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The Topeka School (2019)

by Ben Lerner

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
8373821,457 (3.58)60
A NEW YORK TIMES, TIME, GQ, Vulture, and WASHINGTON POST TOP 10 BOOK of the YEAR ONE OF BARACK OBAMA'S FAVOURITE BOOKS OF THE YEAR Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award Shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize Winner of the Hefner Heitz Kansas Book Award From the award-winning author of 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station, a tender and expansive family drama set in the American Midwest at the turn of the century, hailed by Maggie Nelson as Ben Lerner's "most discerning, ambitious, innovative, and timely novel to date." Adam Gordon is a senior at Topeka High School, class of '97. His mother, Jane, is a famous feminist author; his father, Jonathan, is an expert at getting "lost boys" to open up. They both work at a psychiatric clinic that has attracted staff and patients from around the world. Adam is a renowned debater, expected to win a national championship before he heads to college. He is one of the cool kids, ready to fight or, better, freestyle about fighting if it keeps his peers from thinking of him as weak. Adam is also one of the seniors who bring the loner Darren Eberheart--who is, unbeknownst to Adam, his father's patient--into the social scene, to disastrous effect. Deftly shifting perspectives and time periods, The Topeka School is the story of a family, its struggles and its strengths: Jane's reckoning with the legacy of an abusive father, Jonathan's marital transgressions, the challenge of raising a good son in a culture of toxic masculinity. It is also a riveting prehistory of the present: the collapse of public speech, the trolls and tyrants of the New Right, and the ongoing crisis of identity among white men.… (more)
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English (37)  German (1)  All languages (38)
Showing 1-5 of 37 (next | show all)
If listening to characters psychoanalyze themselves and each other in unending inner monologues is your jam, this is the book for you. Or perhaps you enjoy reading long technical explanations of high school debate. Or if stilted references to real geographic landmarks and local businesses to prove the author's authentic knowledge of northeast Kansas really cooks your grits, well by golly, you best get on over to Watermark Books and Cafe at Douglas and Oliver just west of Eastborough and pick up a copy. (That's in Wichita, not Topeka. I'm a southcentral girl.) And I haven't even mentioned the semicolon abuse; semicolons should take out a restraining order.

Three stars because there are some really compelling stories buried in there somewhere. But they were few and far between and the best was just a vehicle to drive the others. ( )
  IVLeafClover | Jun 21, 2022 |
Ugh! Why do I keep doing this to myself? I read and I'm not really enjoying a book but then something tells me to keep reading. For the life of me, I can't remember what told me to keep reading because, what a dud. The stream of consciousness storytelling was not my cup of tea. The ending was so abrupt. ( )
  Dairyqueen84 | Mar 15, 2022 |
This book is masterfully written. Really a unique writing style with unconventional punctuation (particularly the minimal use of quotes) that threw me off at first. But it somehow works to create the sensation of incomplete memories more than a vivid scenes. The political and social message of this book was also compelling, and something I strive to achieve in my own work. ( )
  Mike_Trigg | Feb 10, 2022 |
It's a credit to Lerner that even when he writes a novel that isn't good (structurally oblique, narratively deficient, yet didactic to a fault) he still manages to produce some incredible miniatures--scenes that captivate, sentences that spin out of control and still glide to taut conclusion, phrases that delight despite weary repetition. He's a wonderful writer. Is he a great novelist? ( )
  newgrubstreet | Nov 6, 2021 |
This novel is about a lot: inclusion and exclusion, the echoes of the past in the present, maturation or failure to mature, misogyny and toxic masculinity, analysis and mental illness, violated boundaries... but mostly it's about the social construct which is language. ( )
  GwenRino | Oct 31, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 37 (next | show all)
... the center doesn’t quite hold... Deflating what would conventionally be a point of convergence is all too fitting for The Topeka School’s historical scope, however. It should be a comfort that no one’s life is completely determined by any one moment, if for no other reason than because nothing is actually a climax in the scope of history.
 
... brilliant ... The importance of speech in the novel lets Lerner comment on the state of politics, from glancing references to some people’s inability to decode irrational arguments to more direct critiques ... 'How do you keep other voices from becoming yours?' is a key question of our time, or, for that matter, any era. The Topeka School provides no clear answers, but it memorably demonstrates how hard it can be to recognize insidious utterances for what they are.
added by Lemeritus | editBookPage, Michael Magras (Oct 1, 2019)
 
The messy relationship between masculinity and language drives this seeking, eloquent story by poet-novelist Lerner ... The ekphrastic style and autofictional tendencies echo Lerner’s earlier works, and his focus on language games and their discontents fits nicely within the 1990s setting. But the fear at the core of this tale—that language, no matter how thoroughly mastered or artfully presented, simply isn’t enough—feels new and urgent.
added by Lemeritus | editBooklist, Brendan Driscoll (Sep 1, 2019)
 
The Topeka School weaves a masterful narrative of the impact that mental illness, misogyny, homophobia, politics, and religion have on children who want to be men ... though The Topeka School is heavily steeped in mid-90’s American liberalism and home phone lines, Lerner plots history with a contemporary eye to reconcile where we were then with where we stand now. It’s rare to find a book that is simultaneously searing in its social critique and so lush in its prose that it verges on poetry.
 
...[an] essayistic and engrossing novel ... The book sensitively gathers up the evidence of abuse, violation, and cruelty in Adam’s life.Though the conflicts are often modest...Lerner convincingly argues they're worth intense scrutiny ... Few writers are so deeply engaged as Lerner in how our interior selves are shaped by memory and consequence ...increasingly powerful and heartbreaking ... Autofiction at its smartest and most effective: self-interested, self-interrogating, but never self-involved.
added by Lemeritus | editKirkus Reviews (May 12, 2019)
 
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Dedication
For my brother, Matt
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Darren pictured shattering the mirror with his metal chair.
Quotations
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.
...they are told constantly, the culture tells them, although “culture” is hardly the word, Klaus said, patting his forehead with a handkerchief cut from the same linen as his suit, that they are individuals, rugged even, but in fact they are emptied out, isolate, mass men without a mass, although they’re not men, obviously, but boys, perpetual boys, Peter Pans, man-children, since America is adolescence without end, boys without religion on the one hand or a charismatic leader on the other; they don’t even have a father—President Carter!—to kill or a father to tell them to kill the Jew; they have no Jew; they are libidinally driven to mass surrender without anything to surrender to; they don’t even believe in money or in science, or those beliefs are insufficient; their country has fought and lost its last real war; in a word, they are overfed; in a word, they are starving.
The man-child represented a farcical form of freedom, magical thinking against the increasingly administered life of the young adult. A teller of fantastic stories. Almost every object in the man-child’s world reflected this suspension between realms: his alcohol that was also soda, his weapons that were toys, how he might trade you two paper dollars for one of silver, valuing not credit so much as shine. He had trouble managing his height or facial hair and when he injured actual children while demonstrating a wrestling move (clothesline, facehammer, DDT), it was a case of his “not knowing his own strength.” He must, to fit the type, be not only male, but also white and able-bodied: the perverted form of the empire’s privileged subject.
Desert camo does not in Kansas disappear into the foliage but indicates a semiconscious wish to blend in with the soldiery of an empire whose enemies are so vague they’re everywhere.
The desire to know more and the desire to know less fought each other to a standstill within Adam, making it hard to move.
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A NEW YORK TIMES, TIME, GQ, Vulture, and WASHINGTON POST TOP 10 BOOK of the YEAR ONE OF BARACK OBAMA'S FAVOURITE BOOKS OF THE YEAR Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award Shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize Winner of the Hefner Heitz Kansas Book Award From the award-winning author of 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station, a tender and expansive family drama set in the American Midwest at the turn of the century, hailed by Maggie Nelson as Ben Lerner's "most discerning, ambitious, innovative, and timely novel to date." Adam Gordon is a senior at Topeka High School, class of '97. His mother, Jane, is a famous feminist author; his father, Jonathan, is an expert at getting "lost boys" to open up. They both work at a psychiatric clinic that has attracted staff and patients from around the world. Adam is a renowned debater, expected to win a national championship before he heads to college. He is one of the cool kids, ready to fight or, better, freestyle about fighting if it keeps his peers from thinking of him as weak. Adam is also one of the seniors who bring the loner Darren Eberheart--who is, unbeknownst to Adam, his father's patient--into the social scene, to disastrous effect. Deftly shifting perspectives and time periods, The Topeka School is the story of a family, its struggles and its strengths: Jane's reckoning with the legacy of an abusive father, Jonathan's marital transgressions, the challenge of raising a good son in a culture of toxic masculinity. It is also a riveting prehistory of the present: the collapse of public speech, the trolls and tyrants of the New Right, and the ongoing crisis of identity among white men.

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