Ben Lerner’s third and strongest novel to date, “The Topeka School,” opens in an interrogation room. We are introduced to the suspect, Darren, but the precise nature of the crime is left undisclosed for much of the novel. In fact, the crime is nearly forgotten altogether as other, more urgent interrogations arise — investigations into some of today’s most contentious issues, such as “the ugly fragility of masculinity,” generational trauma and the collapse of public discourse.
Lerner strategically sets the stage in the early 1990s for such an exploration. Adam, the protagonist, is an accomplished high-school debater and an aspiring poet with a short temper. Both his parents work as psychiatrists, having relocated from New York to Topeka, Kansas, to work at “The Foundation,” whose mission is to help “troubled boys.” Jonathan, Adam’s father, specializes in “reticent Midwestern boys and men.” Jane, his mother, is a bestselling author and prominent feminist.
There are many kinds of speech (political, public and private, freestyle, etc.) and succulent language textures on nearly every page. Lerner, a poet himself, shows he is not only a master wordsmith — a wrestler has “lats that made his torso appear hooded like a cobra” — but a skilled architect of plot in the debate scenes. Adam’s takedowns of his opponents are as riveting as any Federer-Nadal tennis match. These scenes also introduce “the spread,” a technique wherein the speaker overwhelms their opponent with a barrage of facts, listed at the speed of an auctioneer, which serves as a precursor to contemporary cable news.
Although Adam almost always remains the interlocutor, the narrative perspective shifts among family members. Prompted by Adam, who is conducting research for a novel, the protagonist’s parents reflect on memories of their son’s youth and analyze the psychodynamics of their family. These sections read like highly polished interview transcripts in which Adam occasionally interjects. Jane, in particular, was a pleasure to read, as she offered the richest insights into family life and astute observations on masculinity, as when she attends the national debate championship. “I do sense something primal behind the veneer of current events: a boy mimicking the language of politics and policy, the language of men.”
Spliced between these sections are brief passages from the perspective of Darren, a troubled boy who is heckled by his peers, including Adam, and treated briefly by Jonathan.
Darren is the least convincing character. He is a grab bag of easy associations for a high-school outcast with dark leanings; he has combat boots and baggy pants, an obsession with emergency preparedness, and he brags about a black belt. At one point, Lerner likens Darren’s thought process to a “video game.” Elsewhere, Lerner deploys language with such concision — and is so exacting with his character’s interiority — that using video games as a metaphor is unimaginative and flattens Darren into a stereotype.
Initially, the thinly veiled family drama seems to merely be a clever device for exploring issues like toxic masculinity and the degradation of debate, but Lerner’s characters are so layered, so full, that they cannot all be dismissed as puppets to commentary. That said, there are certainly parts of the novel where the temptation proves too great to comment on contemporary politics or to plant a symbol for psychoanalysis. For example, Adam’s debate teacher, Evanson, goes on to “become a major ally for Kansas-based Koch industries,” and Jane analyzes the time at a grocery store when Adam was frightened by men working behind the milk case. These moments are usually marked by heavy-handed exposition and, while they do elevate the narrative, they also stretch it thin and cause the plot to lose momentum.
Ultimately, “The Topeka School” is about the most privileged subject of American “empire,” the white cis man and the well-resourced apparatus of care surrounding “the lost boys of privilege.” For Lerner, this figure is more man-child than man, and lends a darker meaning to the trope of “America as adolescence without end.” Naivety is now understood as emotional immaturity and an inability, or unwillingness, to communicate. As Lerner notes, “infancy” comes “from the Latin infans, without speech.”
“The Topeka School” by Ben Lerner, FSG, 304 pp., $27
Author appearance: Ben Lerner will discuss “The Topeka School” at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23, at Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave., Seattle, elliottbaybook.com