The Topeka School by Ben Lerner – review

Ben Lerner writes books that teeter on the edge of fiction. They are “unstable”, he says. Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) and 10:04 (2014) were self-consciously clever novels about a self-consciously clever young writer who hails from America’s Midwest but flees to Spain then New York.

That erudite writer was essentially a stand-in for Lerner, now 40, and hailed as one of the brightest literary talents. His latest book is a deep-dive into a middle-class family in Kansas who closely resemble his own. 

It’s also a funny, penetrating book about language, politics and masculinity that acts as both a prequel and a sequel to his other autofiction, going back to his alter-ego’s school days before jumping to present-day New York, where he is an anxious father of two daughters. Sally Rooney has said it represents the “future of the novel”. It’s certainly a bracingly different kind of fiction, one that dares to be loose, essayistic and extravagantly wordy.

Opening in Topeka, Kansas’s capital, in 1997, the book follows debating prodigy and “proto feminist” Adam Gordon in his last year of high school. Adam, who wants to be a poet, has a flair for “extemporaneous speaking”, otherwise known as “the freestyle of nerds”. His parents are psychologists, his mother, Jane, the author of a bestselling book on family dynamics (much like the author’s mother, Harriet Lerner).

Both work at the Foundation, a treatment facility that focuses on talking therapy, an anomaly in a red state where the Baptist churches stage homophobic protests. Adam imagines “looking back on the present from a vaguely imagined East Coast city where his experiences in Topeka could be recounted only with great irony.” His Republican debating coach instructs him in the art of “choreographed spontaneity”, which involves dropping in folksy maxims and lies about the coastal elites. It’s an early education in Trumpian tactics of fake news and information overload. 

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But there are other tensions. Adam’s mother is grappling with her own history of sexual abuse as well as nuisance callers (known as “the Men”) who phone her up to accuse of being a “feminazi”. His father Jonathan, meanwhile, has unresolved electricity with another therapist at the Foundation. Being psychologists, they feel everything that happens to the family needs to be discussed and “processed”. Then there’s Darren, a loner embraced by Adam’s clique as a kind of mascot. When he commits an act of violence at a party, Adam feels complicit. Years later, Darren is at a Trump rally, an embodiment of misogyny in a red baseball cap.

Some scenes drag on and the story about Darren feels vague (I wasn’t convinced by Adam’s complicity in his violence — a thin device for suspense). But there’s so much going on: connections everywhere, layers of irony, several narrative procedures running concurrently.

Above all, it is fascinated with the possibilities and plasticity of language: talking therapy, policy debate and rapping all ferociously scrutinised. What stops it from being dry is Lerner’s wit, his eye for period detail (whether it’s Bob Dole or Eminem) and his poet’s ear for sounds (the distant whistle of a Union Pacific train or the beeps and hisses of a dial-up modem). Lerner never shies away from emotional or intellectual complications. If anything, he feeds on them.

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner​ (Faber, £16.99), buy it here.


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