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…