The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pages.
What does autofiction, ostensibly so concerned with the self, have to say about the movement of history? Time in these works is often rendered as the narrator spontaneously experiences it, with history unfolding as ambience. In this vein, Ben Lerner’s first two novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, aimed to capture their semi-autobiographical subjects in the midst of a proximate past (2004 and 2011–2012, respectively). But his newest novel, The Topeka School, is occupied with a broader cast and oriented around a more precise historical dialectic: namely, between the late 1990s and the present. Essential to Lerner’s interest in the former era is its fraught relationship to the very notion of history, captured in the concept of the “end of history,” which the novel repeatedly invokes. Of course, everything to which the “end of history” referred—the ultimate triumph of capitalism and liberal democracy—would prove less stable than Francis Fukuyama and his acolytes predicted; Lerner writes, at one point, of “history not over but paused.” The Topeka School seizes this era of purported stillness and sets it back in motion, catching the catastrophe of history at the very moment of its supposedly progressive culmination to reread it from the rubble of its aftermath.
The figure through whom Lerner accomplishes this reawakening is a familiar one: Adam Gordon, the poet protagonist of Leaving the Atocha Station. Adam is (as Lerner was) a senior at Topeka High School in 1997, where he is (as Lerner was) a prodigious participant in competitive speech and debate. But The Topeka School departs formally from the first-person autofictions of Lerner’s previous novels in its shifting of Adam into the third person (until the novel’s final chapter) and in its embrace of two additional first-person narrators: Adam’s parents, Jane and Jonathan, who work as psychologists at a residential psychiatric facility called the Foundation. The novel cycles among the three points of view in long, meandering chapters, interspersed with briefer, italicized interludes that focus on a troubled peer of Adam’s named Darren—who, we learn from the novel’s opening paragraphs, has done something to find himself in a police station.
Darren is also, it turns out, one of Jonathan’s patients. “I was a specialist in lost boys,” Jonathan tells us—victims of Midwest masculine despair; those who might, if left untreated, grow up to become “the Men,” a phrase that Jane, the author of increasingly popular books on feminist relationship practices, uses to describe the aggrieved misogynists who viciously berate and threaten her, usually by phone, for offering their girlfriends and wives advice. The problem of white male rage is the novel’s most elemental concern. It’s also at the core of the continuity Lerner traces between past and present. “I couldn’t really take them seriously,” Jane says of the Men, “or only took them seriously as specimens of the ugly fragility of masculinity.” But she shifts into a parenthetical to speak, ominously and a little obviously, to the Trumpian future: “(Of course, if we’ve learned anything, it’s how dangerous that fragile masculinity can be.)” Such gestures to our present, a few even more direct than this one, recur regularly throughout the novel, and this prospective retrospection hums beneath the surface of every scene that takes place in one of the novel’s multiple past tenses.
The problem of white male rage is the novel’s most elemental concern. It’s also at the core of the continuity Lerner traces between past and present.
Another key and related site for tracing historical continuity is in The Topeka School’s attention to language, which is, as in Lerner’s previous novels, a major theme. What young Adam lacks in more immediately legible machismo he makes up for in linguistic mastery, which he mobilizes as a form of masculine power, a transubstantiation made possible by the fact that, as Adam observes, “linguistic prowess could do damage and get you laid.” One form this “shifting of aggression to the domain of language” takes is freestyling at parties with the other rap-obsessed white boys of Topeka; another is debate.
Most of Adam’s first chapter concerns a speech and debate tournament. “To an anthropologist or ghost wandering the halls of Russell High School,” Lerner writes, “interscholastic debate would appear less competitive speech than glossolalic ritual.” Here Lerner introduces us to the idea of “the spread,” which refers to the ubiquitous debate tactic of attempting to cram as many arguments as possible into a single breathless speech, the logic being that any arguments to which one’s opponent can’t manage to respond in the allotted time are conceded. Lerner immediately links the spread to a broader social, linguistic condition of a world of fine print, already abundant in the ’90s, which presages “the twenty-four-hour news cycle, Twitter storms, algorithmic trading, spreadsheets, the DDoS attack”—language as onslaught. Yet the spread is also tied to Adam’s burgeoning interest in poetry:
He began to feel less like he was delivering a speech and more like a speech was delivering him, that the rhythm and intonation of his presentation were beginning to dictate its content . . . If the language coursing through him was about the supposedly catastrophic effects of ending the government’s Stingray surveillance program or the affirmative speaker’s failure to prove solvency, he was nevertheless more in the realm of poetry than of prose, his speech stretched by speed and intensity until he felt its referential meaning dissolve into pure form.
The Topeka School is full of language at the point of semantic breakdown, which is tied throughout the novel both to liberatory poetic uses and sinister political ones. Jane describes a therapeutic experience in which repressed childhood trauma begins to resurface this way: “my speech started breaking down, fragmenting under the emotional pressure, became a litany of non sequiturs, like how some of the poets you admire sound to me, or I guess what Palin or Trump sound like, delivering nonsense as if it made sense.” By associating this sound of the terrifying present with Adam the high school debater and Adam the reader of avant-garde poetry, Lerner points to the ambitious proposal of The Topeka School: autofiction as both personal and historical reckoning.
Even as The Topeka School trades the single first-person narrators of Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 for the polyphony of the Gordon family, the “I” of Adam occasionally interrupts, speaking from the present, to emphasize the temporal distance and impose interpretation—until he eventually takes over in the novel’s final chapter. The instability wrought by this modulation in perspective bears out an idea introduced in 10:04: in the last lines of that novel, the narrator says of his and a friend’s stroll through Brooklyn that he “will begin to remember our walk in the third person.” The Topeka School occasionally redeploys this language; twice it is said that a character remembers a significant event in both “the first and third person,” and Lerner’s narrative approach in the early Adam chapters allow him to pull off this trick. The structure of The Topeka School is further complicated by its strange interplay of perspectives: while its coherence relies on the two additional narrators—Adam’s parents—the novel emphasizes their testimony’s mediation through Adam (and Lerner). “I bet you won’t put this in your novel,” Jane says at one point before recounting an embarrassing childhood anecdote about Adam (and, presumably, Lerner) that, of course, he did include.
The Topeka School’s emphasis of its own artifice—a hallmark of autofiction—is here in the service of a particular political, linguistic move. The novel is engaged in an attempt to think through a redefinition of “public speaking,” which is hinted at in a chapter narrated by Jane and partly filtered through the voice of Klaus, a cryptic psychoanalyst at the Foundation, as Jane prepares to watch Adam at another speech and debate competition: “Americans consistently report that their greatest fear is public speaking . . . ” she thinks,
But why, exactly? . . . Because it’s a linguistic primal scene, Klaus’s voice in the dark. The assembled, the community, demand that the speaker be at once individual (your speech must be original to be prized) and utterly social (your speech must be intelligible to the tribe). Through the individual mouth we must hear the public speaking.
This idea returns in a new form in the novel’s final scene, which takes place in the present day, with Adam attending, along with his wife and daughter, a protest against Immigration and Customs Enforcement at a New York detention facility:
One of the organizers stood on a stone bench and yelled, “Mic check,” and we all yelled it back. The “human microphone,” the “people’s mic,” wherein those gathered around a speaker repeat what the speaker says in order to amplify a voice without permit-requiring equipment. It embarrassed me, it always had, but I forced myself to participate, to be a part of a tiny public speaking, a public learning how to speak again, in the middle of the spread.
Ultimately, the novel is itself offered as a sort of “public speaking,” with the autofictional subject—displaced, though only partially and always self-questioningly, into other voices and consciousnesses—standing in for the historical community. In a way that resonates with Adam’s claim about forcing himself to participate in the people’s mic despite his reflexive embarrassment, The Topeka School also brings us closer than its predecessors to Lerner himself.
Whatever the charms of the supplementary voices marshaled for the cause, the success of this novel, and its reckoning with the inherited dangers of white masculinity, hinges largely on the projected, recollected self at its center: Adam. We learn early on that he lacks the “basic Midwestern mechanical competence” of oil-changing, gun-cleaning, and boat-steering that his peers possess—and which, we surmise, is constitutive for the boys’ sense of themselves as boys, nearly men. Adam’s masculinity may be more effete, but it is no less fragile, and no less rooted in a desire for control. At certain moments in The Topeka School, Lerner adroitly illustrates the continuity between these two manifestations of manliness—and how Adam’s incapability of performing his traditionally only exacerbates, through insecurity, his masculine rage. In an early scene, Adam’s girlfriend abandons him on a boat as he’s droning on; when he tracks her down, having realized only belatedly that she disappeared, he accosts her. “He was furious,” Lerner writes. “He could not admit that he’d been scared, couldn’t say he’d been unequal to managing the boat, or that he’d almost confronted the wrong young woman in another house. He demanded an explanation, What the fuck is wrong with you?” We learn that slammed doors and holes punched in walls cause Adam’s parents some concern; they know he could easily become another “lost boy.”
Yet elsewhere in the novel, the two forms of masculinity are strangely separated. Jane—whom the bigoted provocateurs of Fred Phelps’s local Westboro Baptist Church have derisively labeled “the Brain”—watches her son and reflects:
Look at my boy, divide him into time zones. . . . Maybe we should have raised him among the liberal cosmopolitans of San Francisco and New York. Maybe I’d offered my boy up to the wrong tutelage, the Brain had offered him to the Men, thinking he would somehow know better. And now he was a graduate of the Topeka School.
This passage emphasizes the meaning of the novel’s title, which is drawn from its contrast with “the New York School.” (That phrase serves as the title of a chapter narrated by Adam’s father, which includes his recollection of a time when Adam was going to see his “hero,” John Ashbery—a New York School poet—read at the 92nd Street Y, having escaped to the East coast for college.) The novel fails to undermine the framework suggested by Jane’s geographic division of her son’s psyche, where the enlightened coasts war with the Kansan id.
In fact, it’s reinscribed by a later scene, in an interruption by the present-day Adam, who, possessing the privilege of hindsight, offers this gloss on his own adolescent sex life:
Understand his sexual knowledge, such as it was, represented a synthesis, or a workable tension, between porn and Our Bodies, Ourselves, the closest thing to porn he’d ever located in his parents’ possession; he’d heard his own mother talk about the erasure of the clitoris from psychoanalytic theory and he’d of course heard boys and men speak endlessly of the female body as a plaything to be wrecked for male pleasure. How to interact with Amber in a way that at once asserted his good difference as poet, proto-feminist, Ivy-bound alternative to the types without neutering himself in the process? Cunnilingus, cunning linguist, as the joke went, a joke that might have been made for him, he who tried to cover the body in speech.
A brief treatise on his oral acumen follows. (“The dialectic of circular and vertical motions.”) To be sure, the tone playfully mocks the young Adam’s self-seriousness, self-congratulation, and self-regard. But it also reaffirms his understanding of himself—an understanding his parents share—as an outsider to the world of crude misogyny which, though it is his milieu, remains fundamentally external to the proto-feminist, Ivy-bound poet who goes down on his girlfriend.
The novel is a meditation on and critique of masculinity, yet its central male psyche emerges relatively unscathed.
The Topeka School ultimately authorizes this reading in its displacement of the novel’s central act of male violence onto Darren, a character who essentially exists to carry this burden, which is not only narrative, but ultimately historical. (Lerner is explicit about this; Darren is referred to as “the perverted form of the empire’s privileged subject.”) The short chapters that focus on Darren orbit around this violent act—he throws a billiard ball at a girl at a party, “shattering [her] jaw in several places, dislodging multiple teeth, knocking her unconscious, forever altering her speech”—and contextualize it by showing how, tormented by his peers, included in their parties only to be taunted and abandoned, he arrives at his fateful choice. The novel is not subtle about how we are meant to understand this act of violence as analogous to a turn in American politics: in the final chapter, Adam returns to Topeka to give a poetry reading and sees Darren as an adult, now wearing a MAGA hat.
Lerner does assign Adam a kind of passive complicity in Darren’s violent turn by including him in the peer group that helps drag Darren to those depths. But in the end, The Topeka School seems to hold up Darren and Adam as two different models of masculinity, one abased and the other exemplary, rather than sustain a more nuanced and generous critique of both. After all, Darren’s final appearance is in a crowd of Westboro Baptist Church protesters, while Adam’s is at a protest on what Lerner’s readers will understand is “the right side of history.” This is not to say that Lerner fails to depict or consider Adam’s own outbursts of masculine rage, but when they do erupt, the broader moral structure of the scenes can be taken to partially justify them. At one point, Adam calls a Westboro Baptist Church protester at an event where his mom is speaking a “bitch,” to Jane’s horror; in the final chapter, he knocks the phone from another father’s hands when the father fails to stop his son from being cruel to Adam’s daughter. Adam struggles with his masculinity, yes—but ultimately, he means well, and mostly, behaves well. He’s a good man. Darren, meanwhile—even with the compassion the novel affords him—embodies misogyny’s ugliness come to its full fruition. The novel is a meditation on and critique of masculinity, yet its central male psyche emerges relatively unscathed.
Does this really constitute a reckoning? The Topeka School is, like the novels that preceded it, an intelligent, unsettling inquiry that doubles as a self-referential aesthetic edifice. It’s also a true linguistic adventure, especially in the moments when Lerner allows his precise, circumspect prose to collapse into the lyricism of intermingled vocabularies—a mode he has mostly set aside since he turned from poetry to novel-writing. Yet the novel falls short of the task it sets itself. Here Lerner finds a form that generatively complicates his essayistic style of autofiction—expanding its capacity to speak politically and historically—but which also allows him to let the self at the novel’s center off the hook, tempering the achievement. Ambition outpaces courage.