- or curated, rather -- for Melville House by Christopher Boucher, whose two novels (How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive; Golden Delicious), as I recently read them, significantly altered my perception of language in fiction, reminding me of when I first encountered Lionel Essrog, the compulsively lyrical narrator of Lethem’s now classic New York crime novel, Motherless Brooklyn. In the spirit of generosity and of abundance, both author and editor agreed to participate in a roundtable conducted recently over several days of emails. Unlike in the humorous essay “The Counter-Roth” included in the new book, which details Lethem’s attempts to entertain Philip Roth at literary functions, I made it clear up front I had abandoned any hope of making either of these writers laugh. The Millions: This collection caught me completely by surprise, even though I'm an avid reader of Jonathan's work and previously hunted down several of these pieces online. The editor's introduction states that a framework and coherence were evident early on among the 60 or so short essays in this book. Were there other breakthroughs later in the process? Christopher Boucher: It's fun to think back to the very beginnings of the process, when Jonathan started sending me contenders for the collection. I'd loved The Ecstasy of Influence, and so these uncollected essays seemed like a gift -- my own “lonely book” (see “The Loneliest Book I’ve Read”), if you will. As I remember it, we came to the idea of a “book on books” early on -- during our first meeting at Melville House. I was thrilled with this direction, because that was the book I wanted to read. As a diehard fan of Jonathan’s fiction, I gravitated towards his essays on books and literature -- I found them addictive, sneakily-instructive, and full of the same joyful inquiry and insight that’s so prevalent in Ecstasy. What’s more, these essays made me want to read -- to drop everything and read for days. I liked the idea of trying to create the same experience for the reader -- to curate a book that served as a readerly “wake-up call.” That said, though, we left a lot of wonderful material out. Along the way, too, I found myself lobbying for a rather broad definition of "books and writers” so that we could include as many essays as possible. I remember really wanting to include Jonathan's fictional exchange between his character Perkus Tooth and director Spike Jonze (“The Original Piece of Wood I Left in Your Head”), for example. While it's unlike anything else in the book, it's just so poignant and funny. Jonathan Lethem: For me, the image of this book emerged in the negative space described by my two earlier essay collections -- The Disappointment Artist, and The Ecstasy of Influence. The first one, Disappointment Artist, is really a memoir of my teenage life and self-invention as a writer, disguised as a cycle of cultural essays. It's about losing my mother and understanding my relationship to my father and concealing my vulnerabilities behind movies and pop music and books. The form is exclusive and everything I wrote in that mode is included in that short book (arguably, the Cassavetes piece doesn't really belong). Ecstasy of Influence is a baggy monster, full of writing in different modes, and on different occasions. There's even fiction in there, and a poem. It's a deliberate -- and obnoxious, I'm sure -- attempt to measure the space I'd blundered into as a "public intellectual," which wasn't a plan I'd had for myself. It's modeled, for better and worse, on Mailer's Advertisements for Myself. What was excluded from those collections created the possibility that became More Alive and Less Lonely. I'd written more often on books and writers than on any other topic, in the form of reviews and introductions, largely. And "appreciations." Writing about books was the first thing I did besides writing fiction, and the first thing I published in any venue (in the Philip K. Dick Society Newsletter, when I was 22). I reviewed a few books for Salon in the mid-'90s -- one of those earliest examples is included here, on Jill Robinson's Past Forgetting. And the first book I was ever asked to introduce was Walter Tevis's Mockingbird. That's here too. It's really the heart of my activities, the center of my life, as a reader, bookseller, and "author." It's a book of devotions, basically. TM: Were there specific collections (by other writers) that occurred to either of you during this process? JL: By way of comparison, I thought mostly of books by British writers -- things like Anthony Burgess's Homage to Qwert Yuiop, or Penelope Fitzgerald's The Afterlife -- books that are full of things like introductions and "appreciations." I think the ways my bookishness manifests itself are more like a U.K. writer than like an American one, honestly. But I didn't shove any of these comparisons at Chris. I preferred to let him find the form and the tone, and to do all the heavy lifting here. I really let him wade through the morass -- and there was more ass than you'd think. He covered it, for the most part. TM: I'm curious, how were the pieces received? How many at a time? Over what period of time? Were there any changes or cuts made to specific essays, or other issues or obstacles that came up in bringing this work into book form? CB: Conversations about this project began in December of 2015, when a mutual friend put Jonathan and me in contact by email. Jonathan sent me 60 or so pieces to review, and we met to discuss the project in early 2016. It was during that meeting that we first talked about the idea of a “book on books.” With a preliminary theme in mind, I dug in and started looking for threads in the essays that could inform their sequencing and the book's scope and shape. These pieces were published at different times and in a variety of venues, so our reader was going to have do some time travel. And I didn’t want them to feel “unstuck,” or mapless. So I searched for ways for the book to stake out its range and territory early on -- that was certainly my goal in the first chapter, “Engulf and Devour,” which shifts from a “devotion” on a book from Jonathan’s childhood to pieces on Moby-Dick and Philip Roth. Later in the book, the essays focus in on specific writers (Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip K. Dick), link thematically (as in the last chapter, “Fan Mail”), or connect via what I think of as “channels” -- inquiries or enthusiasms that reappear in different garb. I love the various forms of nostalgia expressed in the chapter “It Can Still Take Me There,” for example -- there’s a piece on the character of Batman, and further on, an essay about Jonathan’s encounter with the beat hero Herbert Huncke. As the book took shape, Jonathan sent along other pieces that might fit. To my delight, he also wrote some new essays that helped round out the chapters and complete some of the narratives therein. One of my favorite pieces in the book, for example, is his “Footnote on Thomas Berger,” a new piece that follows two previously-published essays on Berger. I won’t spoil it, but it’s an astounding story. Editorially, most of the heavy lifting took place last summer. Since most of these pieces were previously published, I saw my work as a sort of literary forensics: I read the manuscript version against the published version, and sent Jonathan edits that catalogued all editorial discrepancies and suggested a way forward. I sent these to Jonathan in batches of 10 or so and he returned finalized versions. Overall, my edits were modest -- these essays were already in fighting shape. We settled on a preliminary structure and title by July, and the manuscript was submitted a few weeks later. JL: I'm fighting the temptation to satirize Chris's scrupulous account of all his due diligence with claims of my having handled the perimeter defense, or being the one in charge of bringing the ziplock bags of trail mix. "First I built a bonfire hot enough to melt down the horse's hooves," etc. But the truth is that I did nothing so comprehensive or thoughtful even as that. I really just dumped that initial catastrophe's worth of pieces on Chris, by means of Dropbox. Then, to make matters worse, I sporadically discovered pieces I'd missed or forgotten about entirely that were hiding either in dingy corners of the Internet or of my own hard-drive, and sent those along as well. As Chris began to settle on pieces -- which didn't happen all at once, but in sequences -- I periodically flew into a panic of rewriting. I think I did a bit more "improving" -- or at least triage -- on these clumsy old sentences than Chris shows signs of being aware of. Mostly I tried to simplify tormented thoughts into merely agitated ones. I really like hearing about Chris's concerns about the risk of "maplessness" and the way he thought of his solution in terms of "channels." I find the design and flow he arrived at consistently surprising and delightful, nothing I'd have managed myself. That feeling extends to the title of the various sections, and the title of the book itself, which are all Chris's discoveries. TM: Readers now can go over the trail themselves to find a discarded ziplock, map in hand. The Hawkman trail? To borrow language describing two kinds of Pynchon novels (in the essay "Pychonopolis") this new collection teeters between Comparatively Stable and Utterly Centrifugal. Not because it is chaotic but because there is narrative drive and so many plot threads. The time-travel aspect, far from disorienting, is gratifying. What was lived, and sometimes suffered through, for decades, we see transpire in a few pages. I'm wondering if Jonathan's attitude toward collaboration has changed at all since the famous Harper's essay and his "Promiscuous" Internet project, where material he authored was made available for filmmakers and music bands? JL: Well, I'm in no way repentant, if that's what you mean. All of my impulses -- my yearnings -- are still in the direction of a gift economy.  It seems even more urgent to me now, more bound up in our political lives, all this stuff: acknowledging intertextuality, breaking the spell of "property" over our expressive cultural lives, find ways to reclaim a commons or create a "temporary autonomous zone" wherever possible. Locating versions of mutual aid for artists and artworks. Distinguishing corporatist imperatives from life imperatives. Not that I have some coherent political plan on offer! The Promiscuous Materials site is in disrepair -- I need to rework it, and freshen it up, make it inviting again. I'm not web-savvy that way, and there are only so many hours in the day. Still, people still do find their way to those stories and texts and song lyrics and make their own things out of them from time to time. I'm glad about that. I should say that it wasn't some major experiment, I don't make any such claim for it. The project was more a gesture -- a mild provocation, combined with a sort of playground. Like a community garden in a vacant lot. My main job is writing novels, and as I get older I know I've got to exclude a lot of other involvements. Too often that means missing chances to collaborate, and locking myself in my room. But I'm still really dedicated to breaking down the dull imperial notion of the novelist-as-Prometheus. Finding ways to introduce apertures or slippages in the mask of authority -- both inside the text, and around it. CB: My response here skims the surface of your question, Chris, but for me this project has been wholly defined by Jonathan’s generosity. After the briefest of introductions in late 2015, Jonathan invited me to help steer this ship; I’ll always be grateful for, and amazed by, the trust he showed in me from the get-go. Received en masse as they were, too, these essays felt very much like “uncommodifiable surpluses of inspiration” -- like gifts, in other words. This seems like a good time, too, to note that Jonathan’s donating all of his earnings from the book, and that half the proceeds are going to the charity Doctors Without Borders. Jonathan included this proviso in the initial book proposal, and I think it set the tone for the entire project. While I know I’m speaking of a different currency now than the one that drives the gift-economy, the creation of this book was certainly driven by a “Give All” sensibility. TM: That kind of generosity is inspiring. Now pet theories are kicking around in my mind. Did the choice of Doctors Without Borders have anything to do with the list of doctors acknowledged in last year's A Gambler's Anatomy and the convincing, or convincingly imagined, medical research involved in that book, or does the association go back further? JL: I'm sure it would be easy to overthink it. The fact is that I've always just been astonishingly moved by what they do. Which is no knock on, say, The Southern Poverty Law Center, or The Center for Biological Diversity, or many other possible destinations. But you have to pick one. Doctors Without Borders might seem to me -- I've never thought about this, exactly, before -- like the ultimate opposite of the kind of indirect politics practiced even by the most righteous of us artists and writers (I don't mean myself). That's to say, where we're by definition operating in the realm of the figurative and the intangible, in my case also the hesitant and ambiguous. While they are literally rushing bodily into zones of violence and crisis and putting bandages on other human bodies. So it was the least I could do. Let's leave it at that. Oh, but I should confess here that the doctors acknowledged in A Gambler's Anatomy aren't all doctors! By the time my list of acknowledgees had four or five doctors on it, it seemed fair -- I mean, it seemed funny -- to award the same title to Chris Offutt, and to my wife. Doctors of my spirit, and doctors to my book. TM: The acknowledgments reminded me of the dedication, also funny, in Stanley Elkin's The Dick Gibson Show. A list of radio hosts and their stations -- Jean Shepherd; WOR...etc -- ending with Joan Elkin; WIFE. I guess compared with the earlier discussion of a cultural commons, I was struck in this new collection by more traditional roles of authorship, for the reader respecting what great authors do on their terms. Which of course is a different matter, although I admit conflating them a little. One of my favorite pieces is the essay on Joseph McElroy. It does a great job anticipating a reader's objections while full-throatedly supporting a big league writer's craft. Are there some artists that, more than others, represent some kind of line or limit? With McElroy, "narrative 'sense'" sums it up. Have you experienced any conversions during your reading lives? This essay does much toward recruiting me to the McElroy camp. JL: Elkin's WIFE, I'd forgotten that. Genius -- I wouldn't try to compete. But my own wife regards my honorary doctorates as embarrassing jokes, so I took my revenge by awarding her a bogus one too. As for the opposition you suggest between "authors doing things on their terms" and the cultural commons, I'd say nah. My whole point, if I had one, was that to wade into the cultural commons was my description of what authors do when authors do what they do -- on their terms. Anyway that's how it feels to me. Whether conscious or semi-conscious or unconscious of the fact, we're all intertextually polymorphous-perverse in the end. As Dr. George Harrison wrote, "text goes on within you and without you." I'm glad I rallied your curiosity about McElroy -- he'll gratify it (though, honestly, I probably wouldn't pick up Ancient History as an entry point. Try Lookout Cartridge first.) But since I've gotten started picking apart premises lurking in your questions, let me do it again, and protest the terms "big-league," "conversion" and "recruit." Because I know McElroy is generally associated with "difficulty," and so what I hear in those words of yours is a kind of reader's hierarchy of striving, as if reading him or someone like him is a matter of stepping up to some higher realm or duty. I'm not into it. Too much Protestant work ethic in there, and status-seeking, and a hair shirt too. Read hedonistically instead. McElroy offers a delicious blast of oxygen -- it's fun to be in his brain, that's the reason to go there. I mean, if it turns you on to think of your reading of great novels, whether canonical or modernist or postmodernist or translated or just loooong, as some kind of sacrificial devotional act or military campaign or mountain-climbing expedition, go ahead. But admit that that's what turns you on! Life's too short to be intimidated by the books that are waiting only to be picked up and encountered, and then devoured, if you like what's on offer -- it's like being intimidated by food. CB: I’ll resist the urge to go literal here and steer us towards the last piece in the book, “Books Are Sandwiches,” and say instead that I love this answer because it reminds me, as a reader, to eat what I like and all that I can -- to follow my instincts without regard for anything that might obstruct my engagement with the page. Some of my favorite moments in the book, too, are those when Jonathan finds vitality in places I wouldn’t have known to look for it -- when he hails Chester Brown as a “a citizen of the timeless nation of the dissident soul,” for example, or sees in the work of Gilbert Sorrentino “a mind whose only way of handling a first introduction is to blurt out ‘Don’t we know one another already?’”, or praises Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments as “an object in furious motion, humming with its own energy, and all you might wish to do is touch it, alter its trajectory barely, so as to nudge it into universal view.” TM: One other term that probably does more to activate a reader's resistance, if the book doesn't conform to the reader's preconceived notion of said term, is novel. It's understood that this is the reader's problem, the reader's loss. Although, also it's a cultural loss if the book or author goes out of print, which lends an urgency to what’s said about the lesser-read authors praised in this book and elsewhere. In The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan calls the dip in John Barth "terrifying.” This collection nonetheless concerns novels, second only to the unmitigated joy of reading anything. It's largely a novelist's bag of novels and novelists. What draws you to writing novels? CB: What I love about the novel, both as a writer and a reader, is that it lives with you for a while, imprints itself on you. The novels that first invited me to write one, though, were particularly strange machines: The Age of Wire and String, for example,and Trout Fishing in America. I remember well the experience of reading the latter for the first time, and how the world continued buzzing for me even when I wasn’t reading it; it felt like having a pair of anti-gravity boots stowed away in my backpack. No other object has informed my life quite like my favorite novels have. From a craft perspective, the novel caters to the kinds of risks that I like to take in my writing. Because of my early influences, perhaps, I’m drawn to building my own strange machines. Also, I don’t think novelistically, as I know some writers do. I have to think small, write small, and I only find my novels once I’m inside them. I began my second book, for example, with one stand-alone piece about a piano that changes your point of view, and another about a character who has a sentence for a pet. It wasn’t until a year later, maybe, that I admitted to myself that these should be part of the same narrative. At the core of my process is a certain unease or anxiety about the form, and I’m glad for that -- I think it’s a good place to write from. Even so, I marvel at those writers who seem to have an easier relationship with the form. Jonathan’s one of my favorite living novelists, and for me his novels are built like tanks -- each one different from the last, and yet always dizzyingly inventive, uniquely ambitious, and expertly constructed.  Reading A Gambler’s Anatomy, for example, I was amazed by its grand design -- the way that the narrative arc, pacing, and sentence-level music all work together. I’m curious to hear what he has to say about a form to which he clearly brings such mastery. JL: "A novelist's bag of novels and novelists" -- you make it sound like a sack of cats! Yet one also being carried around by another, larger cat. Or a smaller one who is struggling with a very large sack. Well, I doubt I could write a more impassioned love letter to the novel than Chris B. has done here, so instead I'll play the feisty elder, and remind you young whippersnappers what Norman Mailer said when someone played devil's advocate about the viability of his chosen form (some of which devil's advocacy I think I hear in your question). I quote: "The novel will be at your funeral!" Maybe me and Boucher have our heads too far up the wazoo of the novel to realize that the world has moved on to other, better things...the human attention span having suffered irreparable damage,,,I doubt it...but even if so, it has been a pretty good place to spend my life. What I really think is this: the novel is the least airless, the least restrictive, the least solipsistic of wazoos to have climbed up. It is a wazoo with a view. Okay, to be a bit more serious, I really have come to understand that the humbling mystery of my chosen practice is how capacious the damn thing is. It holds together impossible things (like life itself). It even makes room for the anti-novel -- for those always turn out to be novels, too. It models human consciousness in any number of ways -- by its involvement simultaneously in narrative and language and also sensation, dreaming and projection and fear, and with our feeling of duration -- time, that is.  It concerns itself with concurrence of being-in-our-heads (that's the siren call of solipsism) and being-in-the-herd (the basic fact that we're social creatures, wandering among others every day of our lives). The two are simultaneous immersions, never resolving their permanent juxtaposition. The novel actually captures this! How incredible. And even the shortest and simplest novel is oceanic, confusing, too big to get your head around, or see all at once (again, like life). Anyway, this here bag of cats -- it's got other things in it, I swear. There's my mother-in-law, in the "Footnote to Berger." She's no novelist! There are cameos by any number of others -- painters, poets, children, and teenaged pre-novelist me. It's less lonely because it's fungible to human beings. As are novels. Whereas bags of cats are just -- well, cats, all the way down.

Kindness Is Voluntary: On Ian McEwan’s The Children Act

At the bottom of Ian McEwan’s new novel The Children Act, a brisk tour of the English family courts, is the same bitter pill the writer has been mulling over since his early work, refusing to swallow.  A youthful and artistic idealism must be sacrificed to responsible administration. In The Cement Garden, McEwan’s first novel, a house of orphaned adolescents ward off government services for a time by storing their mother’s body in an elaborately cemented trunk kept in the basement. But this doesn’t eliminate the need for those children to implement grotesque variations on the lost parental order. The state’s eagerness to do more -- to midwife the parents -- is in turn skewered by The Child In Time's mammothly dysfunctional Official Commission on Child Care, the recommendations by its 14 subcommittees always mired in political and commercial interests, its members plagued by personal tragedies. For McEwan, neither the citizens nor the bureaucrats seem up to their end of the social contract, which is why the impersonal law persists to safeguard the sovereignty of individuals in the private, domestic sphere while protecting victims from those who abuse their parental privileges. To be a grown-up worthy of commanding the law is truly a higher, almost divine, calling. So McEwan, stalking secret wellsprings of authority through steady production in five decades, tilts his frame from the easy drama of arguing attorneys to the fallible hand that hands down the judgment. Even a discipline as seemingly objective as Nobel-level physics, as witnessed in Solar, could decay into a Ponzi scheme with the right human contamination. The trendy sociologists in that book, explaining how the discovery of a specific gene or subatomic particle was socially constructed, were supposed to be academic court jesters. McEwan continues to demonstrate how similar social truths can best be delivered elegantly by a novelist. In The Children Act, High Court Judge Fiona Maye, 59, is highly esteemed and remains invigorated by the cases passing through her Family Division, each exotic claim and novel circumstance “assimilated at speed.” She believes in her work and considers it “a significant marker in civilization’s progress” that the law favors the needs of children over their parents, as coded in the statute that lends the novel its name. The law is an esoteric language, a forbidden fruit whose knowledge causes litigants to lapse. “Parents soon learned the new vocabulary and patient procedures of the law, and were dazed to find themselves in vicious combat with the one they once loved.” After 35 years, Fiona’s marriage is stagnating, and her husband Jack, a Classics professor, candidly asks her permission to pursue an affair with a 28-year-old statistician, Melanie. When he leaves, she changes the locks. McEwan tailors his sentences for each book, but tends toward Jamesean intricacy, rigging each clause with multiple detonations of meaning. Here is McEwan introducing Solar's physicist, Michael Beard: He belonged to that class of men -- vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever -- who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so. And it helped that some women believed he was a genius in need of rescue. This plume of competing impressions -- physical details and projected airs -- is anchored by the storyteller’s pretense to contain his man and pin him to a type. Beard’s elusiveness makes him seem more real. In The Children Act, McEwan uses a closer third-person that mimics Fiona as she coolly itemizes the relevant facts in one of her cases, or in the marital ordeal that consumes more and more of her attention: Her days were full, and in the evenings recently, various dinners...and taxis, Tube trains, dry-cleaning to collect, a letter to draft about a special school for the cleaning lady’s autistic son, and finally sleep. Where was the sex? At that moment, she couldn’t recall. Tracks often switch mid-paragraph. Self-pity in others embarrasses the judge, but she can’t help but feel victimized by the ruthless decision her husband makes in favor of a fling. Out of all her courtroom experience, Fiona observes kindness as the “essential human ingredient.” She can sometimes pursue this one humanist virtue in the law by using it to save a child from an unkind parent.  The problem is that kindness is voluntary, unwarranted by law. Circumstance can also prohibit kindness by forcing the choice between two evils. Fiona is still haunted by a famous case of Siamese twins, which left her to decide between a surgery that would result in the death of one brother and letting both die by doing nothing. She cites the trauma of this decision as a turning point, when sensual pleasure between herself and Jack ceased. The case that takes up the bulk of The Children Act offers a medical solution, but to get there Fiona must first grapple with religious fundamentalism. Adam, a cancer-stricken teenage Jehovah’s Witness, refuses a lifesaving blood transfusion. He is 17, not 18, but can be ruled responsible for his elected martyrdom by a standard he easily exceeds. The judge and the novelist are interesting analogues. McEwan already offered a look in the narrative kitchen with Black Dogs, a literary son-in-law sniffing out one side, then the other, of an estranged marriage that withered away with Communism. As an allegory, the compassionate wife and the sharp-minded husband served as the synthesis absent from Communism’s historical moment, but they could just as easily stand for the two best sides of Fiona. She is entirely credulous about the law. She’s made it her fate. And she can play it like the baby grand that sits in her living room, jazzing up her judgments with Aristotle and John Stuart Mill. The Children Act is light by McEwan’s standards. It arrives at big questions too easily. Its simplicity nonetheless exposes the limitations set on a society that sees only in laws and how to profit from them. Fiona expresses a typical cynicism when we are given her impressions of a pervasive greed. The children become counters in a game, and every petty grievance is a money grab.  Contrasting this “moral kitsch” is an alien display of substance that logically slides toward self-annihilation. Fiona determines that she needs to visit Adam in the hospital in order to rule, and finds that he’s only too aware of the consequences of his conviction. He is intelligent, charismatic, brave, and shows ambition, if not promise, as a poet and violinist. Is moderation even possible? Fiona is reminded by her many nieces and nephews of just how much of her own life her ambitions have gobbled up. What shines through her legal mastery is McEwan’s commitment to a clear-eyed reckoning of the forces at play in his world, even his own circle, whether through a bitter divorce or the zealous death threats leveled at fellow-writer and friend Salman Rushdie. To remain a prominent, serious novelist in this culture -- and not merely among novelists -- requires a certain level of engagement with the headlines, and maybe a certain accent. What keeps McEwan afloat is an almost callow ambition sustained, from book to book, by an amateur’s curiosity.

Only Disconnect: Ben Lerner’s 10:04

  Ben Lerner can't possibly be the persona that inhabits his fiction, the one who surfaces fleetingly in the jagged word clusters that make up his poetry. This shifty, brooding character might share some basic reportable details with his creator, but the difference between them, between writer and work, serves as the primary tension in all of Lerner's writing. If works of art were about something, instead of existing self-sufficiently for themselves, this is what Lerner's work would be about: the chasm between a life lived and a thing made; the discouragement one suffers when trying to find one in the other. With his second novel, 10:04, Lerner has decisively passed from the abbey of poets, who trained him in these stark aesthetic distinctions, into the bustling town of fiction. (If 10:04 were about something, it would be about this passage.) His poetic pedigree draws attention like the priest's white collar worn at a pub. At 35, he is still very much a younger poet, precociously so, ten years after an award-winning first book, The Lichtenberg Figures, followed in 2006 by Angle of Yaw, a National Book Award finalist. He edited a literary journal and received a Fulbright Scholarship to Spain, and though it is technically impossible to determine precisely how much the latter experience contributed to Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) deals entirely with that kind of experience abroad. On his fellowship in Spain, the young Topeka-bred poet Adam Gordon worries over his incapacity for being profoundly affected by art. He stares at paintings to no avail. When Spanish translations of his poems are read at a Madrid art gallery, he is bafflingly applauded.  The better his Spanish gets, the less poetic he seems around his Spanish friends. Leaving the Atocha Station, named after an early John Ashbery poem, amounts to a deeper disillusionment than in the standard artist novel, where the audience refuses to sanction the artist’s naïve ambitions. In Lerner’s discursive first-person, a provincial romantic fervor is lost on Adam as he examines the “disconnect” between his voided encounters with artworks and “the claims made on their behalf.” Lerner, on the other hand, has good company among a faction of likeminded American novelists and critics who bristle at the hidebound claims they insist are responsible for an embarrassing profusion of substandard literary product. Simple, re-teachable tropes reign because they are market-tested, while advanced and otherwise marginalized techniques are branded Difficult, because the new is never as easily digestible, or salable, as the familiar. These prose writers—anyone who wasn’t appalled by David Shields’ Reality Hunger—admire the poetry community for valuing their progressives, thus keeping pace over the last century with the vanguards of other media. In both of Lerner’s novels, there is a sense of his sentences catching up, unfurling, distending, pursuing the unclaimed experience or the unexplained artwork. He structures his fiction around passages drawn from his growing body of criticism—studies of John Ashbery and damaged or “totaled art”—as well as the writings of others, like Daniel Zalewski’s essay on Christian Marclay, designer of the 24-hour video montage The Clock, which is given a prominent thematic role in 10:04. Collage, when used in Lerner’s novels, doesn’t result in the patchwork effect applied by a proponent like Shields in How Literature Saved My Life. Lerner’s novelist sensibility is to cohere and blend, the way Norman Mailer incorporated the shards of Gary Gilmore’s prison letters into the grand cathedral window of The Executioner’s Song. The found objects discovered in 10:04—photographs, poems, epigraphs—are characters that, above more conventional plotlines in the novel, galvanize the contemplative momentum. The crown jewel of these objects—the antagonist—is a short story published by Lerner (but also his protagonist, Ben) in The New Yorker. (Other excerpts have appeared in The Paris Review and Harper’s.) For the poet in the novel, this story is a moment of concession, a means to the curse of a six-figure book deal. For Lerner, it’s a reconciliation of language. The sequence of untitled sonnet-length poems that make up The Lichtenberg Figures degrades linearly from more coherent, finished announcements to scattershot surrealist amalgams. It is more rationally conservative, more reasonable, than John Ashbery’s debut, Some Trees, published nearly fifty years earlier. Or maybe it could be seen as progressively seeking territory beyond the old familiar conservative-progressive continuum of styles.  (“Perhaps what remains of innovation/is a conservativism at peace with contradiction,” Lerner half-kids.) His most recent book of poems, Mean Free Path, makes use of even shorter overlapping units or strips, fused into nine-line stanzas. The barrage of interruptions conspire to strengthen or stress the precious attractions between words. At this threshold of coherence, Lerner maintains a formal unity of concept and appearance. This formal awareness is a constant presence throughout his novels, always holding the reader at an honest critical distance from the words—critical in both senses, skeptical and art-loving. Adam Gordon, unbeknownst to him, takes us on a journey through stages of suggestion and communication, led by Lerner’s hand. His Spanish, at first, is lacking. The dialogue is paraphrased and indeterminate. Facial cues go unrecognized or misinterpreted. Adam’s mystique thrives on meaningful silences his acquaintances run with, or so he thinks. He changes his story. First, his mother is dead. Then, he says she’s dead because she’s ill. His father is a fascist. Adam is less a poet and more like one of Lerner’s poems. In Jonathan Lethem’s essay collection, The Ecstasy of Influence, he suggests that “the voices in so-called ‘nonfictions’ were themselves artful impostures, arrangements of sentences…that mimicked the presence of a human being offering sincerely intended and honestly useful guidance into this or that complicated area of human thought or experience.” It is the fictional element in nonfiction, Lethem reminds us, that makes the autobiographical question moot. But starting from words isn’t necessarily starting from scratch. This I think is the genuine motivation for collage, and also pastiche. Nothing new under the sun, but also infinite combinations and riffs.  Lerner’s new poet-cum-novelist stops worrying about the novel. Lerner clearly loves it.

A Poet Goes Commercial: Nicholson Baker’s Traveling Sprinkler

As if rap’s global pop influence isn’t justice enough, the campaign to document its musical and commercial developments, the lives of its artists, important artifacts and its intersection with recent history has gained great momentum in the literary space — when not making bold claims on Literature itself. A twenty-first-century given, rap has even wended its way into that beacon of the twentieth century, the anthology. Yale University Press’s The Anthology of Rap flays memorable tracks, preserving their lyrical skins for the hasty forceps of future scholars “within the context of African American oral culture and the Western poetic heritage.” Anthologies upholding a great heritage are necessarily short on the specifics. Yet there is also a rebellious potential within the anthology itself, recovering moments that tradition or fashion have invalidated. Nicholson Baker invented such a noble anthology-wright in his short novel, The Anthologist, a miscellaneous monologue by working poet Paul Chowder that bears many of the features for which Baker has been rightly admired, his vivid observational miniatures and giddy disclosures, his nimble, various excursions, his paring back vast erudition to a buoyant, demotic language. Chowder takes seriously a poet’s claim to common experience and finds in the free-verse Modernists an estrangement from the four-beat line, which he considers “the soul of English poetry.” (Drawing on the recent theory of “unrealized beats,” he further insists that iambic pentameter subconsciously adopts a caesura as a sixth beat, morphing into a “swaying three-beat minuetto.”) The light verse and rhyming ballads that get crowded out by the followers of Eliot and Pound stake the truer claim to listeners’ hearts and minds by accommodating our innate habit of matching similar sounds. Holed up in his heaping New Hampshire barn, past deadline on the introduction to his anthology, Only Rhyme, Paul Chowder takes Sharpie to easel pad and diagrams the many stresses of his professional and personal discontents. Paul Chowder returns in Baker’s new novel, Traveling Sprinkler, which isn’t so much a sequel as a remake. It is a novel-rhyme; the two comprise a couplet. Following the real-time interval between novels, a few years have passed and Only Rhyme continues to sell at some big schools in the southwest. The poet’s editor nudges him for a book of new poems, but there is nothing like the claustrophobic pressure that surrounded the previous labor. We already know of his productive return flight from a conference in Switzerland, when he wrote twenty-three poems. Communication lines are still tentatively open with ex-girlfriend Roz, who makes egg salad sandwiches for his fifty-fifth birthday. Paul Chowder has extended his sphere. Instead of the chin bar in his barn, he works out at Planet Fitness, a “Judgment Free Zone.” He attends Quaker meetings. He buys a guitar. Also a keyboard and a microphone. A nagging thirst for Yukon Jack has been displaced by a curious flirtation with cigars. He writes and works out melodies in the car. His middle-aged neighbor Nanette once nervously threw him a leftover Meals on Wheels chicken dinner and saved him from sabotaging her new hardwood floor. Now he has Nan and her son over for sushi, reliably babysits her chickens and waters her tomatoes with his traveling sprinkler. It is the historian within the anthologist that presses toward the now. Tim, a professor at Tufts who completed a book on Queen Victoria’s imperialistic rule, informs Paul about the movement to challenge Obama’s use of drones in current conflicts. As Tim, always Paul’s hand in the world, reports from the latest rally, the poet becomes more disturbed by his readings on the issue and his consumption of related online media, like videos and protest songs. Paul is left “traumatized and angry” by the story of Roya, a thirteen-year-old taken to begging on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border after her mother and two brothers were killed in a 2002 drone attack and her father “carefully gathered pieces of his wife and his sons from the tree near their house and buried them.” Pacing in his kitchen, Paul feels “powerless and ineffectual.” If in the academy Paul’s minority defense of rhyme was somewhat vindicated, his revulsion toward American war tactics leaves him politically marginalized. But both minorities are appeals to common experience overrun by institutions. Atrocities can affect observers remotely, like poems. The poet’s response, the only response that registers on an individual level, is tangential and local. Tim recruits Paul to write a protest song. Much of Traveling Sprinkler follows this trajectory, but only in Paul’s meandering Chowderesque way. The authorized history of hip hop’s cultural and musical expansion is that of local, folk origins. The DJ presided over the ceremony, providing rhythmic instructions to partygoers to maintain the music’s momentum. In time, these MC duties were outsourced to vocal specialists who conjured additional layers of narrative and linguistic complexity that survive, but in a different form, the party-event. Paradoxically, it is the MC’s flow — the delivery system of the lyrics, rooted in nonverbal features of the song — that enables the recognition of the words in anthology. This, too, was the radical notion behind Only Rhyme, assembling a book that isolates sounds. If Bob Dylan, whose lyrics also have been printed and bound, is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the proper objection isn’t regarding his songwriting but the singing quality of poetry. In The Anthologist, Chowder explains: “We like to visit the parallel sound-studio universe...independent of the other part of our head, which is the conscious part.” If rhyme serves an aural function in poetry, “music fogs over” the consonant particulars of lyrical rhyme. Music, the overarching concern of Traveling Sprinkler, “is about the idea that one cellist’s A is going to sound slightly different than another cellist’s A.” In written notation, of words or music, “there are losses incurred.” The plurality that reigns over head music is curtailed “by a black blob on a page.” The liberated anthologist burns a mixtape CD and gives it to Roz, his reluctant though accessible muse, the anti-Laura. Always the omnivore, Paul digs current and classic pop songs while also meditating in long stretches on classical composers, but from the underdog perspective of the bassoon. Stravinsky, influenced by Debussy, chose a solo bassoon to open The Rite of Spring, but tortures it by forcing it into the register of the flute. In spite of its limits, the woodcraft bassoon provides an organic connection to spring, while the flute is “a tube of metal.” Paul’s jaw is shot from playing the bassoon when he was younger, but he enjoys building his repertoire of guitar chords and also gains pointers from Nanette’s nineteen-year-old, Raymond, who composes rap songs digitally. Paul assembles an orchestra from the everyday, feeding his Logic digital audio workstation with the plucking of an egg slicer and the sloshing of a pasta pot, which he can manipulate on his new MIDI keyboard. Technology enables the poet to complete the reductionist’s journey from language’s music to the fundamental elements of musical sound. In The Anthologist, Paul relays warnings from big names like Elizabeth Bishop and W. H. Auden against the growing Big Business of poetry. “Philip Larkin said that when you start paying people to write poems and paying people to read them you remove the ‘element of compulsive contact.’” His sense of powerlessness toward affecting change in society as writer of verse compels Chowder to retread his domain and seek out regions of compulsive contact with people rather than listing under faceless institutions. Raymond inhabits such a space, working away at original compositions on his computer while also DJing at a local club, college-age but taking time off, knowledgeable yet unaccredited. Raymond and Paul’s partnership, promiscuous and unauthorized, embodies the best virtues of the social media over which Paul devotes increasing time, to share songs, watch video, read political discourse, and self-educate his musicianship. His competition with dead critics finds a logical resolution in active, real-time exchanges with the living nonce.