The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner has returned with a new novel, The Topeka School, and the highest expectations. His two previous novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, were rare books that earned their noisy fanfare and adulation. They were hilarious, perceptive, self-aware, ridiculously smart (you’ll hear this sort of description frequently when it comes to Lerner’s work), and surprisingly compassionate tomes, which dealt slyly with the major issues of the present – capitalism and self-identity and the function of language and art in our end times – through the groggy perspective of an anxious every-writer whose pretentiousness was always knowing and barbed, and whose heart was ultimately good. They were books of freshness and style; they were books that electrified the form. So, I approached The Topeka School with childish excitement and trust that it would dazzle, it should dazzle, it had to dazzle. And off the bat, it is what we are accustomed to – it is brilliantly written, engrossing, lavishly intelligent (see!), funny, moving in unpredictable moments, slashed with metafictional nods and slaps to the back of the head, and warmed with the sensation that one is reading a book that will stick long in our collective memory – and it is, also, entirely not what we are accustomed to: for Ben Lerner has written an almost traditional American novel. He has forsaken the nicheness of his past works – superficial nicheness, I’d argue – for a rousing, full-voiced, full-blooded assault on the America of today and the roots which hold it up, of Trump and ‘toxic masculinity’, of the collapse of public discourse and the rise of the angry Men. Being Lerner, this assault does not take place in the present day (or at least not until the close), but rather in the past, in the prehistoric age of 1997. And, being Lerner, this is a novel that still unsettles and startles and challenges the reader, despite its more conventional structure. There is plenty of noble intent in this book, as well as numerous examples of Lerner’s linguistic genius, numerous examples of his enviable cleverness. Indeed, there is the impression here of a writer expanding their powers, bravely extending their reach against the harsh glow of the spotlight, which should be applauded and cheered, and yet, I can’t shake the notion that the author has taken three bold steps forward with The Topeka School, and one back.

The novel is told in the main through four voices, the most significant of which is that of Adam Gordon, the narrator from Leaving the Atocha Station. (It should be noted that Lerner views The Topeka School as an end to a sequence that also includes 10:04, describing it as ‘the last term in a trilogy’.) Through a third-person lens, we are reunited with an Adam on the cusp of graduating from high school in the red state of Kansas. He has a girlfriend he does not fully understand (women are pointedly not listened to in this book), he competitively weight-lifts, he freestyles with mutual ‘privileged crackers’ at house parties, and he is widely expected to win the national championship in extemporaneous speaking at the end of the school year. There is another Adam too: a grown-up Adam, written in the first-person and writing in the present day, who is married with two little girls, and who is scribbling down this very book we read in Brooklyn. The ghostly voice of this Adam-yet-to-come glitches in and out of the text and, by the end, takes it over exclusively.

Another voice in the third person is Darren Eberheart’s, a direct foil to Adam. Darren is a boy with learning difficulties who he has been shunned from education and his community, whose father has passed away and whose mother works nights to keep them afloat, a boy who cannot afford the resources which could help him, and whose public voice is non-existent. His story is thinly overlapped with Adam’s own, as Adam and his crew take in this ‘man-child’ as a kind of good-natured graduation prank to invariably grim results. Finally, we have the voices of Adam’s own parents, Jonathan and Jane. Both are psychologists who had arrived in Topeka for their postdocs at The Foundation, a world-famous psychiatric institute and hospital, both assuming they’d stay for two years before learning they were staying for a lot longer. In their respective first-person sections, we hear their intellectual origin stories of sorts. In his chapters, Jonathan explores a drug trip while gaping at Duccio’s Madonna and Child; his home movies; a Herman Hesse story called ‘A Man by the Name of Ziegler’, about a gentleman who takes a pill to understand the animals in the zoo and thus loses his mind; his own obsession with language as a research student and its potential to collapse and crumble into nonsense when under rapid strain; his role as a safe listener to the ‘lost boys’, the privileged yet broken kids who he treats at the Foundation. Meanwhile, Jane, the most vivid and interesting character in the novel, tells us of a fracturing friendship, of becoming a public figure due to the success of her book on relationships (‘You were on Oprah!’), the misogynistic endeavours of her colleagues and ‘The Men’ who call her up to insult and threaten due to the success of her ‘feminazi’ book, of watching her boy Adam living with the burden of ‘passing himself off as a real man’, and, most hauntingly, her own attempt to process and contemporize sexual abuse from her father. I’m obliged to mention here that a lot of what I described is true to Lerner’s own life: he grew up in Topeka, both parents are psychologists, his mother did become famous through her books on relationships, Lerner was as a young man a national debating champ, etc, etc.

Reading the ‘plot’ like this, it be hard not to think that A: I surely could have condensed the previous paragraph; and B: this is a knotty and demanding novel. A book to respect but not necessarily dive into. And though The Topeka School is undoubtedly a complex and ambitious piece of work, flipping through it is anything but stressful. Simply put, The Topeka School is a tremendously fun read. This is due to Lerner being, line by line, the most fun and attentive company, a writer who never forgets the reader. He is equally capable of producing laugh-out-loud gags about the ‘sawing and hammering’ of the little men producing the sluggish dial-up porn within the family computer, and elegant sketches of, say, the ‘fearful symmetry between the ideological compartmentalization of high school debate and what passed for national political discourse’. The evocation of Kansas is a continued joy as well. It feels lived-in and real, never cheap or cheapened, never blurry from nostalgia. Add to that sensual pleasure, the bright mapping of teenage and commercial culture pre-Columbine. The music, the macho idioms, the pagers. All here and captured in miraculously tight details:

‘From alcohol and sheer exhilaration a widening delay obtained between experience and its conscious registration, Darren realizing the party had broken up just as they were coaxing him into the back of a Jeep Cherokee, Nowak driving, Laura riding shotgun, see the cherry of her Marlboro Light, Davis beside him in the back, proffering a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 Coco Loco wine, the bass of what Nowak called his system rattling Darren’s chest, all eyes on me.’

Beyond the prose, this novel is fun because Lerner has revealed that, if he is so inclined, he can write novel-like narratives. Gone is the expensive squid and the ruminations over a six-figure advance, or whether there is such a thing as a ‘profound experience of art’, and instead, like the majority of coming-of-age novels, the story in The Topeka School is propelled forward by the typical rituals Adam passes on his final boyhood summer, with the debating final looming as the grandiose finish. The pivotal make or break moment, if you will. And like a lot of literary novels today, the initial tension to read on is sustained by hinted violence, a-who-done-what-and-why guessing game, involving an ominous flash-forward detailing the repercussions of the damage inflicted by Darren and a cue ball, which he ‘would never have thrown … except he always had.’ This is not to imply this is a straight hometown story of the artist as a young debater. But it is from the sturdiness of this traditional frame, the inevitability of the debating championship, the severe and awkward growing pains of young adulthood and its subsequent motivations to not be a ‘pussy’, that the book, through the voices of Jonathan and Jane, becomes more Lerner-esque, with the present momentum of Adam and Darren splicing with that of a past belonging to Adam’s parents. So, while the narration runs in a rather straightforward direction in one sense, it is, conversely, always swerving into the past, into interlocking generational concerns, and into how these particular characters got to be here. More broadly, this is the main question the book seems to be asking us: how did we get here?

Additionally, not content with messing with history, Lerner also plays with the authority of a voice, with each character’s supposedly singular tongue looping and cracking apart to unveil a sameness – phrases are repeated, the wording of the Hesse story crops up again and again, speech shatters mid-paragraph mimicking Jonathan’s earlier research, a sweet little bedtime rhyme between a mother and son about a Purple Cow is reproduced in different guises and situations. (One will even spot Lerner’s other works flitting through the text. ‘“Lichtenberg figures,” Klaus had called them.’) It is via these ruptures that the book links its larger messages – the decline of language, the patterning of family history, the beginning of what we have now – with what is occurring in the novel. It is a blunt but effective approach. Suddenly, through this explosion of self-awareness within the text, the rotting use of language in high school debating via techniques like ‘spreading’ – the act of spewing out as much word vomit as possible, regardless of argumentative quality, so that your opponent cannot possibly retort every single point – is a direct allusion to our present tyranny and the sickness of our language. The Men badgering Jane on the phone are the same men who are under your tweets, dwelling on the message board. Peter Evanson, a former national champion in debate who is roped in to coach Adam to become the same, is labelled a prototype internet troll: ‘When Adam advocated the moral imperative of redistributing wealth … Evanson declared it, with a violent smile, a surprising argument for a Jew’. This connection of plot points with grander themes is aesthetically successful, if not always subtle; it is compelling and persuasive upon first reading, though not always credible under deeper scrutiny. Can one really substitute high-school debates ethical downfall for the downfall of political talk? Is that not giving certain people more credit than they deserve? A country more credit than it deserves? However, these repetitions and overlaps do give the book, at least until the end, a glorious spherical shape; a genuine connectedness that allows this relatively small story to feel much larger, and even epic.

But however impressive an achievement the reverberations are, thematically and technically, there were times when I sensed that in preforming these high-wire acts, Lerner was, in fact, taking the easy route and shying from the difficult and meaty. He was shoving us towards a conclusion, and, on two or three occasions, I found myself – shock horror – yearning for the conventional. I wanted Lerner to embrace the individuality and verve of the voices he created for longer. To be a traditional novelist for longer, I guess. For example, there is a harrowing moment in one of Jane’s chapters, where Jonathan confesses to his unfaithfulness with Jane’s former best friend – a figure whose reduction in, and eventual disappearance from, her life had caused Jane immense hurt – and before we can witness Jane’s reaction, the text is flooded with references to past expressions and symbols, language alien to the fictive moment: ‘That he had a confession to make … That he had stolen the painting. He’d stolen the Madonna and Child in its burnt frame.’ What does it say that in a moment of immense emotional turmoil for such a well-drawn character, Lerner pulls away and invites an intrusion that reinforces the central emblematic foundations of the novel, but not, I’d contend, the individual’s story? Is Jane’s voice not now diluted? Do these knowing cracks not denude as much as they may add?  Perhaps there was not much else to say in this particular scene, and, later on, we do see the aftermath of the confession from Adam’s perspective (‘But his mom went on, animal in pain’), but one can’t avoid feeling that sometimes Lerner is a little too clever for his own characters. In cleaving out the space for the big themes, he loses the small glints which make a novel a novel and not a fiery polemic. (In his previous works, it was our closeness to the erudite and goofy narrator which allowed the grander themes to flourish ambiguously in the background.)

Maybe this loss of individual voice in a crucial scene wouldn’t have mattered so much to me if it wasn’t for the misjudged ending of the novel.

In the last chapter of the book, entitled ‘Thematic Appreciation’, Lerner removes the four jostling narrative voices and presents us with the pure first-person voice of Adam in the present: the writer with a wife and two daughters. We follow him as he escorts his kids to the playground, where he faces a father who will not properly parent his son, the son having decided to block the use of the slide from the girls. Such is Adam’s righteous fury, he knocks this bad father’s phone from his hand (and such is the book’s stretch at this point, we get a creepy interjection from Mr Trump concerning his own daughter). From there, we watch Adam return to do a public reading in Kansas, glimpse Darren in a red hat with the jeering Westboro mob, and see the past become, once more, entangled in the present: ‘I texted Natalia to let her know that I would see her and the girls later that night, decades in the future, then turned off my phone, which hadn’t been invented yet’. Finally, in the climactic scene of the book, we read how Adam nervously takes part in a sit-in demonstration in the offices of ICE with his wife and daughter, how he overcomes his ‘embarrassment at the sound of’ his own voice to sing ‘in the middle of the spread’ with fellow protestors, how he gives lip to a police officer who warns him that his daughter must cease chalk-drawing a heart fountain on the plaza. (The Hesse story flutters in again: ‘Luna … said it would stop ICE, then asked me again what ICE was, where the kids in cages were, aren’t cages for zoos’.) And, at the same time as being outspoken and brave, Adam worries about what the agents of the state ‘were capable of, now that American was great again’. Compared to his other novels, this conclusion is a shotgun to the temple.

There is no ambiguity here, and I really struggled to understand why it was included. What was said and shown in this chapter that we did not comprehend already? One supposes, that with this final chapter, Lerner sought to display positive community action, the happy ending of a single voice combining with others in protest at vile evil, an evil that loses this particular battle from the perspective offered to us in the book. And, perhaps, as a writer living in precarious and upsetting times, he felt obliged to offer hope (and who am I to criticise if one can take and enjoy this positivity, who am I to wish for a bleak ending in already bleak times?). But for a writer who is keenly aware of the absurdity of the Great American Novel, who obviously understands the failure and racial edge of such a notion, why does the conclusion of this book feel like the very earnest finale of a wannabe Great American Novel? Our hero storming the offices of ICE with his child on his shoulders, singing for their justice, overcoming his insecurities for the quest of justice for others. It reads so redundant. Reminiscent of how I felt when Jane’s voice was pulled at an emotional climax, I found it hard not to feel that what has come before in the novel, those ingenious arguments, those interlinked symbols and signs, were now badly weakened, and that the book’s grounding – politically, intellectually – was compromised. The ending doesn’t negate all the good preceding it – if Lerner had concluded with ‘it was all a dream’ it would still be a book that I’d implore people to read – but it does, naturally, sour it, soften it.

Near the beginning of the novel, Adam’s father describes strolling along and chattering with his mentor Kluas, a playwright come Holocaust survivor come senior analyst at the Foundation, and whose wise voice ripples throughout the novel. ‘Briefly illuminated by the headlights of a passing truck’, they are discussing Jonathan’s patients, ‘the lost boys of privilege’, kids that Kluas could and could not take seriously, and we learn how when Kluas was caught in the midst of a contradiction during their talks by Jonathan, or a perceived contradiction, he would inevitably produce a quote from Niels Bohr to unsnag and free himself: ‘“The opposite of a truth … is a falsehood; but the opposite of a profound truth … may be another profound truth.” In this spirit, in reflecting the rupturing nature of this book, allow me to reuse this passage and be momentarily profound: The Topeka School is Ben Lerner’s best novel, The Topeka School is Ben Lerner’s worst novel.