The Topeka School. Ben Lerner.

Lerner, Ben. The Topeka School. Farrar, Straus, Giraux, New York, 2019. F;3/20.

Number three in Lerner’s novel trilogy, this one fills in time gaps in the life ofthe overtly autobiographical Adam Gordon. Similarly to the second book in the trilogy (10:04), we jump around in time, from Adam in high school to his father Jonathan as a teenager with his parents in Taipei, to his mother Jane and her career and close friends, and finally to Adam as an adult with two young daughters. Of the three novels (the first one was Leaving the Atocha Station) I think this one is the most complex and the best. But having finished it and looking back over the full coming-of-age of Adam, I have a similar impression to the one I tried to express in my review of the other two books: great writing, interesting and engaging ideology of art and metaphysics, but finally not quite the classic emotional dramatic impact you might hope for reading an author of Lerner’s stature. Still, Topeka School comes the closest of the three to meeting that standard for me.

We start with Adam in high school. It’s like we’re there ourselves: Lerner owns the 1990s teenage idiom. In the prologue we meet Darren, an intellectually disabled boy reacting in his own way to being in a police station. I’m reminded of Faulkner’s Benjy in The Sound and the Fury  (never mind Benjy is mentally maybe three and Darren is his senior by three or four mental years) Darren is magnanimously accepted by Adam’s circle of cool friends, but gets bullied and pranked as you’d expect among thoughtless high school kids beginning to confront violence, status, and sex with their normal developing intelligence, as poor Darren is with his different set of tools.

Amber is Adam’s girlfriend, and they conduct a conventional and convincing 90s teen romance. Adam is a champion debater, and we worry that classic debating has degenerated into a Grand Prix-style speed contest, which Adam negotiates effectively but isn’t satisfied by.

We compare his dad Jonathan’s upbringing with Adam’s, and also appreciate the autobiography of Adam. There is mid-20th-century racial elitism, marital infidelity, and a cocktail-party focus to father Jonathan’s teenage years with his entitled American diplomat family in Taipei. Adam, however, grows up in a more thoughtful and intellectual (we might call it) family of similar entitlement but updated to the 1990s, with a few of the same limitations. Both his parents are psychotherapists in the “Foundation”, which is the Topeka School. The close autobiographic tracking of Adam’s life and Ben Lerner’s crops up in detail here, Lerner’s parents were both psychotherapists at the famous Menninger psychiatric complex in Topeka Kansas, where Lerner grew up. And Adam’s mother Jane publishes a feminist psychotherapy-oriented book; Lerner’s mother Harriet did something very similar. Jane falls out with her preternaturally attractive friend Sima with whom, reflecting observed events in his own upbringing (but not to my knowledge that of Lerner’s father), Jonathan has an affair.

There is plenty of thoughtful probing examination of psychotherapy through its practitioners, and of their self-analysis it necessarily entails. Adam maintains a healthy scepticism:

I saw these dynamics, thought seeing them protected me somehow, which is the stupid mistake psychologists make, a very Foundation mistake; we thought that if we had a language for our feelings we might transcend them. More often we fed them.

Language and emotion, and what speaking and writing have to do with life, seem to be basic to all three of these recent books. The closely autobiographical events are honest but somehow possibly an easy way out for a writer. But I don’t think it matters. When you read about characters and events, they either attract you into an experience that opens and makes clearer how you see your own life, or they don’t: more or less. Reading the first half of this book was for me similar to reading Cunningham, Nabokov, or Wallace: wow, this is going to be one I could either binge-read just for its completely satisfying delight, or take in small doses because I don’t want it to end.

But the final scene of Adam with his two daughters, just like Ben Lerner, finding his way through a protest involving Donald Trump’s policies, seemed grafted on to the back end of something else, that something already starting to feel a bit grey and ordinary. Is it me getting old and crabby? Well that for sure, but even though The Topeka School was the best of his three novels, I guess I need to apply my very bad appreciation of poetry to that other part of Ben Lerner’s oeuvre. Maybe that’s where the hair stands on end.

I think most fiction enthusiasts would enjoy all three of these novels, but if you have to pick one it would be this one.

8.9/9.0

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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