Things keep recurring in the novels of Ben Lerner — snatches of conversation, lines of poetry, Lerner himself. But in The Topeka School, while things keep returning, something has also been lost.
Lerner’s third novel reunites us with Adam Gordon, the protagonist — and Lerner surrogate — of his much acclaimed debut, Leaving the Atocha Station. Adam is a senior at Topeka High School in the late 1990s, an aspiring poet and champion debater (as was Lerner), whose parents are psychologists at the Foundation, ‘a world-famous psychiatric institute and hospital’ which treats just about everyone in the book.
But rather than reprising the autofiction with which Lerner has become synonymous, here he takes a new, polyphonic approach, writing in the voices of his mother, father, and the sympathetically drawn outsider, Darren, around whose act of violence the novel rotates.
But where Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 are characterised by a transcendent delicacy of thought and impression, The Topeka School is weighed down by a dense, linguistically clichéd gospel of ‘privilege’, ‘patriarchy’ and ‘toxic masculinity’. At times it can feel like an audit of contemporary grievances.
Here men are almost uniformly oblivious, insecure, quick to rage, narcissistic and adulterous. This cartoon masculinity is embodied in the young Adam’s struggles with ‘the pressures of passing himself off as a real man’. He does this by a combination of ‘weightlifting’ and ‘verbal combat’ — in the form of debating.
Both are exercises in confidence. In brilliantly realised debates, Adam will often ‘have no idea if what he’s said is true’. But he upholds the two unholy laws of competitive debating: the primacy of confidence over knowledge, and the value of speed, such that your opponent is drowned in a sheer torrent of language.
For Lerner, these debates are a cipher for a type of Reagan-esque performance that has poisoned the public sphere and led to a linguistic collapse, ‘delivering nonsense as sense’, surface as depth, lies as fact. Unsurprisingly, the culture’s verbal diarrhoea has found its final expulsion in Trump.
This tendency to diagnose the particular as symptomatic of a general malaise characterises the book. Thus Adam’s linguistic brilliance in rap battles is not evidence of play, or cultural cross-fertilisation, but ‘the clearest manifestation of a crisis in white masculinity’.
As such language suggests, The Topeka School is a ‘pre-history of the present’. But it’s a long way from the 1990s to Trump, and I’m not convinced the route runs through the claustrophobic therapy sessions of (mostly) middle-class graduates and their kids, even if they are in crossover country. Ironically, Lerner’s depiction of public speech tips into a populism Trump might recognise — one that has shadowy elites deceiving the common man through cunning abuse of language.
This debased rhetoric is set in direct opposition to poetry. And, indeed, Lerner’s own deeply associative prose reaches a poetic pitch; a kaleidoscope of images, memories and phrases. He also remains uniquely good at conveying the energy of emerging intimacy, the moment things quietly yet fundamentally change.
And so we feel that change. But something has been lost, as Lerner’s chisel is swapped for the buzzword bludgeon. For that very reason The Topeka School will be described as ‘timely’. But unlike the classic-in-waiting 10:04, while it’s of its time, it will struggle to transcend it.