Review & Recommend: The Topeka School - Ben Lerner

The Topeka School – Ben Lerner: Review & Recommend | LATEST RELEASES

I saw Ben Lerner speak in Foyles in London back in November for the launch of his third novel, the final in a pseudo-trilogy, The Topeka School. Lerner has been making a name for himself in the world of academia for a few years now, with his autofiction works, and his poetry collections and essays. The Topeka School is one of these works of autofiction. This book follows the protagonist of his first, though in some way, the protagonist of his second novel is also the same man. In The Topeka School, Lerner uses his fiction to explore his family background for the first time. His earlier novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 both focus on early adulthood, with little consideration of the childhood lives of their respective, fictionalised versions of Lerner.

The Topeka School, then, explores more of the contexts of Lerner’s life than any other work of his I’ve read. To achieve this, he works with a range of perspectives, allowing him to go further back, to explore his parents’ lives as young adults, before he was born. I’m often not a fan of multiple-perspective books, finding them harder to settle into, and more confusing to follow, and at first I felt the same about this book. As I got further into it, however, it started to feel more natural. The chapters, or sections, are fairly lengthy, giving you time to settle into the character, and each section is separated by a section in italics, telling the story of Darren, who remains mostly on the outskirts of the central narrative.

At its centre, this book is an exploration of toxic masculinity, of Lerner’s own relation to masculinity, of the effects of masculine culture on the development of these high school boys. Darren is an extreme example: a social outcast, mistreated by his school-fellows, who turns to hatred. This book, then, though primarily set in the 1990s, is a commentary on Trump’s America. In a sense, it explains how the foundation had already been laid for such a landscape to develop, twenty years prior to Trump’s election. The book’s politics seem surprisingly lacking in nuance for a writer as embroiled in academia as Lerner. While it does explore the past to explain the present, its condemnation of the present seems somewhat performative. The closing scene of Adam’s family at a protest seems out of place, and doesn’t seem to communicate anything new to the reader. The majority of readers will share Lerner’s, and Adam and Natalia’s, outrage at the actions of ICE. The inclusion of this protest really felt tokenistic, just another way of condemning the hateful rhetoric emerging in American discourse, which Lerner incorporates throughout in the inclusion of the Westboro Baptist Church.

The style of the book is typical of Lerner. His grasp of language is impressive, and his stylistic flair is evident throughout. It seems somewhat disjointed, however, when applied to the life of a high-schooler. While Adam is certainly a precocious high-schooler, the level of language is still a step above his manner of thinking. Of course, the book is written retrospectively, with Adam looking back on his high-school ‘career’ as a debater, but the language still often feels somewhat alienated from the narrator. While the bridge between Adam’s past and present is evident through the style, the style is, as always, something special. Lerner’s work is known for challenging and pushing the novel form, almost to breaking point, but never quite past that boundary.

The thing I found most interesting about the book was not its politics — as I said earlier, I thought that, for Lerner, the politics was somewhat lacking in nuance — but its depiction of the central family. Through The Topeka School, Lerner explores trauma, adultery, abuse, deception, teenage neuroticism, and the fear of change. Adam’s explosions towards his family, and the measured reactions of his therapist parents offered, for me, an insight into a completely alien form of expression. I was never the teenager to kick off, and shout and argue; I was generally calmer, less volatile. Adam’s parents, his mother in particular, seem far more open to entertaining his outbursts than my parents would have been. Jane, as a renowned psychologist, and a mother dreading the empty nest syndrome, seems open to his outbursts, as long as they maintain communication. The lack of discussion between Jonathan and Jane on the subject of Jonathan’s deceptions and adultery, however, is a stark contrast. The communication within this family is carefully crafted to keep them together. There is open communication when it does not risk pushing them apart.

Lerner’s three novels are a literary triumph. His command of the novel form is something I’ve rarely seen in contemporary writers. It’s refreshing to see the form itself pushed to its limits. I will admit to preferring his other two novels to The Topeka School, but nevertheless, it’s a great achievement. The heavy-handedness of the broad-sweeping, uncomplicated politics of this book is, for me, what holds it back. Still, it’s no wonder Lerner is building a big name for himself among his fellow academics, and I hope he is able to break out a little further into the public sphere. I give this book 4 stars.

This review also published on my GoodReads.

23 thoughts on “The Topeka School – Ben Lerner: Review & Recommend | LATEST RELEASES

  1. […] 6. The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. 4 stars. The final in a loose trilogy of autofiction (you don’t need to have read his other books), here Lerner dives into his childhood in a way he hasn’t previously. He questions his upbringing, and the culture of toxic masculinity surrounding it, and the dangers such a culture can pose. Full review on my blog. […]


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