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The Topeka School (2019)

by Ben Lerner

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4462239,564 (3.72)40
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: a tale of adolescence, transgression, and the conditions that have given rise to the trolls and tyrants of the New Right 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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» See also 40 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 22 (next | show all)
Sometimes I just can't get interested in a book, and this is one of them. I realize the author is trying to set new boundaries for what constitutes literature, but his strategies left me bored. I just couldn't interested in the main character or his life. ( )
  kerryp | Jul 4, 2020 |
An interesting departure from Lerner -- here he moves from the unmitigated (sometimes claustrophobic) autofiction of his first two novels to an autofictional cast of his fictional self Adam Gordon as well as the perspectives of his parents. When it works -- for me, this was his mother's sections -- it shows his untapped potential, how much further he can range outside himself.

But in the end The Topeka School failed to add up to much, for me, and the moments when it tried to sum up, to cohere, -- especially the invocations of contemporary politics -- felt more like clumsy staplings than anything else. For someone who comes off as so self-aware, even cripplingly so, as an adult character in his first two novels, the lack of self-analysis in this one, of how insufferable he seems to have been as an adolescent was an interesting choice to me.

All that being said, Lerner remains a stunning stylist, and The Topeka School never ceases to be a pleasure to read line by line. If I were new to Lerner I'd start with Atocha or 10:04, but certainly for a fan would not hesitate to pick this one up and roll through it. ( )
  Aaron.Cohen | May 28, 2020 |
About a third of the way into the book, a character grumbles to another, “Get to the point.” Ironically, it was right about this spot that I was silently muttering the same directive to Lerner. Maybe it’s a fault of my own, but a book needs to “come together” within the first hundred or so pages or the author almost always loses me. Still, I reminded myself of the many rave reviews and trudged on. I finally gave up midway through "The Topeka School." Some reviewers have already touched on my main problem. I simply couldn’t get into the disjointed, “tangled web” that Lerner was spinning using multiple voices. True, a few of the characters were intriguing – including the son and his mother. But I just couldn’t get into the book. ( )
  brianinbuffalo | May 6, 2020 |
Most American men should read this, especially those from the Midwest. It gives voice to so many little things, the little shadows I wish I could better illuminate, or banish in light. ( )
  jtth | May 4, 2020 |
Ben Lerner's most recent novel, The Topeka School, is a well written portrait of a family: a bright, but quick tempered son, Adam, who in high school becomes a nationally recognized debater, a psychologist mother whose books bring her fame, and father, also a psychologist at the Foundation, who specializes in lost boys. All three share narrative chapters. Not exactly sequential, their narratives often span time or even retell stories from different perspectives. We are also given brief italic passages between chapters of Darren's story, a classmate of Adam's with limited faculties, who lashes out in a moment of frustration.
The novel is also about language. Adam has it and can use it in competition and also at keg parties where vocal insults are used like weapons. His metaphor of " the spread " - "the act of making arguments and jamming in facts at such an unintelligibly fast pace that an opponent can’t possibly respond to them all effectively" (The Atlantic) brings the reader to a sense of what is controlling the national dialogue.
Lerner writes well about the late 1990's, and describes life in the Midwest with knowing insights and clever observations. He peppers the story line with essays about art, relationships, masculinity and psychology. At times for me the story itself, a bildungsroman for the most part, gets too sidetracked by the reflections, but I definitely found the novel to be engrossing and worthwhile. Lerner manages to provide insights into our current state of affairs by exploring his own upbringing. Another example of auto fiction that works well, relying on the author to blend his recollections with intellectual reflection.

what could be more obvious than the fact that they did not know what suffering was, that if they suffered from anything it was precisely this lack of suffering, a kind of neuropathy that came from too much ease, too much sugar, a kind of existential gout?

The intimacy between us was quick and intense; there was something giddy about it; we were like kids at summer camp or freshmen at college who glom on to a new friend with an excitement tinged with desperation.

Reynolds peeling off his sweatshirt in the cold to reveal a six-pack, lats that made his torso appear hooded like a cobra.

I accepted the gum like a Communion wafer, some sign of absolution, new resolve. ( )
  novelcommentary | Apr 23, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 22 (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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For my brother, Matt
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Darren pictured shattering the mirror with his metal chair.
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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