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The Topeka School: Portrait of the artist as a young, white, privileged man

Review: Ben Lerner exposes the seam between the human-constructed world and the abyss beyond

The Topeka School
The Topeka School
Author: Ben Lerner
ISBN-13: 978-1783785360
Publisher: Granta
Guideline Price: £16.99

Poet and novelist Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School is a portrait of the artist as a young, white, privileged man.

Lerner’s “age of anxiety” fiction unspools a song of self. Lerner spent 2003-2004 in Madrid on a fellowship. Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) depicts a Lerner-like figure as a transparently ridiculous waster and pseud on a fellowship in 2003-2004 Madrid. 10:04 (2014) is, recursively, about Lerner writing 10:04. In the abstract they sound insufferably self-involved. Actually, both capture the feeling of being alive in the early 21st century and perform poetry’s work of rendering the familiar strange. They’re also wickedly funny.

The Topeka School is a more ambitious work of imaginative projection; besides his proxy Adam Gordon, Lerner inhabits his parents as characters. And it reaches back to his childhood, in Topeka, Kansas. It’s also weightier, less amorphous: autofiction grounded in irreducible personal experience, but trained, like a social novel, on a contemporary problem – an account of growing up white, wealthy and male in middle America in the late 20th century, socialised into “toxic masculinity”.

Lerner describes Adam’s peers – sham “gangstas” spouting the argot of African-American urban culture, “throwing” gang signs, “beefing” over slights – with anthropological precision:


“Reynolds … working his fingers into the word ‘blood’ … miming the manual language of a Los Angeles street gang to which he could bear no coherent relation; see Nowak, who has a real if unloaded pistol tucked into the waist of his sagging jeans, respond with a rapid array of finger movements based on the signs of ‘Folks’, which originated in the projects of Chicago, which may or may not have had a presence in Topeka, but certainly not among these white kids mainly bound for college who had no volk beyond their common privilege … ”

In school Adam weaponises his hyperliteracy in competitive debate, at which he wins a national title. This facility leeches into his “interpersonal style”. He becomes a bumptious tyrant, throwing down at the least provocation. It also marks him out as a “nerd”. Conversely, his interest in poetry pegs him as a “pussy”. Still, free-style rapping affords cred:

“The rap battle transmuted his prowess as a public speaker and aspiring poet into something cool. His luck was dizzying: that there was a rapid, ritualized poetic insult exchange … ”

Size up, square off

This is the Topeka School, acculturating its males, like stiff-legged primates, to front, flex, size up, square off, act out atavistic impulse. Adam feels the tension with his parents, psychiatrists at a renowned psychoanalysis institute-father, an “Iron John”-type, counsellor to “lost boys”; mother, high-powered author of pop psychology bestsellers, herself contending with the trauma of abuse by Adam’s grandfather.

Out with her, he encounters a nemesis also trailing his mom. After the boy’s mother recognises Adam’s from Oprah, mutual incomprehension ensues:

“Was it more, or less, emasculating to have a famous mom?”

His attempts to fit in result in “disastrous tonsorial compromise” – hair “drawn into a ponytail while the sides of his head are shaved”.

The novel’s central act – learning-disabled Darren braining Mandy after she calls him a “faggot” – takes a village: the jock who pressed the inebriated “hottie” on the “man-child”; the ambient homophobia behind her slur; the gun shop proprietor who filled Darren’s vacancy with misogyny; the self-regarding parents trusting their enlightened progeny to “include” Darren; the social circle who adopted yet humiliated Darren, for whom his botched attempts to ape their “speech and customs ... naturalized their … appropriated talk and ritual ...”

Lerner depicts an ennui rooted in plenitude and the collapse of meaning – a cultural din approaching escape velocity toward David Foster Wallace’s “total noise”. An exhibit of the latter: the “jovial” hate speech of Topeka’s notorious Westboro Baptist Church cantillating “ ‘I Hate Fags’…to the tune of ‘Jingle Bells.’ ”


But amid Lerner’s forensic accounting of Adam’s presumptions – “holding forth”, “talking over” his girlfriend, calling a Westboro congregant barracking his mother a “bitch”, omitting to save mom’s work before shutting down her PC after being spooked by a “reflection” while furtively viewing porn – Topeka feels overwrought, pushing a teleology towards Trump.

Near the end, Adam, now a father, confronts the do-nothing dad of a seven-year-old boy who refuses to cede a slide to his daughters. They’re obnoxious but are they specimens of toxic masculinity?

Or, is this my “fragility” or defensiveness as a white male speaking?

Topeka provokes these questions and counter-questions.

In closing Adam sasses a cop who orders him to stop his daughter – daubing chalk on the sidewalk outside a federal lockup to protest Trump’s immigration policy – from “defacing government property:”

“I just have no authority over these kids … Where does your authority come from … ?”

In this frequently virtuosic novel, we glimpse the seam between the human-constructed world and the abyss beyond. No less than rules invoked by a uniformed goon, however, Topeka is an artefact. It is about America in 2019 but, brimming with self-awareness, it is also of it.