Discussed in this essay:
The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 304 pages. $27.
Ben Lerner’s third novel, The Topeka School, opens in the late 1990s, when Adam Gordon is a high school senior. Adam’s hair is “drawn into a ponytail while the sides of his head are shaved, a disastrous tonsorial compromise between the lefty household of his parents and the red state in which he was raised.” He suffers from migraines, a legacy of a childhood concussion, and his status among his peers as “champion of dorks” rests on his facility with his tongue. He rules the freestyle rap battles that break out among drunk and high white boys at Saturday night parties; he’s also a nationally ranked member of the debate team, a poet, and a proud student of cunnilingus (his technique derived from pornography cut with his mother’s copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves). We first glimpse him, stoned and pontificating, on his girlfriend’s dad’s boat. When the girlfriend, Amber, gets bored and swims away, it takes Adam too long to realize she’s gone. The novel that follows is his attempt to listen rather than speak, to see himself from the outside and to position himself in a lineage, or conversation between generations.