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Ben Lerner changes perspective

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.

Illustration by Steven Dana

Illustration by Steven Dana

Readers will know Adam from Lerner’s 2011 debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, set during Adam’s postgraduate fellowship in Spain. Atocha revolved around Adam’s abuse of hash and pills, his ideas about “poetic possibility,” and his doubts about his capacity to have “a profound experience of art.” When he was moved by art, in Atocha, he lied about it, saying he was crying because his mother was dead (she was not dead); later he said that, actually, the problem was that his dad was a fascist. In The Topeka School we learn that Adam’s father, Jonathan, and his mother, Jane, are Jewish therapists who moved from New York to Kansas to work at the Foundation, a progressive psychiatric clinic. Jane is a psychoanalyst and best-selling author whose male colleagues call her a “trumpeting virago” and accuse her of “penis envy”; Jonathan tries to reach troubled boys through filmmaking, and is so good at gently drawing out his red-state neighbors that, no fascist himself, he is said to have a gift for “making fascists feel heard.”

The Topeka School, like Atocha and Lerner’s second novel, 10:04, is thoroughly, intimidatingly brilliant and absolutely contemporary. Four chapters are from Adam’s perspective, narrated in the close third person—the appropriate distance for a self that is alienated, doubled, or otherwise held at analytical remove; his parents are each given two chapters in the first person. Interspersed throughout are brief, italicized interludes voiced in stream of consciousness by one of Adam’s peers, a social outcast named Darren, who, over the course of the novel, is integrated into Adam’s clique, with violent consequences. (All this is new in Lerner’s fiction; his first two novels both had first-person narrators who were obviously authorial alter egos.) The novel’s stated project is to return to Adam’s childhood in order to unearth the “repetitions just beneath the threshold of his consciousness” and trace a “genealogy of his speech, its theaters and extremes.” That sounds dry, but it’s funny, and at times, painfully acute. A bildungsroman in lyric chorus, it looks back on the past with affection but without nostalgia, and lands in the frighteningly unsure coda of the present day, when Adam is the father of two young daughters. Usually prolepsis is used to make an ending more tidy by resolving plotlines and squaring futures neatly away. Here the prolepsis rips away whatever seemed contained about the past, showing us that the afterlife (of the novel) is just our own unwritten life; it also helps clarify what is driving the effort to gather the pieces of the past in the first place. Parenthood so often provokes interest in one’s own childhood, one’s own parents.

The title references the New York School of poets, conjures a Topekan school of psychoanalytic practice, imagines a family academy that schooled Adam in politics (pro-choice) and some vocabulary (that description of his hairstyle as a “compromise” or symptomatic formation), and points a finger at the Republican debate tutor who taught him to speak cleverly and disingenuously; it is from some ambient Topeka School curriculum that he and his peers learn to drink, smoke, and resort to blows. College—presumably where Adam picked up his taste for cultural theory and his ability to analyze an old photograph—is absent except as the site of lovesick breakdown, social faux pas, and a manic phone call home.

The novel is a highly particular analysis of a white male coming of age in an intellectual Midwestern family that manages, in its particularity, to tell a story that is emblematic of American life. Who taught us to speak the way we do? How can we use language without dominating others? How can we defuse rage and violence, and what do we do when we hear ourselves speak unreason? Several times the novel references the Thematic Apperception Test, in which a therapist shows a patient a picture and asks for a story about the events that led up to it; the picture The Topeka School is looking at is Trump’s America.

The name Ben Lerner has become, alongside the names Karl Ove Knausgaard and Sheila Heti, shorthand for “autofiction,” a type of novel in which the narrator or protagonist shares biographical information and life events with the novelist, or in which the novelist appears in a meta way in the text. Autofiction, which has roots in French fiction as well as the San Francisco–based New Narrative movement of the 1970s, came into vogue at a moment in twenty-first-century life when writing in the third person came to feel, for many people, silly and embarrassingly fake. (“My hybrid form has become a genre,” Lerner wrote in an early poem—a statement that time has made true.) Like Adam, Lerner is from Topeka. Like Adam, he was a high school national debate champion. His parents really were psychotherapists, at the Menninger Clinic. His mother really did write a bestseller (The Dance of Anger) and appear on Oprah; his father made a film adaptation of the Hermann Hesse story “A Man by the Name of Ziegler” like the one described in the novel. And like Adam, Lerner is a poet. (He is also the poetry editor of this magazine.) His poems enact, in a condensed form, the feelings that his novels enact by way of plot and description—the vertigo of doublings, the instability of language, the promise of multiple possible states of being, a hilarious and deflating absurdity, a melancholy political hope.

In autofiction, the performance of realism—a literary construct that privileges knowable and empirical data about a coherent time and place inhabited by individuals with discrete points of view—gives way to the performance of reality. No longer animating made-up characters in made-up situations that resemble real life, authors use the conventions of fiction to document real life, or pretend to. According to this way of thinking, real—lived or performed—life has more literary value than whatever can be concocted from the sidelines about it; it bears a trace of livedness that even the best imagining cannot transmit. The currency of autofiction is authenticity, both for the writer who has lost the confidence or desire to fabricate events, and for the reader, for whom at least some of the frisson of the book inheres in its truth quotient.

These concerns play out differently in the world of poetry, in which fact and fiction, speaker and poet, truth and falsehood, have mingled freely for a long time. (Bookstores do not divide poetry shelves into non-fiction poems and fiction poems; they are all just poems.) And it is from poetry that Lerner comes. Unlike Heti, whose books use tape recordings and elements of memoir to assert the importance of female subjectivity, or Knausgaard, who obsessively and diaristically chronicles his life experiences and thoughts, the conversation Lerner is having, and the history he is writing, doesn’t come out of the tradition of the novel. When Heti writes, in How Should a Person Be?, that “the nineteenth century, I know, was tops for the novel,” the point is to situate her work in a twenty-first-century reinvention of long-form fictional prose. When Knausgaard mentions novels he is reading, the point is to draw attention to his anguish over his own. Lerner seems to reinvent the novel as a happy side effect of some other project. He rarely mentions fiction writers in his books. The narrator of 10:04 described that book as “a work that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them”; The Topeka School is also such a flickering, if a more subtle one. On the one hand it insists that the book is related to the authorial life indicated in the margins, and on the other hand it renders that relationship irrelevant.

Where some writers revel in the messiness of the “reality” of autofiction, Lerner’s books are coherent and unified, variations on a theme. Ideas and motifs give them shape, and the plots spoke off a central hub. Where for Knausgaard a detail might be included because it “really happened,” Lerner is disciplined. Events and scenes are meaningful; rarely is there an extraneous or ragged thread. He is a supremely gifted prose stylist, at once theoretical and conversational; he never bores or blathers, and is always limpid. Rather than inviting the reader to look at him or his life, he invites the reader to look through him. His narrators are not solipsistic or overly interested in themselves qua themselves; the “I” as he uses it is a vessel for language, experience, cultural theory, climate, politics, and art. He is always analyzing—events, artworks, a tissue box.

In Atocha, Adam will claim that he wanted to be a poet because poetry “could not evade its anachronism and marginality,” but in The Topeka School, Adam “wanted to be a poet because poems were spells.” Poetry was first and foremost a game he played with his mother. She would recite a little rhyme called “The Purple Cow” at bedtime, and his job was to repeat it back with a small mistake, so she could feign disappointment and correct him, so he could try again, and in this way delay the separation and closure of bedtime a little longer. It is a testament to Lerner’s immense skill as a storyteller that his novels that double as essays and flicker like poems are also as frictionless as any classic work of nineteenth-century realism, easily reeling the reader in to their worlds, which display, in modernist style, all the seams.

The boldly metafictional 10:04 made reference to its own writing and conditions of production—the agent, the book deal, the New Yorker story that got the book deal, the residency where the book was or wasn’t written. The Topeka School appears more like a traditional novel, mostly because of the presence of Darren, a character imagined wholly from the outside rather than presented as in dialogue with the narrator-novelist. Darren also has a more typically novelistic trajectory. In each italicized section, the book gets closer to its central reveal, an act of violence involving a cue ball that Darren throws into the face of a girl at a party where kids who should “know better” are smoking crystal meth out of a light bulb in the kind of quotidian living nightmare that characterizes so much suburban adolescence. The Topeka School builds anticipation to this incident, which is noteworthy insofar as Lerner’s previous novels show no real interest in anything like suspense or climax. When we finally arrive at the reveal—the “primal scene” of Adam’s childhood—a series of rapid and overdetermined events incite the throw. The boy hosting the rager (“Where were the parents?” Adam asks, sensibly) approaches Darren with a freshman “who is approaching incapacitation”—one who, as we would say today, cannot consent—and invites him to “Kiss her dog, kiss her”; when Darren refuses to participate in this homosocial assault, the girl, Mandy, “said relieved and laughing He must be a faggot.

Adam is a witness but not a participant. He has known Darren since they were children at Bright Circle Montessori, where Adam rubbed together the leaves of a plant and told Darren it was magic (his first spell). Darren probably would have become a “man-child” anyway, a petri dish of fragile, toxic white masculinity, but it was when Adam showed him the magic plant that Darren began to believe that he could cause tornadoes and car accidents with his mind. It’s not that Adam is responsible for that fantasy so much as he is implicated in it. Darren is his double, or perhaps shadow is the better word; Adam also struggles with rage.

“I can’t believe I’m a mother of one of these acne-covered, baseball-cap-wearing, sports-obsessed Topeka proto-adolescents,” thinks Jane one night when Adam is in sixth or seventh grade; “God help me through the next six years.” (Jane is one of the greatest characters in fiction that I have met in a long time, voiced with such intense immediacy that her sections have the feel of being tape-recorded interviews.) He gets into a fight with his friend and the friend needs stitches; at home, too, scenes with his parents escalate, and he punches holes in the bedroom wall. Jane invites us to read Adam’s anger as a developmental phase—later she reminds herself that “my bully of a son” was “passing through a complicated social and hormonal stage”—although in the final chapters, which are narrated in the present tense, Adam, writing now in the first person, still resorts to the body when words fail to persuade.

In the very first pages of the novel, before we meet Adam or his parents, Darren is questioned by the police about the assault with the cue ball. “What Darren could not make them understand was that he would never have thrown it except he always had. . . . Like the moon, it had been there all his life.” We might expect, based on how doubles function in Lerner’s other novels, that the pairing of Adam and Darren would suggest something about mutability or possibility, or open us into a state of contingency in which meaning is contested. Yet Darren, although he serves the social function that all outcasts do, of allowing an in-group to define themselves against what is excluded, is on a radically distinct course. His story suggests that one life is not so easily exchanged for another; what’s more, Darren himself believes that contingency is not limitless: that certain things are, and must be reckoned with as they are. Darren experiences his life as tragic inexorability, and so does the reader.

It is difficult to overstate what a departure this kind of thinking is for Lerner’s work. In Atocha, “poetic possibility” was doomed to failure in the form of concrete poems, but served as an unattainable horizon toward which everything moved. In 10:04, the narrator was captivated by experiences that opened to multiple possible futures. In one key scene, while he was doing some hurricane shopping at a ransacked Whole Foods, he picked up a red plastic container of instant coffee and glimpsed its whole journey, from the “Andean slopes” to Union Square. “It was as if the social relations that produced the object in my hand began to glow within it . . . what normally felt like the only possible world became one among many, its meaning everywhere up for grabs, however briefly.” Darren, who works at the local grocer’s, is panicked by even a tiny selection. When he is sent to find the price of instant coffee, he is overwhelmed by the “two sets of similar but distinct sets of cans . . . he could not define a border between what costs this, costs that,” and he walks off the job to the army surplus store, where he sits in the back, fooling with a .50-caliber ammo can, soothing himself from the laughter of the customers. The objects in his world are not “up for grabs”; they are fixed, meaninglessly inert, and mute.

Perhaps the point is simple—Darren is not a poet. (Or, what kind of poet might he have been?) But Adam also experiences the events of the cue ball as being at once ineradicable and ongoing, in an eternally present tableau; years later, he avoids driving past a certain house “because I didn’t want to be near their basement, where a version of myself was, is, permanently waiting to take up his position.” While writing The Topeka School, Adam imagines rewinding the event and watching Mandy’s face fly back together, but it’s just a wish. In 10:04 the narrator was interested in the Challenger explosion as a site of false memory and linguistic material. The Topeka School deals with violence as a more local and resistant fact. The most beautifully written novel, like the most revelatory case history, doesn’t change the past; it can only illuminate it. The cue ball hits Mandy’s jaw, “forever altering her speech.” In this book, that’s an act of killing.

A typical novel is broken down into passages of description and passages of action, and the action is further weighted so that certain scenes are of greater importance to the plot than others; usually, a reviewer focuses on those scenes. The Topeka School is built from episodes, and meaning and emphasis are dispersed evenly throughout. The Darren chapters concentrate the narrative arc and build to a climactic revelation, but everything else in the book works against that, connecting and radiating like a kaleidoscope or crystal (or poem). Words and phrases are passed from character to character, and instead of moving forward in time, the book circles like an airplane (one of its recurrent images). Trying to isolate particular moments to discuss in a review was a nearly impossible task.

Appropriately for a story set among psychoanalysts, memories in The Topeka School are sounded and interpreted; the parents’ present tense is the scene of remembering itself. We might also expect a book set among psychoanalysts to have something to say about free association, and the narrative of The Topeka School does occasionally devolve into association or list making. Debate teaches Adam to trounce an opponent with verbal overkill, but these moments of association are always incomplete—the list, presumably, could go on and on, in Whitmanic fashion—and show the speaker as a vector of forces rather than a master of them. The best example of this is when Adam sits by the sickbed of Klaus, his surrogate grandfather, an elegant, old-world analyst who is easy to imitate because he always seems to be imitating himself; Klaus worked with Jung and survived the Holocaust by hiding in a chicken coop. Klaus is nonresponsive after a stroke, but he begins “to speak through the channel Adam had opened with his mind,” and Adam tunes in to the voice as if to a frequency. The result is a mélange of quotations from earlier in the book (typical for Lerner, who often uses echo and repetition to bind narrative together), a metafictional reference to Brooklyn, Nazi pseudoscience, climate-change facts, and lines from Wallace Stevens, all related to snow, ice, and winter.

Snow is cold and glittery and seems to stop time while measuring it; it is something that our children will never know in the ways that we did; it blankets cozily; it is a synonym for misinformation and deception. Darren’s cue ball is described, like the moon, as a “satellite of ice”; in the last chapter, Adam attends a protest against family separations and ICE with his wife and daughters. Perhaps one way of understanding The Topeka School is as a meditation on how the snow of whiteness can calcify and harden, freeze, into an icy weapon. The same society that made Darren made ICE; Darren liked to dress up in combat gear just like the cops do.

The Topeka School is a series of motifs—interpretations of its own plot. Like a lot of contemporary fiction, it tells you how to read it, serving as criticism and novel in one. Its most powerful motif is the spread, a debate technique that calls for blasting your opponent with a drivel of information. The idea of the spread is to overwhelm your opponent with more points than she can answer; whatever she doesn’t address is a point in your favor. Jane describes it as “the shadow of speech, of reason. The breathing, the gasping for air—I’d heard hyperventilating patients make similar sounds; it sounded a little like the barking of a seal.” The moral climax of the book arrives when Adam, at the national championship, challenges an opponent who uses the spread in a “values” debate, where it is not usually employed; Adam wins Jane’s approval, but loses the round. Nor is the spread the only form of perverted or deformed language in The Topeka School. For his dissertation research, Jonathan conducted an experiment in which participants wore headphones and repeated back recorded speech; as the speed of the tape was subtly increased, the subjects began to spew gibberish, pure sound. Jonathan and Adam both have breakdowns in which they rant; Jane, when unearthing a childhood trauma, loses the thread of speech.

There is an ongoing problem in The Topeka School about how one inhabits memories and how memories are transmitted from generation to generation. When Jane recounts her trauma, the book steers around the details, indicating either a zone of privacy or the limits of speech. Adam and Jonathan both have trouble telling when a memory is in the “first” or the “third” person. Their confusion is related to aesthetic reproduction—what happens when you try to imitate a performance from a video, or watch a film that you haven’t seen in a long time. Adam worries that there are voices that he can’t “get” (such as his girlfriend Amber’s) but also that there are voices from the past that he doesn’t want to get.

Illustration by Steven Dana. Source painting: Madonna and Child (detail), by Duccio di Buoninsegna. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Illustration by Steven Dana. Source painting: Madonna and Child (detail), by Duccio di Buoninsegna. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Though Adam recedes, he never disappears into the background of The Topeka School. His parents, in their chapters, acknowledge his presence—“I bet you won’t put this in your novel,” Jane says, before he does—and in his own chapters, he sometimes breaks the frame to lay the scene of writing, like a scrim, over the narration. An image of a Duccio painting of the Madonna and Child recurs throughout the book. Jonathan first sees it while he and Jane are tripping on LSD at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1970s. His eye is drawn to the bottom edge of the painting’s frame, which is marked with “traces of an older medium of illumination, the shadow of devotion”—candlelight burns. “I decided that’s what the painted mother foresaw,” Jonathan says, “that she was saying farewell to candlelight, that she knew she was trapped inside a painting addressed to the future, where it could only be, however great, an instance of technique.” The Duccio painting wasn’t acquired by the Met until 2004; “its anachronistic appearance” in the novel, Lerner writes in the acknowledgments, “can stand for the unstable mixture of fact and fiction.” It stands, in other words, for poetry.

Leaving the Atocha Station ended with the narrator reading his own poems in a gallery filled with his friends. 10:04 ended with the narrator imagining himself speaking to the reader “in the second-person plural,” a poet of the people. In The Topeka School we see teenage Adam construct a poem late at night in his parents’ home office, rearranging what he overhears through their bedroom walls, but the book ends with him participating in the “people’s mic,” the form of activist speech in which the group repeats the words of the speaker, becoming a human amplifier. Rather than repeating with an error that marks one’s difference, as in the game with “The Purple Cow,” the people’s mic asks him to participate in a public, to create that public by effacing his individuality—to be a body in a bigger body. “It embarrassed me,” he writes, “it always had, but I forced myself to participate, to be part of a tiny public speaking, a public learning slowly how to speak again, in the middle of the spread.”

This form of ritualistic public chanting activates the embarrassment of belonging to a group, and the awfulness of hearing one’s own voice in catechism with others. But is it too obvious to speculate that perhaps the real embarrassment is not the activism, but the form in which Lerner has chosen to make his most public speech—the novel itself? Is anything more embarrassing than writing a novel? Or, better to ask it this way—is there something uniquely embarrassing about the novel as a form, and if so, what is it?

The poet, Lerner wrote in The Hatred of Poetry, is “an embarrassment,” but she also is a symbol of “human possibility” and a “tragic figure,” whose immense and impossible ambition ennobles her inevitable failure. The novelist has a less lofty height from which to fall. In 10:04 the narrator assures his poet friends that he won’t write fiction anymore. He also has a conversation with his imaginary daughter in which he tells her that he will pay for her upbringing with the money from the short story he has published. “Is that why you’ve exchanged a modernist valorization of difficulty as a mode of resistance to the market for the fantasy of coeval readership?” the girl asks. “Art has to offer something other than stylized despair,” he responds, a little feebly, but with the dignity of truth.

In Lerner’s work, the fantasy of poetry is that it might redeem, however imperfectly, however briefly, corrupted speech; the fantasy of the novel is that it will be read. That’s embarrassing enough—the desire to be known, being known, always is. But there is something else at stake. Lerner positions poetry within his novels as an alternative or utopian site that is always abstract. Thus he writes, in The Topeka School, that public speaking evokes anxiety because it is “not just speaking but ritually performing the human capacity for speech as such; to be victorious is to be a poet who refreshes the medium of sociality,” while the “absurdity and offensiveness” of white freestyle rap battles still prove “that language, the fundamental medium of sociality, was being displayed in its abstract capacity.”

The novel never refers to abstract capacity. It is too bound up with the particular, always limited; it doesn’t even have the glory of failing. It can’t justify itself as an imperfect example of transcendence; there is nothing transcendent about it. Perhaps it is embarrassing because the thing that it offers is embarrassment itself. Embarrassment, after all, is just another word for self-consciousness. Lerner is a genius of self-consciousness in all its senses—the thinking mind, the ambivalent attachment, the awkward social performance. The moment when Adam—corny raps racing through his head—runs into a rival at the local big-box store is one of countless instances of hilariously choreographed shame and banality: “He felt there was something effete about the way he was holding the creatine with both arms, cradling it, and he repositioned the tub.” Adam has a plasma globe that produces electric discharges known as Lichtenberg figures (the title of Lerner’s first poetry collection). He calls it a “terrarium for phosphenes.” As soon as this charged sphere is introduced, he starts wondering how you get rid of it. “Can you just put it in the trash? What kind of noble gases are trapped within the glass? If it cracked, what would be released?” The phrase “terrarium for phosphenes” is shivery, haunting; characters who worry over whether you can put that lightning globe in the trash, and what pollutants you would expel if you did, are why I read novels.

 is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine.

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