Many schools have one incident that becomes mythologized in the canon of those who were there. And any one of your peers could tell you that the incident was not a moment in a vacuum — it had motivations, roots, deep beginnings. Fewer could trace you through that history, find the one moment that lead to the next and ultimately determine causality. In The Topeka School, the latest book from poet-cum-novelist Ben Lerner, the author describes the portraits of those he sees reflected in the shards created by the trauma, both before and after they fall apart; and in doing so, brings empathy, if not understanding, to the wreckage that occurred.
Since his debut as a novelist, Lerner has written primarily what’s become known as autofiction — novelizing events and moments from his own life — alongside peers such as Karl Ove Knausgård and Rachel Cusk. My first introduction into his work (a short story in The New Yorker that would become a piece of his previous novel, 10:04) felt like a revelation; I was blown away by not only his tight and evocative use of language, but even just the audacity to write so close to his own lived experience. In The Topeka School, Lerner returns to his high-school days in the form of a character named Adam, a high school senior, poet and debater on the cusp of a national championship. It’s certainly no accident the book focuses on the point in Adam’s life just before he goes away to school — a time of first endings and new beginnings.
Throughout the novel, Lerner takes us between the perspectives of Adam during various points in his life, while also bringing in those of his parents, the psychologists Jonathan and Jane (who work at a fictionalized version of the Menninger Foundation in Topeka), and Darren, an outcast peer of Adam’s.
The novel is Lerner’s finest work yet, most strikingly in terms of style and form. His experience (past life?) as a poet has always shined in the writing, but The Topeka School is more unified in its design and execution than any of his past novels. Certainly, the orbit around the singular event helps bring clarity (Jane Alison might call this an “explosive” novel), yet it feels like much can be attributed to Lerner coming into his own as a novelist. Even so, the book will be familiar to anyone with experience with Lerner’s previous attempts. He’s starting to compile his own list of recurring themes: well-read, erudite perspectives, ekphrastic writing (though only one image of an artwork, this time), and smart characters with deep interiority.
One of my favorite descriptions of the novel as an art form comes from a Tumblr user named lazenby, who says they’re sort of a more vivid, meaningful version of our experienced world; the photographs compared to the photo-real painting. It’s in this mode Lerner’s work is most potent. He’s able to render scenes from his life with perfect emotional or artistic reality, instead of the one we inhabit daily. What I admire in Lerner’s work — and autofiction in general — is the authenticity and frankness of emotional experience and perception. Like a meditation, I found this effect carried beyond even the confines of the covers. After finishing the book, the walk through my neighborhood felt like a glimpse into a brighter and more clear world.
Lerner knows the line between sincerity and cliché. That said, he will directly refer to the callback he’s attempting to make, which at times comes across a bit too heavy handed, in stark relief to the nuance of the novel otherwise.
And there’s a lot to refer back to. One of the main devices Lerner plays with in The Topeka School is synchronicity: between parent and child, between different ages. In one chapter, Adam finds himself in one of a set of identical suburban homes, and describes feeling “that he was in all the houses around the lake at once”, viewing himself from above as well as his own perspective. His father draws a connection between his own life and a character from a Hesse story, which he later adapts to film (and plays the starring role, of course). His mother sees herself in the nodding physical tic Adam falls into while debating, a tic she exhibits in her psychology practice.
The lines are blurred in The Topeka School. Adam, as a skilled debater, is play-acting as an adult, wearing a suit and affecting the positions and speech of policy wonks. Both of Adam’s parents, Jonathan and Jane, experience their own form of a dichotomy. Jonathan struggles with infidelity while trying to be a loving and equal member of the family. Jane has a minor betrayal to the rigor of psychology by becoming a famous pop-psych author, which in part becomes responsible for the growing alienation between her and her friends. Jane and Jonathan, like many of the employees of the Foundation, are at once patient and doctor, often unable to help themselves even as they help others.
Darren embodies this theme. He is at once victim and perpetrator, neither truly a child and certainly not yet a man. Through intercut sequences, Lerner tries to reconstruct the psychology of Darren, even after psychology failed him. It’s an act of violence from Darren the novel builds both around and towards, and by the time it finally arrives, it manages to feel fully earned.
That’s not to say The Topeka School is a perfect work. In trying to diagnose the culture of masculinity that both Adam and Darren exist in, the closeness to it might be off-putting to some readers. Lerner does not shy away from the use of slurs or vulgarity as used by and towards his characters. There’s also a danger just in the act of trying to diagnose, perhaps even to solve, what actions and events lead to Darren’s rage and worldview; in describing his learning difficulties, and suggesting causality between actions that happened to Darren and the violence he eventually brings forth.
Yet, the entire novel feels like a carefully reasoned rebuttal even to it’s own central project. Beyond the acknowledgement of the shortcomings of psychology in the depiction and struggles of Adam’s parents, the book is at once a love letter to language and a look at its failings. Both Adam and Darren struggle with communication; Darren is often silent, or when he does speak, it’s largely parroting the aggressive vocabulary of those around him. Adam, a master communicator as a burgeoning poet and debate champion, contends with language’s power and passivity as viewed by the machismo culture of Topeka beyond the Foundation’s sprawling campus.
Adam finds solace in using poetry to succeed at freestyle rapping, and turning debate into a form of bullying, something that infects the rest of his personality. He notes, “If linguistic prowess could do damage and get you laid, then it could be integrated into the adolescent social realm without entirely departing from the household values of intellect and expression.” Adam struggles with this disjunction between words and actions throughout the course of the novel, the growing chasm only addressed in the book’s final scene.
Lerner might still view his novels as a minor digression from his career as a poet, and yet the writing Lerner has done across Leaving the Atocha Station, 10:04, and now The Topeka School, is some of the strongest work being done in the medium. The Topeka School represents a sort of stylistic peak for Lerner — I only hope he can keep it up.
The Topeka School
By Ben Lerner
October 1st, 2019
Ian is a writer based out of Chicago, and one of the Daily Editors at The Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared in The LA Review of Books, Input Magazine, The Kenyon Review, Chicago Reader, among others. He is working on a novel. Follow him on Twitter as @IanJBattaglia.