Ben Lerner on Writing, Speaking, and Choking

Your story this week, “Café Loup,” opens with the narrator’s fear of death. He became a father three years earlier, and ever since then he’s been worrying not only that he might die but that he might die in a way that embarrasses his daughter. Has parenthood made him more aware of mortality?

More aware of mortality, more aware of the relationship between death and storytelling, how death is the end of one’s narrative control; part of the terror of death is that you don’t get to recount it or process it after the fact, at least not in this world. (Although some writers explicitly mourn themselves in advance, as Vallejo famously did in “Black Stone on a White Stone”: “César Vallejo is dead, they beat him, / everyone, without him doing anything to them.”) And since the manner and time of your death reverberate back throughout your life, become so central to the story for others, you’re getting ejected from your story at a crucial moment. He’s of course most afraid of leaving his daughter, but he’s also afraid of what kind of story he will bequeath, become, especially if he dies in a humiliating way.

When my girls were really little, I was both aware of how they wouldn’t remember anything about our time together and aware of how all these unrecorded experiences were intensely formative, deeper than any particular content, becoming part of them. The narrator talks about his Astra taking everything in, slowly blinking her large brown eyes, and he also talks about how she’ll remember nothing—he knows that if he doesn’t make it home she’ll have to rely entirely on the stories of others.

In the story, a piece of steak is stuck in the narrator’s windpipe. Choking, as he observes, is a human drama, a by-product of our evolutionary “speech advantage,” which requires that space in the body is shared for both breathing and swallowing. Why did you want to write about this?

It’s about evolution, but it makes me think of the Creation: I imagine a version of the Fall wherein we ate a forbidden fruit that gave us the power of speech, but through that sin death entered the world in the form of choking—Adam and Eve ejected from a prelinguistic Eden the way a piece of apple might be ejected by the Heimlich maneuver (an unheimlich maneuver). But then language is also one of the cultural technologies for defeating or delaying death by creating stories and songs that survive the individual body. I’m probably thinking about Eden (sounds to me now like “eaten”) because there is also so much shame caught up in choking—shame about your capacity for speech getting blocked by your mismanaged attempt at digestion. Clearly, I, like the narrator, layer the physiological facts with all these contradictory metaphysical and psychological meanings. I guess writing is safer than speaking.

But the narrator is wary of the dangers of writing, too.

That’s right. He can’t quite decide if writing something down makes it more or less likely to happen. Is it incantatory? Apotropaic? Sometimes one and sometimes the other? Either way, his relation to writing is full of magical thinking. Writing won’t stop your windpipe, but it carries other risks, has other powers. (It also involves its own blockages and possibilities of shame.) And late in the story he swears that he won’t write the story, that—if he survives—he will stop tempting fate with language. So he’s moved toward the attitude he ascribes to his wife, Inma—that speaking your fears makes them come true.

Does he survive?

On one level, according to one logic, he must: How else would we have access to his internal experience of choking? (And there is one brief mention of a “later.”) So that would mean he’s gone back on his vow of silence and now he’s really asking for it. On the other hand, this could be, à la Machado de Assis, posthumous narration—and if he died, if he’s dead, he’s not breaking a promise to keep quiet.

The story is set in—and takes its title from—a much loved French restaurant in New York that closed in 2019. In French, the “p” of “Loup” would be silent, of course, but do you want the reader to have a sense of “loop” in the mind, too?

Yes—I wanted that (unsounded) echo of loop, the syntactic loops of his ruminations but also the loop that exists in the story between his daughter being at the moment of acquiring speech (and having her mouth policed by her caretakers) just as he’s confronting the end of speech. Maybe I also got something out of the figure of the wolf—that you “wolf” food down, that eating in a restaurant is a weird kind of pack behavior. To an alien, a restaurant might look like a place where humans go to ritually display their capacity to alternate speaking and eating without choking. Some people even get dressed up for the occasion. It just sometimes goes awry. (Maybe the pandemic—by keeping me out of restaurants for so long—helped restore their strangeness to me.)

I think of Elias Canetti’s descriptions of the violence lurking just beneath the surface of our meals: “People sit together, bare their teeth and eat and, even in this critical moment, feel no desire to eat each other. They respect themselves for this, and respect their companions for an abstemiousness equal to their own.” For Canetti—who wrote a lot about wolves in “Crowds and Power”—even a smile is just a way of showing your canines and saying, “I could eat you, but I won’t right now.” So maybe animality and culture (and the loop they form) meet in the name Café Loup—just as they meet in the event of choking? And then of course there’s the fact that Café Loup was known as a meeting place for writers. All those writers talking with their mouths full . . .

It’s interesting that you mention how the pandemic influenced this story—by making the restaurant an alien or unfamiliar space for you. Are there any other ways that you think the pandemic influenced this piece even though it never mentions COVID and is presumably set before it?

Well, it is in part a story about the notion of risk and its language—how much can you manage risk; what are the costs of an obsessive focus on risk; when do certain “best practices” shade into a kind of religious ritual in their own right; how much is the discourse of risk, as Inma believes, a reflection of “the financialized world view of the privileged,” a fantasy of control for those who believe that control is their birthright? And what’s the alternative to all this attempted calculation—fatedness? Trusting in the stars? And how, in such a vacuum, do you parent? Astra, asterisk—I think the condition the narrator describes, in which all the available world views feel equally irrational and indefensible, relates to the pandemic even if the story takes place before it. ♦

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