Book review: The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner’s debut novel, Leaving The Atocha Station, received laudatory reviews from critics whom I esteem such as James Wood. I confess that although I was not left cold by it, nor was even tepid, I found the adulation somewhat unwarranted.
Ben LernerBen Lerner
Ben Lerner

Novels with writers at their centre rarely amuse me these days (but I make an exception for Anthony Burgess’s divine comedy, the Enderby books). The sophomore work by Lerner, 10:04, was both intriguing and infuriating – a second novel about someone stalled writing their second novel – and although it had brilliant cadenzas, it felt, to me, awry.

In this novel – is it a novel? – Lerner seems to have found what he lacked beforehand. When, after an italicised prologue, we get to the pivotal character, we learn that the adolescent Adam Gordon is already framing things as potential poems, at the expense of empathy. “Here we go again,” I thought. I was wrong.

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The Topeka School is somewhere between what Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections might have been – a subtle exhumation of American dysfunction – and the intellectual pirouettes of Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, a novel of intellectual integrity and deep concern for words and their meaning(s). Lerner’s novel is cleverly set pre-9/11 and pre-Trump, but shows how the seeds of hatreds were already stirring. It rather falls away in the final sections, which feel as if there was a necessity to tie things up, whereas this reader would happily have had it end inconclusively.
Before we meet Adam, we have Darren. Something has happened, and he is in police custody. Adam is “a tough-guy poet (with a silly haircut) waxing eloquent in front of nerds and his parents about the theft that is property and the freedom of the species-being.” It’s a neat summation of a character who is a poet, a leading public speaker, who has also had a serious concussion, who takes supplements for the gym, an almost-idealist and a teenager. Also, the quote comes from his Mom, so one has to fold in layers of irony and delusion. Darren is not a high achiever. He works in not-even-supermarkets and doing manual labour. The question the novel poses is: “Who is morally culpable and who is morally compromised?”

Structurally, the novel is pleasingly intricate. After we meet Darren, and then Adam, we have chapters focused on Adam’s parents, Jonathan and Jane. Darren interrupts between each switch. It is like a quartet where each time one musician is out of tune. The same phrases reverberate between the speakers, each time off-key; “an anthropologist or a ghost” reiterates throughout. At one point we are told of the artistic capabilities of animals, and the question arises whether imitation is the same as creativity. Jonathan and Jane are both trained psychotherapists, and the “School” of the title is not just a The Breakfast Club of teenage angst, but one in which psychotherapy is the pharmakon, the cure and the disease. Both Jonathan and Jane reflect on their own therapy as they discuss the therapy they offer; Jonathan with less prominence than Jane, who has become (inevitably) a best-selling author on therapy. The novel does invoke the difference of perception. The voices of the narratives keep shifting; from third person, to a strangely collusive “us” and “we”, to you, to they, back to I. The disorientation is part of the novel’s seriousness. We never know each other.

Part of this – and this is a novel embedded in the idea of syntax and grammar – comes through blatant contradictions. One character says “in fact I could not not – confront the knowledge I’d both always and never had”. Another says: “His head was always full of language, but there was never any noise. The voices were unvoiced”. (And note the clever half-rhyme in the sentences, in a novel which is above all about language). Or again: “if they were at once caring for and castigating… they were also modelling and mocking their own parents”.

Nothing is truly certain here. Except there is a culture of “toxic masculinity” which is mirrored in female snark. Darren is the “supplement” of Lacanian therapy, allowed into the gang of white, wannabe rappers and gangstas, only as a point of difference. He “must fit the type, be not only male, but also white and able-bodied: the perverted form of the empire’s privileged subject”. He is the internal other, and therefore the scapegoat. The novel’s obsession with masculinity is a kind of scourge on that generation of novelists – Bellow, Updike, Mailer, Roth – who assumed from the outset that men are exculpable; that adultery is dalliance; that violence is just “acting up”. Another of the motifs is “boys will be boys”.

Yet the book manages the kind of moral empathy that a novel requires, despite being awfully “literary”. Everyone is found wanting and nobody is judged. Or we are left in the morass of making our own judgements. Although I found the ending wanting, this is a serious book for serious times. In an early review of an early American book, it was written that America is “adolescent”. This word chimes across this novel and is quoted, and leaves you wondering what it will be like when it becomes senescent. Stuart Kelly

The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner, Granta Books, £16.99