The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

Topeka SchoolI’ve been attending Book Expo at the Javits Center for years and may have mentioned in the past that I pick up far too many advance copies of books. I lug them home where I realize I’ll never read them all. I do hold on to most of them and read some, usually several years after their publication date. The latest one I read is The Topeka School by Ben Lerner, which came out in 2019. I’ve tried to read Lerner’s novels before, without much success. Now, since I enjoyed The Topeka School, I’ll have to go back and try them again. He’s a seriously good writer.

The novel is set in, of course, Topeka, Kansas and the “school” of the title refers to The Foundation, a well-respected psychiatric clinic. Adam Gordon, a high school senior, and his parents Jane and Jonathan, who both work at the clinic are the central focus. One other character, Darren Eberheart, a mentally disabled boy, haunts the plot and provides the climax.

The Topeka School is not plot-heavy nor is it told in a linear fashion. Instead, there are brilliant set pieces told from the point of view of each character, some in first person. In the opening chapter, Adam, a crack debater on his high school team attends a state championship event.  Lerner gives a visceral sense of what those events are like, down to the anxiety of the participants, their characteristic pencil-twirling tics, and the speed-talking obfuscation technique known as “the spread.”

The novel is set in the late 1990s, and through the lives of the Gordons Lerner takes on issues of authenticity, toxic masculinity, and psychoanalysis that are prescient to say the least. “The spread” becomes a metaphor–and predictor–for the sometimes meaningless, sometimes toxic chatter that has taken over our lives since the Clinton era. Jane Gordon, Adam’s mother, author of a best-selling feminist book, is harassed by “The Men,” as she calls them, who spew hatred at her by phone and in person. Adam and his friends tolerate the mentally disabled Darren, but there’s an undercurrent of nastiness in the way they treat him. Darren may be slow, but he’s not slow enough to misunderstand.

Garth Risk Hallberg, who reviewed the book for the New York Times, uses the term “analytic overdrive” to refer to the way that the characters examine every minute of their lives. Their lives have a feeling of feverish intensity like the debates that Adam attends. It’s a heady story: funny, tragic, and fierce.

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