Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School: a fascinating, sometimes messy book

In his latest novel, Lerner attempts to use 1990s America to explain Donald Trump’s US, a nation hamstrung by a degraded political discourse and toxic masculinity run rampant.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

At the beginning of Ben Lerner’s second novel, 10:04, the narrator, Ben, tells his agent over a lunch of baby squid (“We were eating cephalopods in what would become the opening scene”) that he is going to write a novel in which “I’ll work my way from irony to sincerity”. As a description of 10:04 this works fine, but it’s even better when applied to Lerner’s fiction writing as a whole, which was always big-brained, but is now big-hearted as well.

His first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), is a comedy in which Adam Gordon, a Ben Lerner-like young American poet living in Madrid, stumbles through a sequence of downbeat encounters, habitually lying in an attempt to make himself more interesting or desirable, and being socially and emotionally throttled by his own self-consciousness. He knows a lot but understands nothing, and his ironic detachment extends even to the public response to the 2004 Madrid train bombings. 10:04 (2014) is a more obviously playful and self-referential book, but its narrator, a poet who is offered a lot of money to write a novel, is significantly more aware of his own ridiculousness than Adam, and significantly less ridiculous as a result. And now we have The Topeka School, a book that attempts to use 1990s America to explain Donald Trump’s US, which Lerner characterises as a nation hamstrung by a degraded political discourse and toxic masculinity run rampant.

At first glance, The Topeka School looks a lot like a contemporary realist novel in the Jonathan Franzen mode. It isn’t. In fact it’s every bit as self-conscious as 10:04, but couches this inward gaze very differently. Like Atocha, this is an Adam Gordon novel: Gordon is Lerner’s alter ego, like Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman or Roberto Bolaño’s Arturo Belano. In The Topeka School we see Adam both before the events of Atocha, as a high-school student in Topeka, Kansas in 1997, and long after them, as a teacher, and parent of young children, in present-day Brooklyn.

Adam’s childhood, however, is not a standard Midwestern one. His parents are psychologists working at an elite psychiatric clinic known as “the Foundation”. “Folk singers and community organisers and sexperts and writers and feminist scholars” stayed in the Gordon household when Adam was growing up, and 1990s Topeka is America in microcosm: a red state town containing an island of “coastal elites” and “liberal cosmopolitans”, a place where the warring tribes of America, who typically seem to occupy entirely different countries, live side by side.

In the book’s opening section, Lerner establishes a direct connection between the Adam of The Topeka School and that of Atocha when teenage Adam, stoned and lost, looks at some trees and sees himself occupying “two vantages at once: he pictured himself beneath their branches and also considered them from above; he was looking up at himself looking down”. This moment echoes one in Atocha, when Adam, reading a book on his rooftop, looks up as “airliners made their way to Barajas, lights flashing slowly on the wing, the contrails vaguely pink until it was completely dark. I imagined the passengers could see me, imagined I was a passenger that could see me looking up at myself looking down.”

This toggling of perspectives reflects the fact that Adam is both the subject and author of these novels, but in The Topeka School those sections devoted in turn to teenage Adam and his troubled shadow, Darren, are written in third person, whereas Atocha and 10:04 are both first-person narratives. The Topeka School also includes sections written from the point of view of Adam’s parents, Jonathan and Jane. Lerner is, for the first time, imagining himself into other minds – albeit uneasily. These innovations mark an attempt to broaden the focus of his enquiry, to be looking down from above not only at teenage Adam, but the wider culture of which he is a moody node.

Adam is a talented high school debater, and “the spread”, a technique in which a blizzard of arguments is made at a speed that defies comprehensibility (because for scoring purposes, failure to address an argument is considered a concession) becomes one of the central metaphors of the novel: “Even before the twenty-four-hour news cycle, Twitter storms, algorithmic trading, spreadsheets, the DDoS attack, Americans were getting ‘spread’ in their daily lives; meanwhile, their politicians went on speaking slowly, slowly about values utterly disconnected from their policies.”

Adam’s fellow debaters “practice reading evidence backward so as to uncouple the physical act of vocalisation from the effort to comprehend, which slows one down”. Instances of garbled speech and other communication breakdowns litter the novel, from the subjects of an early experiment designed by Jonathan, to Jane’s attempt to confront the source of her trauma, to Adam’s speech when he suffers a nervous breakdown, and a patient in a care home, “deep in his neuro-degenerative disease… calling out in a private language”.

A painting, Duccio’s Madonna and Child, recurs throughout the novel. Adam’s parents first see it when they drop acid and wander through the Met in New York, decades before the museum actually acquired the work. “Its anachronistic appearance throughout The Topeka School”, Lerner writes in the book’s acknowledgements, “can stand for the unstable mixture of fact and fiction.” This instability is highlighted elsewhere by the way songs, words, phrases and sounds – “the downward-sloping whistle of a cardinal in the trees” – migrate from one narrator to another.

In one scene, a copper wall used for electromagnetic experiments in the Foundation reappears, impossibly, in the house of Adam’s best friend. In another, Adam’s girlfriend tells him, “I love being with you…even though you can’t represent my voice”, the fourth wall dissolving in mid-sentence. At times these glitches become avalanches, as images and events from the novel pile up in extaordinary, beautiful cadenza-like passages that give, to quote Jane when she revisits the Met 22 years after her acid trip with Jonathan, “an overwhelming sense of frames of reference giving way, of the past and present collapsing in on one another”.

They are also tokens of Lerner’s obvious misgivings about the kind of fiction that would have us forget that it is fiction. Yet he still manages to provide the traditional satisfactions of narrative – absorption, emotion, drama – even as he periodically slaps us out of our stupor.

Jane in particular is wonderfully wrought. In Aspects of the Novel, EM Forster describes George Meredith’s characters as “having been only just that moment unpacked, scarcely in position before the action starts, the straw still clinging to their beards”. A kind of packing straw clings to Jane Gordon, too, what Lerner described in a New York Times profile as “little tears in the voice”, but somehow this doesn’t make her less real. Perhaps this is because of Lerner’s motivations, which seem to originate in an unwillingness to presume that he can speak for anyone without acknowledging the invention. This, then, is the self-consciousness of humility, not of archness. It makes The Topeka School’s strain of metafiction an unusually sincere one.

This is a fascinating, sometimes messy book. It’s exciting to connect all the material Lerner lays out, and frustrating when he sometimes does so himself (“Later Adam would perceive the fearful symmetry between the ideological compartmentalisation of high-school debate and what passed for the national political discourse”), as if he doubts the reader is up to the task. But given that the novel ends with the deployment of a human microphone (the low-tech protest tool where people around the speaker repeat what the speaker says) – something that makes the indistinct clear – perhaps Lerner considers the present situation so dire that an occasional lack of subtlety is worthwhile to ensure the book’s message is heard.

In a 2004 interview Kurt Vonnegut conducted with his fictional alter ego, Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut quotes a friend who said, “There are two kinds of artists, and one is not superior to the other. But one kind responds to the history of his or her art so far, and the other responds to life itself.” Via Adam, his own Kilgore Trout, Lerner has been the first, and in The Topeka School he makes a thrilling attempt to fuse both kinds into one. 

Chris Power is the author of “Mothers” (Faber & Faber)

The Topeka School
Ben Lerner
Granta, 304pp, £16.99

This article appears in the 17 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Why the left keeps losing