Theaters of Speech

Ben Lerner & Sally Rooney

In Conversation

From the award-winning author of 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner’s new book The Topeka School is a tender and expansive family drama set in the American Midwest at the turn of the century: a tale of adolescence, transgression, and the conditions that have given rise to the trolls and tyrants of the New Right. Adam Gordon is a senior at Topeka High School, class of ’97. His mother, Jane, is a famous feminist author; his father, Jonathan, is an expert at getting “lost boys” to open up. They both work at a psychiatric clinic that has attracted staff and patients from around the world. Adam is a renowned debater, expected to win a national championship before he heads to college. He is one of the cool kids, ready to fight or, better, freestyle about fighting if it keeps his peers from thinking of him as weak. Adam is also one of the seniors who bring the loner Darren Eberheart—who is, unbeknownst to Adam, his father’s patient—into the social scene, to disastrous effect.

Ben Lerner joined Sally Rooney (author of Conversations with Friends and Normal People) in conversation at Pioneer Works for an event co-presented by Greenlight Bookstore to discuss inhabiting multiple voices, the role of the author, and the politics of a novel.

Sally Rooney: I want to start by asking some questions about the process of writing the book. The novel, unlike your previous novels, presents what we could call four distinct voices. We have Adam and Darren, two teenage boys who are in high school together in Topeka, and we have Adam’s parents, the psychoanalysts Jane and Jonathan. Jane has become very well known for writing books about psychology and practicing psychoanalysis; Jonathan makes short films. This proliferation of voices makes The Topeka School very different from your previous two novels. Did this form offer itself immediately when you began writing the novel, or was it something that you spent time trying to work out?

Ben Lerner: That’s a good question. I think that I initially imagined writing the novel in the first person, from the young Adam Gordon’s perspective, and then I realized that I couldn’t represent a version of my adolescent speech. Like, I could do it in a funny, ironic way, but it would be too embarrassing, a kind of busted dialect, for me to actually be able to deal with the emotional content I wanted to deal with. I think I started and failed to write a version of this novel in the young Adam Gordon’s voice, my 1997 voice. It became clear to me that if I were going to write about that Adam at that time, it had to be in the third person. Then, I thought: what if the older generation had access to the first person? What if I try to write in versions of my parents’ voices? This was actually easier, because the parents are closer to my age now. I’m the father of two young girls, so I started to see these parent figures as closer to my present than the young Adam Gordon. That realization launched the experiments that resulted in those voices.

Rooney: So, it was sort of an expansion of a technique that you had used in your work previously. You focused on reaching into yourself to find a voice, but now, there are more than one. There are multiple.

Lerner: Yeah. On the one hand, I wanted to do this kind of traditional, novelistic thing of exploring the possibility of inhabiting other voices. But my goal wasn’t for them to be perfect acoustical images of these people. My goal was to have little tears in the voice, where you could see that it’s the adult Adam trying to reconstruct his parents’ voices from his familial and political present. Sometimes, I want the voice of Jane or whoever to really take over, but at certain intervals, I break that up a little, so there’s a glitch in the matrix of the voice. To me, the emotional drama is an adult writing as his mother about her father. That’s a very complicated relationship, since the book is so concerned with the way a voice is a technology formed across generations.

Rooney: At one point, the teenage Adam is trying to recall the sound of his girlfriend Amber’s voice, and he wonders to himself, “was a voice only truly present if you could imitate it?” That line obviously made me wonder about the kind of challenges that you might have faced in the process of inhabiting these four voices. Did you find that some were more difficult to write than others?

The mother’s voice was the easiest to write in the sense that it was the part of the novel that flowed, but it was also the most psychologically destabilizing voice to inhabit.

Lerner: The mother’s voice was the easiest to write in the sense that it was the part of the novel that flowed, but it was also the most psychologically destabilizing voice to inhabit. It was intense to write as a version of my mother talking about a version of her fucked up father. There’s a lot of psychic risk involved. That was emotionally consequential, and very much written in conversation with her. We’re very close, and she’s a great reader and editor of the things that I write. I wanted her to feel okay about those sections. I could actually just sit down and write that voice, unlike a lot of the other voices—but then I would wake up the next day feeling crazy. So it had a different kind of difficulty.

I admire people who can really seem to have access to other voices and their prosodies and their rhythms, but I also wanted to acknowledge the limit of Adam’s ability to have access to other voices and interiorities. So with Amber, the technical challenge was not creating a robust, three-dimensional image of her voice, but dramatizing the limits of Adam’s ability to channel her. A lot of the book is about how voices get in you, whether they’re from mass media, or presidential Twitter storms, or family, or the radio, or other things you’ve read—and so Adam is very worried about the degree to which the wrong voices get in him, like his very right-wing debate coach, or his grandfather.

Rooney: Another technical question about the process: how long did it take you to write this book, from the beginning of your experiment with trying to write first-person as the teenage Adam until you were finished?

Lerner: I wrote an essay in 2011 about high school debate, and growing up in Topeka between these two different worlds of talk, and the crisis in white masculinity amongst a certain group of Midwesterners, but that was in my familiar first-person voice. That was a kind of précis of the novel, but I couldn’t do anything with it until I solved the problem of these other voices, which took a long time. There’s also Darren’s voice, which isn’t exactly a voice, because he doesn’t really speak, and again Adam has really limited access to his perspective. It’s more of a felt silence than an articulated voice. I don’t know, I feel like I was working on it until yesterday! I had to get the order of the sections, because so much of the book is about how language circulates across voices, how one speaker’s speech shows up in another character, so I had to get the rhythm of that right across sections. I don’t know if I got it right, but I worked until I felt like I had done the best I could.

Rooney: That’s something I also wanted to ask. Did you write the book in the order it’s now organized?

Lerner: No, I wrote this long proem that was the whole Darren section in this more Faulknerian voice, then the other sections that were both the pre-history and the post-history of the preface. It took me a long time to admit that that didn’t work. I’ve heard other writers say something similar—in every novel that I’ve written, there has been something I wrote first, and put first, and only over time, often with the help of friends, have been convinced to break up or let go. There was something at the beginning of my first novel that I cut, and something at the beginning of my second that I cut. It’s like those engines on a shuttle that fall away—or whatever the non-triumphant version of that image is. It’s a kind of propulsion that then has to be kicked away.

Rooney: I always think of that as scaffolding. I have that a lot, too. It just has to be taken down when the thing is complete, but it’s often hard to tell what is scaffolding, and what is actually the thing.

At one point in the book, you write, “Almost everybody—preschoolers, man children, family therapists, analysts, bio-psychologists, debate coaches—agreed language could have magical effects.” Do you think that that is an agreement that this novel shares in ultimately?

Lerner: Yeah. I mean, the book is really organized around these different extreme theaters of speech, which is one of the ways that Adam and Darren are intensely linked. Adam is the son of two psychologists. He has all these resources for support, and he’s going to leave for college. Darren has an array of challenges, his difficult father has died, he doesn’t have a lot of support. He’s an outcast. So, on the one hand, they couldn’t be more different, but on the other hand, they both participate in a magical thinking around language. Darren thinks he has these kind of bad superpowers that he actually got at Bright Circle Montessori, where Adam also went to preschool. Adam thinks that his language is going to hurt people, or it’s going to give him migraines, and it does. Darren has a little bit more of an infantile version of the magical capacity of speech, but the book is certainly an argument about language having material effects.

Rooney: But what is that argument?

Lerner: Part of it is that, like Darren, Adam is disfigured by the desire to pass as a “real man” in this tough-guy culture, and he basically doesn’t have the stomach for the physical violence, so he becomes a verbal bully—which is real violence. He really can wound people. I’m not saying this is equivalent to physical violence, but Adam knows he can participate in a culture of violence through speech. The book is about—not in some political, theoretical, fully explanatory way—the bankruptcy of what passes for political speech, and the way that when a language reaches a kind of death, when it’s emptied out sufficiently, that creates the conditions for a fascistic return to a vocabulary of racist unreason. That is a weapon in the war on people of color, on women, or however you want to describe the manifold disaster of the present. The collapse of language is integral to the broader political and social collapse so language has real effects in that way.

When a language reaches a kind of death, when it’s emptied out sufficiently, that creates the conditions for a fascistic return to a vocabulary of racist unreason.

But, so it doesn’t sound only depressing, the riskier thing in the book, the thing that requires more personal embarrassment, is that I want to claim that, in these moments of fast debate, where these kids are reducing what’s ostensibly the language of policy debate to an athletic spectacle—spit’s flying, and they pass out or throw up—I want to say there’s also in that moment something kind of beautiful, a glimmer of possibility. You’re making contact with the social fact of language in this basic, abstract way, like when Adam is overtaken by an experience of prosody, and there’s a kind of transport, even in those ridiculous scenes. It wants to suggest that he is making contact with a kind of poetic capacity. It’s similar to the extreme embarrassment of these white suburbanites freestyling, which the book wants to criticize ruthlessly. I think the older Adam is also trying to say, “Look, your experience of flow, no matter how fallen and compromised, is an experience of the social capacity for language.”

Rooney: So the book is set, am I right in saying, 1997?

Lerner: Yes, that’s his senior year.

Rooney: So, it’s mostly set in that year. And we’re talking about how it maps a kind of moment of the disintegration of language, which leads to the political conditions that we’re seeing now. Do you think that there’s a specific relationship between that historical point and the conditions of the present?

Lerner: Well, I got very interested in the “end of history” discourse that was circulating in the ’90s. FSG published Francis Fukuyama’s book, The End of History. The idea generally (this is a reductive version of it) was that, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, history has ended, because all that’s left are these liberal, post-ideological, technocratic challenges. And that was very widely circulating in the pundit class, and to a certain degree the young Adam believes this. When he’s losing debates against debate coach, he thinks, “well, I’m on the right side of history, this guy’s a conservative, and Bob Dole just got trounced by Clinton, and Clinton was on Arsenio Hall,” or whatever. It’s a kind of magical thinking. The book wants to remember the white fantasy of the end of history in the ’90s from the Trump era, and to bring those two moments into correspondence—when history is obviously alive, I mean, it never stopped, that was always a white fantasy, but now even the pundit class can’t deny it.

It was also right before Columbine, before the advent of the pandemic of a certain kind of white, middle-class violence. These were crimes of vacuity. They weren’t about deeply held beliefs, but more about a neuropathy or numbness in the Midwest and not only in the Midwest. Darren’s spectacular act of violence is almost quaint compared to what’s coming, but the structure of it bears some relation to the repetitive violence of the disaster of a privileged subject that keeps opening fire. Not that that’s the only or a sufficient explanation of these crimes, but it does seem to be part of the story.

Rooney: Some of my favorite sections of the book deal with the character Jane, and her experience with literary fame. In many ways, it’s fair to say she finds her status quite alienating and strange. It made me want to ask you: what do you think is the function of an author in relation to literary texts? Is the role of author something that you feel comfortable playing—like the way you’re playing it right now?

Lerner: I don’t feel comfortable . . .

Rooney: Oh good, me neither.

Lerner: But I feel really lucky that I’m getting to talk to someone interesting, and that there are people here that we get to talk to. For Jane, there are two different things that happen with her fame. One is that, in the institution where she works, the fact that she writes a popular book about women’s psychology becomes the ground for the old guard of analysts to dismiss her: “Oh, she’s writing simple books for girls.” And I think the way she negotiates questions of accessibility and expertise is interesting to me as someone who finds himself having a somewhat wider audience in prose than I did in poetry, which was the site of my education and still the center of my thinking about literature. So, I’m interested in that for a version of my mom, and for a version of myself. So much of the book is about the way that—you put it beautifully in your quote—in your interior life, you’re shot through with social forces. One of the things I was interested in tracking was how this shift in her broader reception started to enter her relationships: most notably, that relationship with Sima, where there’s this blurry boundary between therapist and friend, but also in her marriage. My mom’s visibility affected my brother and me in various ways. It’s also about her worrying about the effects on me, or a version of me.

The bad version of the author function is how easy it is in our contemporary media ecology for people to only engage the author as an avatar, as a way of not having to do the messier work of having to think through the book. And I think we’re equipped technologically to pay less attention to the book, and more attention to the author, than ever before in history. That sucks. How about you?

Rooney: I agree. I don’t know what the relationship of the author to the text even is. I presume there is one, because here we are, but I don’t know what it is. When Jane is talking about the response to her success, she says that some people believe that if your book is celebrated in The New York Times, then you’re just peddling commercially repackaged ideology. I think the political commitments of your novel are very clear, but I know it had a very nice review in the Times

Lerner: Mixed reviews . . .

Rooney: But do you worry that, at some level, the novels with mixed or positive receptions in the Times are trapped in this feedback loop of repackaging ideology? Can we fight that tendency? Is there an argument to be had there, or is it purely a way of dismissing art that’s accessible?

Lerner: I think there’s a lot to the modernist thinking about the uses of difficulty. I was certainly raised in this kind of Adornian way of thinking that difficulty is the way an artwork resists the market. If your work isn’t sufficiently difficult, like if its politics isn’t encoded in a sufficiently complicated formal process, then it has totally surrendered itself to the commodity form. There is a moment of truth in that argument, and I also think it is just a way of valorizing marginality as such: “the fewer people who read my work, the more of a radical I am.” And I don’t think that’s a viable political or aesthetic model, either. I think the packaging is complicated . . . I don’t know, is the answer. It depends on the work.

Some people have elements of accessibility in their work that allow it to be taken up in a broader conversation, while there are still plenty of cloudy spots, and things that are not explained, and things that are not prepackaged ideology. I think your books do that, for example. There is a specific problem with novels, and maybe a problem with novels written by white guys: historically, the discourse has been so poisoned by this thing called the Great American Novel. The Great American Novel is a racist discourse. It’s a Whitmanic fantasy about a novel that a white guy is going to write that can speak for everyone. So, if you read this novel as being like, “and now, this guy with these dumb black glasses, like all these other guys with dumb black glasses, is going to explain to you the genealogy of the political present and it’s the explanation, it’s the explanation for everyone”—that makes the novel unreadable in a certain way. Anyway, a book is not the way a book is taken up; an artwork is not its reception. The way any book is taken up is an interesting dialectic between the words on the page and the social circumstances of reception, and you kind of have no control over it. I don’t really value accessibility inherently, but I certainly don’t value difficulty inherently, either.

Rooney: Adam is a high school debating champion, and he’s coached by this local legend, Peter Evanson. And when Evanson gives a speech, we’re told, “the audience is less following an argument than watching a tightrope walk.” That reminded me of the experience of reading a novel, in a way: the sense of being thrilled by the technical mastery and the extreme skill and perfection in a way that can disguise or repress political content. Novels can be so formally dazzling. How do you balance the desire for technical mastery with the desire to expose material or political conditions?

Lerner: I don’t know if I’ve ever had an experience of being dazzled by the form of a novel if I thought the novel had no political content. I think of the politics of a work of art as residing in the form as much as on the plane of content. I can think of artworks that are formally dazzling with aggressively bad politics—

Rooney: I guess that’s what I’m wondering about.

Lerner: Like Céline, like modernist writers. I love a lot of Ezra Pound’s poems. I think they are some of the most beautiful poems in English. One way people attempt to rescue Pound from the problem of his horrendous politics is through a question about the author function, in the sense of reading his work against his intentions. His collages with materials from different cultures, often cultural sources that were not being valued by other poets at the time, his use of fragmentation or white space or indeterminacy or whatever, actually exceed his political claims for the work, one might argue. And a lot of poets after Pound, like Charles Olson or the language poets, will try to take some of those formal techniques but redescribe their political valence. I don’t know. I don’t really have an experience of reading where I’m dazzled by the form and politics disappears. I can have an experience of reading where the politics of the form and the denotative politics on the plane of content seem in tension, and that can be very disturbing and sometimes very propulsive.

Rooney: The novel is not a historically radical form. How do we go about trying to encode some sort of political radicalism in a form that seems to resist it in its generic tendency?

Lerner: You’re saying the novel resists radicalism because of forms of novelistic closure? Like everybody gets married to the right people and class is reproduced?

Rooney: Yeah, or even the way that it dramatizes subjectivity—its individualistic tendency. I think the history of the novel suggests that it has some relationship with bourgeois forms of subjectivity. Or maybe not. Maybe the novel is completely capable of accommodating radical politics.

Lerner: What do you think?

Rooney: I’m genuinely asking you.

Lerner: But I’m genuinely asking you. [laughter]

Rooney: I don’t know.

Lerner: I think good novels don’t resolve contradictions. Which would be a fantasy of radical politics, like, this novel can be a technology in class warfare or whatever. But I do think novels can sharpen and exacerbate and make felt contradictions. That’s not an efficient political practice. It shouldn’t be like, “we need to be in the streets,” “no, because I’m writing this novel, and it’s going to do the same thing.” But I do think that novels provide a class history, or dramatize a disconnect between the individual and the social, that can have a critical function. They can also be an antidote to abstract categories of thought that often don’t move people. John Berger, who is a hero of mine—his novels were an argument that the libidinal had to be harnessed by the political, that sex and wonder and looking at art are not incompatible with materialism, and that being alive to the wonder of the material world has to be part of a Marxist orientation, or you’ll just have drab Soviet repetition, and that doesn’t work. I don’t have an answer, but I think the novel will always fail, as I think the poem will always fail, although they can fail in different ways, to be efficient modes of intervening in history in some radical collective way. They can still be part of making the relationship between the scale at which we live our lives and the scale of historical process brought into sudden illuminating relation.

I do think that novels provide a class history, or dramatize a disconnect between the individual and the social, that can have a critical function. They can also be an antidote to abstract categories of thought that often don’t move people.

Rooney: I think that’s a very good answer. Thematically, the book is very concerned with the relationship between—well, we already spoke about gender and violence, but also I think about gender and speech. I’m thinking of the men who call Jane on the phone to harass her, but also Adam’s girlfriend, Amber, just slipping out of a boat while Adam is speaking and he doesn’t notice, and then Jane trying to shut Jonathan up while he’s having a bad trip. Some of the most memorable moments in the book are about women trying to make men stop talking. And a large part of Jonathan’s job is to encourage alienated young men to start talking. Is there a tension there that you find interesting, or is it not really a tension at all?

Lerner: I think it’s a really nice way to put it. This is overstated, there are all kinds of different people in Topeka, but when I was growing up, when I would go to certain friends’ houses for dinner, the dad would sit at the head of the table and just speak from the beginning until the end of the meal, and sometimes be like, “well, isn’t that right?” to a woman at the table. Beyond that, there was no acknowledgment of even a formal capacity for exchange. So it wasn’t that men didn’t talk, it was that men used speech as a way of blocking communication. And what men didn’t do, or weren’t supposed to do if they were supposed to be tough, was to engage in a conversation that risked something and involved silence and actually revealed vulnerability. Language obviously can be used to protect you from actually having to interact with a person, and the extreme form of that is Evanson’s weaponized eloquence.

So, I think it is characteristic of a certain kind of man—and I don’t pretend to be free of these tendencies, and this isn’t a book about how I’ve got it all figured out—but like you said, it’s actually about these being characteristics I’m trying to see in others and myself. I think what Jonathan is trying to do with the lost boys in therapy is actually about creating an environment of pressurized silence, where the kind of speech that might then be possible is not the kind of speech that actually serves to prevent communication.

Rooney: And so it’s a form of speech that risks something. It’s an open-endedness. And that also relates to what we’re talking about formally: not wanting to resolve the contradictions, leaving a space to be challenged or to risk something.

Lerner: Totally. And that the gamble of the novel, that a novel is not just talking, a novel is also listening. And the patterning in the novel is hopefully evidence of some maturation on Adam’s part in his relationship to listening.

Rooney: The book is about dialogue in many different forms. It’s about psychological dialogue, talk therapy, and debating as a form of dialogue. And then, in a conventional novel format, there’s spoken dialogue exchanged between the characters. Dialogue is part of the process of the book. It’s an open-ended question: I wonder what is this novel’s approach to dialogue?

Lerner: Dialogue, for me, historically, has been the most embarrassing part of the novel as a form. When I read certain books, with the dialogue tags “she said,” “he said,” I always hear in my head, “he lied,” “she lied.” It feels like a parodically bad Broadway play. It’s the moment when the novel makes an implied bid for literal transcription, but it actually very rarely transcribes speech as it transpires. There are really interesting experiments with this, like William Gaddis’s book that’s just a big block of unattributed dialogue—kind of interesting, but I can’t really read it. Or there’s the Ivy Compton Barnett solution, which is the dialogue is unrealistically good, and mean, and hilarious, and it’s a total delight, but you never believe that this seven-year-old who came downstairs had the perfect class-based burn for her governess—unless in Europe that’s how it works actually?—so, different modes of exaggeration.

For each of my books, I’ve had to have some solution to the embarrassment of dialogue. Formally, what started to make this book writable is that a lot of the dialogue is theatricalized dialogue; it’s the performance of a debate cross-examination. All the artificiality is built into what’s being transcribed. But not everything is like that, like the last dialogue with Adam and his father and his mom, when they’re listening to the recording of her dad, attempts to really depict the rhythm of a more or less realistic dialogue. I think part of what made the book writable is that there is very little dialogue that makes a bid to capture the mundane flow of speech. It was about language breaking down under an extreme that was not dialogical. Or it was about these theaters of dialogue, where you can kind of tell no one is actually listening to each other. Therapy is an interesting model, because in the analytic tradition, it’s not exactly a dialogue—the analyst doesn’t speak—which in the book, there’s an analogy between that and Jane visiting her mute father in the Rolling Hills nursing home, where you’re talking to him but he can’t speak and it’s the kind of nightmarish double of the psychoanalytic context.

Rooney: All three of your novels are about characters who are writers. The narrators of your first two novels are poets, and then, in The Topeka School, we have both the aspiring poet Adam and the successful author Jane. What do you think makes you keep returning to the figure of the writer as a protagonist, and is it something to do with what we were saying earlier about recognizing the limit of what a written form can incorporate? Because of course every piece of writing is ultimately about a writer, because it’s about the writer who wrote it.

Lerner: I think a part of it is just that the way I think about characterization, the way that the writing can be a technology of characterization if it’s narrated by a writer. Then, the decisions the writer is making are both the decisions the historical author has made, with this extra psychological valence in the development of the character. It’s not just me writing the book—I’m writing the book in a way that implies this other character who resembles me but isn’t me. I’m not very good at this kind of characterization that comes from nowhere and has a kind of synoptic profile of the character, like the character is this kind of person—I’m more comfortable letting that be inferred from technical decisions. With this book, it was decided in advance since I wanted this to be a prequel to the other two books. This was really in the syntax of the sequence. I didn’t sit down and even ask whether it’d be possible to separate it from that, but I wanted to make the maximum difference I could make within the trilogy.

Rooney: And you do have the figure of Darren, who is not a writer, and who is probably, in terms of voices, the furthest from the writer figures who you’ve characterized in your previous works. Did that feel like a very different way to work with characterization, because he’s not a character who’s necessarily very verbally fluent or literate?

Lerner: It’s totally different than the other kinds of writing in my books. It’s both, though. Darren has no verbal fluency—the only time he speaks is when he’s quoting other people—and at the end of the book he’s just mutely holding a sign as a sign of his muteness. But then those passages are very literary. They kind of risk overwriting. They’re more intensely literary than other passages in the book, because I’m trying to bring into focus the disconnect between the literary sensibility that imagines that mute mind, and the privacy of that mind. To me, that is more respectful to that figure than pretending to fully get in his head. It’s a way for the book to acknowledge that this is the older Adam’s best guess about what Darren’s perspective would look like. At no moment does the book want you to forget that artifice.

Rooney: In your second novel, 10:04, the narrator says, “Art has to offer something other than stylized despair.” Although I’m sure you never intended that to become a maxim, I do think about those words very often when it comes to my own work. And I think The Topeka School definitely succeeds in offering that “something other,” but I don’t know what that “something other” is, and I wonder if you do?

Lerner: No, not really . . . There’s this really great book that I recommend to everyone by Anna Tsing. She’s an anthropologist, and the book is called The Mushroom at the End of the World. It’s about the Matsutake mushroom, a mushroom that, like a lot of mushrooms, only grows in disturbed ecological environments. It only grows where humans have damaged the forest. Her book is about making life in capitalist ruins. It’s about being alive to possibilities of fecundity in the increasingly ruined world of global capitalism. And it’s also about the commodity chain of the mushroom. Sometimes the mushroom is just another thing rich people are trading: an abstract marker of value. Sometimes it’s nourishment. Sometimes it has a very ancient symbolic role, in Japan, so it’s almost treated like a work of art. It’s also about the tension she models when she goes out with all these different, often violently displaced, communities that are now harvesting this mushroom in the Northwest.

The reason I mention it is because I feel like it’s the best book I’ve read about making art now. You can’t make the mushroom grow, you can’t make the artwork grow, you can’t just administer it. You have to be receptive to its possibilities. And you can’t hold on to any model of purity, because all the communities are displaced and interrelating. And you can’t get rid of the commodity chain—your book is a commodity, your art is going to be a commodity—but you don’t have to participate in this older Marxist notion that I grew up with, which is like, the artwork is only a commodity. The mushroom is not only a commodity; it’s also real food and it also has real symbolic value and it’s also a thing of beauty. But it’s not not a commodity. It’s just this beautiful book about this acknowledgement of entanglement and compromise and damage, but that is interested in ways of collaborative living and thinking and making in the midst of that. So, I think that’s an example of a book that gives something like an answer to that question.

Rooney: Thank you. That sounds incredible, I really want to read it.

Ben Lerner was born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1979. He has received fellowships from the Fulbright, Guggenheim, and MacArthur Foundations, and is the author of the internationally acclaimed novels Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, and an essay, The Hatred of Poetry. His poetry collections include The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and Mean Free Path. Lerner is a professor of English at Brooklyn College.

Sally Rooney was born in the west of Ireland in 1991. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Granta and The London Review of Books. Winner of the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award in 2017, she is the author of Conversations with Friends and Normal People, the editor of the Irish literary journal The Stinging Fly.