The celebrated novelist's latest takes on Trump, Clinton-era complacency, and what it means to be a manby Lara Feigel / December 11, 2019 / Leave a comment
The Topeka School opens with a brilliant set-piece scene. Adam—a stand-in for Ben Lerner familiar from the author’s two previous novels—finds himself in sole charge of his girlfriend Amber’s boat, after she’s apparently swum off, leaving him in awkward mid-sentence. Comically inept as a sailor, the teenage Adam docks the boat and creeps through the dark corridors of Amber’s house, where he finds her sleeping. But it’s not Amber. He’s got the wrong home, walked past the wrong faux-marble kitchen island, the wrong snoring middle-aged father. Along with the terror of finding himself in an unknown house, there’s the sense that he’s in all the houses around the lake at once: “the sublime of identical layouts.”
Here, in gripping miniature, the themes of the novel assert themselves. There’s the sameness of suburbia, its beauty and terror, and what Lerner has termed in an interview the “phenomenology of standardisation.” There’s the awkwardness of adolescence, which raises the question of what allowances should be made for youth. There’s the clash between Adam’s identity as a sensitive intellectual and his need to compete with the other males in the Kansan town of Topeka, where Lerner himself grew up in the 1990s. And there’s the sense of Adam (both the 17-year-old in the boat and the 40-year-old writing the story) as complicit in a version of masculinity that’s built on privilege and power.
What if he’d been black—would he have been more frightened than embarrassed when he found himself an unwitting intruder? Why did Amber swim off, rather than wait to respond to the speech he was making when he failed to notice her departure? She eventually tells him that he reminded her of dinners with her stepfather who used to give “endless speeches”: “he just talked in our direction.” Threaded through the novel is the relationship between this moment in 1996 and the future, at once unknown and known. Adam imagines he was “looking back on the present from a vaguely imagined East Coast city where his experiences in Topeka could be recounted only with great irony.” Which is just what the older Lerner writing the book is doing.
These are themes that Lerner has explored before. The Topeka School is in conversation with his 2011 novel (which also had a protagonist called Adam Gordon) Leaving the Atocha Station and his 2014 work 10:04. Both novels featured anxious poets, veering between sensitivity and cruelty, uncertain in their relationships to history and the future. Leaving the Atocha Station was set in Spain, allowing Lerner to show his hapless alter-ego struggling to communicate in Spanish. It also enabled him to open up questions of the relationship between language and meaning: his suspicion (both fearful and ecstatic) that meaning may be found where words fail. Dating a Spanish woman, Adam finds that the gaps in his communication become imbued with “tremendous intellectual and aesthetic force” that grants the relationship profundity, and even enhances the touch of his hands with “ambiguity of intention.”
10:04 was more preoccupied with the relationship between author and narrator (“the more intensely the author worried about distinguishing himself from the narrator, the more he felt he had become him”) and between present and future (“because those moments had been enabled by a future that had never arrived, they could not be remembered from this future that, at and as the present, had obtained.”) In this novel, the narrator—now named Ben—grapples with the prospect of both parenthood and climate disaster, but is prevented from getting anywhere by his own solipsism. I found it less satisfying than Leaving the Atocha Station, largely because the reader becomes so caught up in the process of the book’s drafting, and because the intertexts drawn from Ben’s emergent novel and correspondence take us further inside rather than outside this process.
In The Topeka School, Lerner has found a way to combine the insights of autofiction (a literary technique that assumes that one person can’t speak confidently for anyone other than themselves) with a larger canvas, more reminiscent of the great American novel that other writers of autofiction (think of Sheila Heti, or Ottessa Moshfegh) set themselves against. There are multiple voices here, allowing the text to span decades: we hear from Adam’s parents about their childhoods and younger married life.
Of course the great American novelists have been doing something similar to Lerner for years. Certainly, there are echoes of Philip Roth’s Zuckerman novels here, not just in the play between the author, narrator and characters but also in his dazzlingly frenetic observations of moments and settings. Topeka, which has lurked in the background of Lerner’s previous novels, is a counterpart to Roth’s Newark or John Updike’s Pennsylvania, reminding us that the “phenomenology of standardisation” is not a new challenge. Lerner succeeds, where Roth and Updike succeeded before him, in painting ordinary scenes of suburban life with vibrant colours on a lavish canvas, the details emerging with a mixture of humour and horror. We hear, for example, about Topeka’s family of alt-right protestors, who sing “I hate fags, I hate fags” to the tune of “Jingle Bells.”
Much of the novel’s power comes from Lerner’s struggle to chronicle society while half accepting and half resisting the knowledge that his only authentic way into society is himself. He’s had the inspired idea to write about his parents, who were largely absent from his previous novels. Jane and Jonathan are, like Lerner’s real parents, psychoanalysts, part of a well-known Foundation that dominates a corner of Topeka’s social scene. These characters alone are enough to make the book a superb achievement: we see moments of marital and parental conflict from both their points of view, watching them grapple movingly with how to make a life work amid their contradictory desires (Jonathan finds himself falling for Jane’s best friend and sometime therapist) and worries about their son.
At one point, Adam persuades Jane to give him one of her tranquilisers before a school debate he is taking part in. When his father finds out, Jane observes him starting to resemble an angry Adam—“the aggressiveness, the speed, the tension at his temples”—only to break down in tears: “the joins broke open to reveal the softer sapwood of his voice, the anger gone.” There is a sensitivity here to the moment-to-moment changes of role within a family conversation that Lerner didn’t display in his previous novels.
Jane and Jonathan are committed to openness and the talking cure; but this comes at the cost of blurred boundaries, and fails to protect Adam from the migraines and anxiety that lead eventually to his breakdown in New York. The Foundation also fails to protect Darren, a mentally disabled boy being treated there and described at one point as “the bad surplus,” left to the mercy of Adam and his friends as they test him with their taunts and punches. Darren eventually retaliates by badly injuring a young woman, and the need to understand this act—to dig deep into the layers of violence—is a source of moral and aesthetic energy for Adam.
We start to see violence everywhere, finding it even in the supposedly civilised world of Adam’s speechifying. Adam competes in interscholastic debating challenges. These, in 1996, are dominated by the need to display arrogance with voice and gesture, and the need to weaken opponents by adducing a large number of arguments at top speed. This method, known as “spread,” is one that Adam distrusts even as he practises it, knowing that it connects to “the supposedly disinterested policy wonks debating the intricacies of health care or financial regulation in a jargon designed to be inaccessible to the uninitiated.” He relates this to physical fighting. His coercive style is “the verbal equivalent of forearms and elbows” and the “spread” is equivalent to the way that young men “spread” their opponents in fights. During the Clinton era (we see the Kansan Republican Bob Dole, who is running for president, attending one of Adam’s debates) and our own, the spread becomes a tolerated feature of daily life, however slowly the politicians speak “about values utterly disconnected from their policies.”
The lessons learned from the empty debating chamber rituals provoke the need to go beyond traditional ideas of masculinity. Jane, famous for her books about female anger, is insulted by “the Men,” cowardly callers who abuse her down the phone line, and both Adam and his father want to avoid becoming like them. They also provoke the need to go beyond language itself. One of the pleasures of this hyper-articulate book is just how good it is at describing the moments when words fail, whether it’s Adam’s glossolalia during his concussion and breakdown, his grandfather’s silence during his illness, or Jane’s tears as she recalls her father’s abuse (“this language has ended in pure sound”).
These are moments when time collapses, as it did in Lerner’s previous novels; but here it’s less tricksy and more the manifestation of a particular moment in a mind. Jonathan, circling JFK waiting to land, inhabits both 1961 and 1991; Jane, looking for Adam in the audience when she gives a talk, sees the baby in the bassinet, the concussed teenager in hospital and the angry debater who has just insulted the right-wingers protesting about her talk outside. To our parents especially, we seem like we are all our ages at the same time, a phenomenon Lerner represents with elegant ease.
What does this all amount to? There’s a strong case made in the novel for seeing the 1990s as years of complacent liberal ascendancy ultimately responsible for the Trumpian era. As in the best social novels, though, this rarely feels preachy. Lerner should perhaps have left it there, but in the epilogue, he shows Adam aged 40 attending a protest against Trump’s immigration policy with his wife and daughters in New York. The writing here is as acute as ever. Adam’s sensation of holding a frightened four-year old in his arms, unsure if he can protect her or even if protecting her should be his priority as he protests against the much greater trauma inflicted on more vulnerable children, is movingly described. But his conclusion that here is “a public learning slowly how to speak again, in the middle of the spread,” feels a lot smaller than most of the earlier observations.
For the most part, though, Lerner knows what he is doing in one of the best and most satisfyingly provocative large-scale social novels I have read for some time.