The Topeka School
By Ben Lerner
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 287 pp. $27
Reviewed by Ron Charles
The competition for most critically acclaimed, least-read writer in America is intense, but Ben Lerner is surely in the running. His 2006 poetry collection — published when he was 27 — was a finalist for a National Book Award. Before he was 40, he’d won the literary trifecta: Fulbright Scholarship, Guggenheim Fellowship, MacArthur “genius” grant. And his first two autobiographical novels were attentively analyzed in Places That Matter.
But even devoted readers of literary fiction might quail before novels celebrated for their obscure, metafictional plots. At a recent appearance in Brooklyn — where else? — Lerner stated the obvious: “I don’t value accessibility.”
I have bad news for him and good news for us: Lerner’s new book, The Topeka School, is an extraordinarily brilliant novel that’s also accessible to anyone yearning for illumination in our disputatious era. If you’ve been nervously hopping along the shore of Lerner’s work, now’s the time to dive in. As in his previous novels, this story is semi-autobiographical and the structure is complex, but The Topeka School is no Escher sketch of literary theory. Its complexity is subsumed in a compelling plot about two psychotherapists and their son. As Lerner revolves through these characters, we come to know exactly who they are. And as we turn the, we know exactly where we are: here, in the middle of a rage-filled country tearing itself apart.
The story takes place in the 1990s in Topeka, Kan., where a high school senior named Adam Gordon is a star on the debate team (as was Lerner). Early in the novel, we follow Adam on a Saturday morning to a tournament in an eerily empty high school. This is a contest of no consequence in a remote place involving sweaty kids in ill-fitting clothes spouting off about social programs and nuclear war. But through the wizardry of Lerner’s prose, this battle of adolescent elocution becomes an emblem for the fiery state of American culture.
Listen as Adam's debate partner stands to speak:
"For a few seconds it sounds more or less like oratory, but soon she accelerates to nearly unintelligible speed, pitch and volume rising; she gasps like a swimmer surfacing, or maybe drowning; she is attempting to 'spread' their opponents, as her opponents will attempt to spread them in turn — that is, to make more arguments, marshal more evidence than the other team can respond to within the allotted time."
That sounds ridiculous, the peculiar practice of an intellectual sport. But the narrator — a cool, third-person voice — suddenly steps back to place this Saturday morning debate in context: “Even before the twenty-four-hour news cycle, Twitter storms, algorithmic trading, spreadsheets, and DDoS attack, Americans were getting ‘spread’ in their daily lives.” It’s clear that Lerner will do what only great novels can: explore the condition of the whole country in the particular story of a few characters in a small town. If our current political quagmire has taught us anything, it’s the lesson these high schoolers learn in the ’90s: “The key was to be a bully, quick and vicious and ready to spread an interlocutor with insults at the smallest provocation.”
Lerner pairs the abuse of rhetoric with a tangential theme about the collapse of language. Adam’s father is a psychotherapist at a vaguely creepy treatment center called the Foundation. Dr. Gordon has developed a theory that runs through the novel like a wire: “Under conditions of information overload,” he speculates, “the speech mechanisms collapse.” But under that collapse, people’s impulse to express themselves remains, even intensifies, which results in a kind of incoherent howl — or, in the case of young men, eruptions of violence.
"I was," he says, "encountering more and more patients whose suffering wasn't clearly related to their circumstances, or whose circumstances were most notable for their normality — intelligent middle-class white kids from stable homes who were fine until they weren't: the lost boys of privilege." Muscle-bound but without any physical labor, oversexed but without any intimacy, pumped full of sugar and images of cruelty, these Peter Pans suffer "a kind of existential gout."
We see that suffering periodically in Adam's behavior, but it's expressed more brutally by a former classmate named Darren. Poor and mentally impaired, Darren is the novel's id — an "off" kid who dropped out of high school but hangs around, desperate for approval from jocks who tease and abuse him. These painful moments read like a recipe for making a school shooter, but they suggest something more prevalent and insidious. The novel opens with a short, impressionistic scene of Darren in police custody, and we revisit his miserable life between each of the longer, fully developed chapters about Adam and his parents. They would seem to live in separate worlds — the successful, well-educated Gordons and this woolly-minded outcast — yet the story persistently warns against imagining that such segregation is sustainable, or desirable.
But perhaps the novel’s most remarkable sections are narrated by Adam’s mother, Jane. Like her husband, she’s a psychotherapist at the Foundation, but she publishes a feminist critique of family life that becomes popular among female readers and notorious among some men. That fame gives Jane a special presence within and without the Topeka community, and it gives Lerner an opportunity to capture the chauvinism that courses through academia — particularly through psychotherapy. He’s also discerning about the ways successful women are acculturated to feel guilty about their success and to sabotage one another. (I’m reminded of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s equally devastating Fleishman Is in Trouble.) But what’s most haunting is Jane’s sudden awareness of her own son’s capacity for violence in a culture that seems to have lost all honor, drunk on male toxicity. “Every opponent must be spread,” Lerner writes. “Every offense, however minor, leads to holocaust.”
Among the myriad miracles of The Topeka School is that it accomplishes so much, captures so much, and questions so much about America in fewer than 300 pages. Here is that all-too-rare masterpiece: a svelte big novel. I’m as awed by Lerner’s artistry as I am by his insight, which seems downright forensic in its ability to trace the pathologies consuming us. When we’re lucky, this is what happens when a talented poet writes fiction: an acute appreciation for concision, a dread of the spread.