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Ben Lerner’s ‘The Topeka School’ goes deep into the lives of one family, and the psyche of the American male

Nick Lu for The Boston Globe

Fans of poet and MacArthur genius Ben Lerner’s “Leaving the Atocha Station” and “10:04” will be shocked to discover in the first pages of “The Topeka School” that Lerner can write action. I say this with all love and respect, for while little happens in his exquisitely observed, densely ruminative first two novels, they nevertheless established Lerner as that rare bird, a writer equally adept at poetry and fiction.

But when Adam Gordon’s girlfriend disappears on a midnight cruise across a suburban Kansas lake, and Adam decides she must have swum home, drives her stepfather’s boat back to her house, and eerily realizes, in the bedroom he thinks is hers, that he has entered the wrong house, “The Topeka School” seems like a radical departure in narrative form.


It turns out the departure is not quite so radical. This is not a mystery novel - Amber is waiting for Adam when he finally finds her house - unless we count the mysteries of language, masculinity, family, and American culture and politics to which Lerner here directs his observations and ruminations. It is, rather, a novel of ideas couched in the story of a family, albeit a highly ruminative family with a son who presumably grows up to be Adam Gordon, the young poet narrator of “Leaving the Atocha Station,” who presumably becomes the slightly older, namelessly autofictional novelist narrator of “10:04.”

All three protagonists are based on their author. Like Lerner, the Adam of “The Topeka School” grows up in Topeka, Kansas, the son of New York Jewish expatriates. He is a high school poet and debate champion; has a famous feminist psychologist mother and a psychologist father who specializes in “the lost boys of privilege” ; and becomes a poet, novelist, and father of two daughters. The lusciously detailed, midwestern suburban landscape he traverses is also real: Bright Circle Preschool, Rolling Hills Nursing Home, and the local Hypermart (now a regular Walmart) are still on the map; the Attison Foundation where his parents work is a nominally disguised Menninger Foundation. But in Lerner’s fiction, fact is a stepping stone to consciousness and, increasingly, culture.


The novel has three interconnected narratives. One is Adam’s senior year of high school. He dates Amber, suffers from migraines, fights with his parents, and trains for the national debate championship. When his friends, “white gangstas...sons of lawyers, surgeons, shrinks” , paternalistically embrace their preschool friend Darren - now a learning disabled dropout and outcast increasingly drawn to the weapons and racist rhetoric of Stan, owner of the local army surplus store - chilling consequences ensue.

The second is the multi-generational story of Adam’s life and family. In first-person chapters, Jane and Jonathan narrate Adam’s childhood and their own histories, while Adam himself voices a present-day coda in which he confronts a bullying playground dad and attends an ICE protest with his family. The third is Darren’s story, briefly recounted in the interstices between chapters.

The particulars of these stories are everything: The phosphenes Adam sees during his concussion, migraines, and making out with Amber: “against the black back of his eyelids little illuminated patterns flaring up” . Jane’s matter-of-factly successful response, “I’m sorry, can you speak up?” , to the muttered slurs and rape threats from “the Men [who] started to call the house” after she becomes famous. The Herman Hesse story, “A Man by the Name of Ziegler” - Ziegler goes to the zoo, hears the animals speaking their contempt of humans, and ends up in an asylum - that Jonathan reads at his New York analyst’s recommendation and adapts into a film starring himself and his Topeka friends and neighbors.


At the same time as these particulars illuminate individual characters, they, like so many of the novel’s images and references, recur, reverberate, and bleed into each other (sometimes to excess), coming to stand for a more generalized experience. Adam mistakes a stranger’s house for Amber’s “because of the houses’ sameness...the sublime of identical layouts” . Adam worries that “poetry made you a pussy” , while Darren insists he is “not a faggot or a pussy” . Jonathan, Jane, and Adam repeatedly find themselves “in the present and the past” . Language disintegrates: in Jonathan’s research on “speech shadowing” where “under conditions of information overload, the speech mechanisms collapse” ; in the policy debates Adam dominates where “his speech stretched by speed and intensity until he felt its referential meaning dissolve into pure form” ; when Adam breaks down in college, “all his vocabularies...colliding and recombining” .

Ultimately, these repetitions feed into the novel’s incisive anatomization of what it means not just to be Adam, but to be a white male in America, where the threat of exposure and violence are omnipresent; where boys and men are ever speaking and performing masculinity – as self-conscious faux rappers, confident fathers, policemen at an ICE protest; where the seeds of Trump start growing in the Clinton era.


We are no longer the kind of America where we can speak of The Great American Novel. We are too fractured, too fraught. But we can still speak of great American novels: novels that give voice to our fractures and fraughtness, that display our multitudes or inhabit one of the specificities within those multitudes. In this context, Lerner has written an occasionally overdetermined but nevertheless pretty darn great American novel, framed, for sure, by his own decidedly specific experience, but so is America, for all of us.


By Ben Lerner

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 282 pp, $27

Rebecca Steinitz is the author of “Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary.’’