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Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School is better without its “timely” label

Graphic: Karl Gustafson

In Ben Lerner’s new novel, The Topeka School, an 8-year-old Adam Gordon, future high school debate champion, is fascinated by how one small poem can “destroy the man who made it, prompting a second poem, a spell against the paradoxical effects… of the first.” Lerner once said he feels “the materiality of language most intensely when writing poetry,” that it occupies “this space where every single particle of language is charged with the most meaning.” As with his previous novels, Leaving The Atocha Station and 10:04 (Adam is also the narrator of the former), one may be forgiven for thinking Lerner is trying to make up for his implied shortcomings in prose. So much so that reading The Topeka School feels like being thrust into a graduate seminar on grand literary theory. For the most part, it’s as engrossing as can be.

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Strictly on its own terms—as formal innovation driving a relatively static present by imbuing it with a deep past—The Topeka School mostly succeeds. Lerner’s method has a fair bit of madness, but it’s all about the relationship between language and what it has the power to conjure. The narrative shifts from first- to second- to third-person with surprising smoothness—sometimes taking the form of therapist-style notes written by Adam’s parents, Jonathan and Jane Gordon, both liberal psychologists at an esteemed and enigmatic institute for psychology and psychoanalysis.

Suffice it to say, all three characters are incredibly aware of language. Between them they populate enough vernacular for a Ben Lerner Cinematic Universe. On occasion, however, the interpretative possibilities are remarkably unsubtle. High school Adam imbibes debate as “a form of linguistic combat; the key was to be a bully, quick and vicious and ready to spread an interlocuter with insults at the smallest provocation.” This insight comes three pages after a fight breaks out between schoolboys. Lerner writes of “the ‘boys will be boys’ chivalry of boxing giving way to the archaic regression of overkill… every opponent must be spread; every offense, however minor, leads to holocaust.” If the parallels creak, Lerner has a scaffolding rich enough to avoid hamminess, more so than in his previous novels.

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But something is getting in the way of how good this novel really is. The Topeka School, a novel being released now, in October of 2019, bears a sales pitch and has elicited a critical response so familiar that it casts a pall over Lerner’s craft. The novel has been marketed and praised as a product of that exhausting trope—“fiction for our times” (a you-know-who euphemism if there ever was one). Such weighty expectations deeply affect how a reader approaches the novel. The chasm between a book’s content and its marketing campaign deserves just as much critique as anything else, and The Topeka School is far from the first novel to suffer from it, but Lerner does give us plenty to understand about the world today, even if he doesn’t always succeed in doing so. The connection between debate and violence is incredibly interesting, for example, but Lerner conflates two different types. Adam does not debate as a politician does; he debates as an ambitious student. We know how political debate can lead to violence, but high school doesn’t hold the same stakes.

In a keen recurring metaphor, the degradation of meaningful language shows up when Jonathan’s speech devolves into fragments and non sequiturs during a youthful acid trip, and in the last few seconds of a timed debate speech where Adam struggles to complete his sentences. On its own, the failure means little. But if the argument is, as the book’s marketing has implied, that the complexities of its language are an arbiter for The Topeka School’s timeliness, then perhaps we’ve inadvertently validated Lerner’s sentiments about poetry. Sentence completion, after all, is not one of Trump’s strong suits. The bald truth is that nowadays, with novel after novel, we see so-called timeliness used to boost sales, yes, but it’s a disservice to the book being sold nonetheless. And in the case of The Topeka School in particular, one must take issue with this tired framing, if only to allow the book to succeed as a significant novel. And The Topeka School is significant, and with at least one game-changing turn for Lerner. Along with his regular bag of tricks—rapid shifts in form, unreliable yet earnest narrators—he pulls off one entirely unexpected feat in this profoundly anti-narrative novel: the character of Dr. Jane Gordon.

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Jane is famous. She has been on Oprah, and written a provocative, very feminist book that elicits strange men calling the family’s landline to whisper obscenities at her. When Jane shows up as a narrator, she is so powerfully articulate that it’s hard not to wish she’d taken the place of her son or husband earlier—both anxious white male products in the vein of Lerner’s previous narrators. There’s a newness to the space Jane occupies. Whether she’s frustrated that the mere acknowledgment of sexism at the institute is chalked up to penis envy; relating the pain of a falling out, in what is one of the most deeply-felt depictions of losing an old friend; or saving the men in her life from themselves, The Topeka School almost entirely hinges upon her. Less unexpected is Lerner’s talent for incisively exploring the confounding white man-child, and it’s edifying even this third time around. And if you’re up for it, he can make linguistics as fun as the writers of The Good Place do moral philosophy.

But let’s be clear. Lerner has not pulled off some grand historical response to America in 2019. The men in The Topeka School may be a familiar amalgam of disaffection and privilege, but Jane, the character least connected to some overarching narrative of the white American today, isn’t as easy. That it is this free-wheeling, second-guessing, instinctual character who ends up walking away with the whole book through sheer emotional heft, seems like a rebuke to the idea that any novel published in Trump’s America can be sufficiently “timely.”

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About the author

Kamil Ahsan

Kamil Ahsan has a doctorate in biology from the University of Chicago, and is pursuing another in history at Yale. His work has appeared in The Nation, NPR, Los Angeles Review of Books, and more.