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.