The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
In Speech and Debate competitions, there’s a technique used by debaters known as “the spread.” Instead of offering a pointed rebuttal to their opponent’s latest argument, a debater will attempt to overload the calculated discourse between the players with as many questions, tangential arguments and brazen asides as possible. When successful, this would effectively muddle one’s opponent and leave them appearing vulnerable in the face of all the points they couldn’t answer in the allotted time.
It’s easy to see shadows of this in today’s news cycles, presidential debates, and political scandals: it’s “a metaphor for the overload of the present,” Ben Lerner explained in a recent interview. His ambitious new novel The Topeka School is simultaneously about this idea and composed from it. Lerner looks back to the late 1990s for the source of today’s toxic discourse and attempts to connect our current age of incels and aggressive partisanship with whatever went wrong during the “youth” of modern society. “America is adolescence without end,” he writes, but it does feel like the 90s were our awkward teenage years: a time when we, as a contemporary nation, were testing and forming our identities.
But The Topeka School can’t address “the spread” without falling victim to it: Lerner attempts too much at once, roiling not just contemporary politics but psychology, literary history, gender studies, and metafictional memoir into what eventually becomes a messy, distracted, and ultimately convoluted novel.
For a moment, it appears as if protagonist Adam Gordon is writing a fictionalized memoir about his family. Readers of Lerner’s other novels will recognize Adam as the protagonist of his 2011 debut Leaving the Atocha Station and it’s sort-of-sequel, 10:04 (2014), and while this novel can be read independently, it cannot be read without the notion that Adam is a foil for the author. While there are many present-day asides, most of Adam’s story takes place in the late-90s when Adam was a senior in high school. Like Lerner, he grew up in Kansas with an interest in poetry and debate, amidst “white gangstas, many of them sons of surgeons, lawyers, shrinks, cruising through Topeka bumping Tupac on their systems, their modes of dress and address, their ways of abusing substances and one another, modeled, however imperfectly, on rap videos…”
His parents, both therapists, narrate other sections, which occasionally appear to be interviews conducted by Adam as research for his novel. His mother, Jane, wrote a successful book on feminism which garnered her both fame and infamy: she became a beacon of hope for countless women, and, inversely, a home-wrecking pariah for countless men. Jane and her husband, Jonathan, carry much of The Topeka School but they do so in a way that pulls the plot away from the toxic masculinity it initially attempts to address. Their story is a hyper-analytical, often inappropriate portrait of a family of therapists: Jane’s own therapist, for example, is her best girlfriend, a relationship that slowly fractures with Jane’s rising fame.
Jonathan’s story is underdeveloped by comparison. Professionally, he treats difficult young men, which connects to a fourth thread that runs through this already baggy novel. The story of Darren Eberheart, a local misfit and one of Dr. Gordon’s patients, centers around a particular incident of violence that took place during Adam’s senior year. This is recounted piecemeal in a series of short, italicized segments, interspersed throughout the book.
Of all the ideas spread around in The Topeka School, a question of audience unintentionally emerges. Who is this book for? Lerner writes about white kids in Kansas listening to “All Eyez on Me”, freestyling their way through garage parties and underage drinking, but does so with such learned prose that only the most erudite readers will be able to crack its tone. Sections narrated by his academic parents lean heavily into college-level psychoanalysis and literary theory (a reading of Herman Hesse’s “A Man by the Name of Ziegler” is carried prominently throughout the novel). When Jonathan describes his German colleague’s memos as “[bringing] something of the Weimar feuilleton” to the office, you can feel most readers heading towards the exit. Or, consider a scene of Adam freestyling, equal parts stunning and, well, ridiculously pompous:
“At that point it didn’t matter what words he was plugging into the machinery of syntax (a sublime of exchangeability), it didn’t matter if he was rhyming about bitches or blow or the Stingray surveillance program; it didn’t matter that he looked like an idiot; what mattered was that language, the fundamental medium of sociality, was being displayed in its abstract capacity, and that he would catch a glimpse, however fleeting, of grammar as pure possibility.”
Further, Lerner seems to write with an eye on the possibility of excerpts being published: the book is full of self-contained flashbacks that feel like discrete short stories, pre-destined for a range of upper-tier literary journals. It’s a highbrow novel for literary people, unshakably privileged to a fault. All this settles The Topeka School into a problematic bubble, creating illusions of intellectual productivity for the reading elite.