Reading Through the Awards: The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

May 21, 2020

In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, recently awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Award for best fiction and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, is our next selection.

Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “The Topeka School is the story of a family, its struggles and its strengths: Jane’s reckoning with the legacy of an abusive father, Jonathan’s marital transgressions, the challenge of raising a good son in a culture of toxic masculinity.”

Ben Lerner’s third and already highly celebrated novel, The Topeka School, is, like Lerner’s previous works of fiction, both heavily autobiographical and heavily concerned with language itself, how language functions and how it breaks down, how it stands in for other modes of expression and how we express ourselves with and without it. The book follows Adam Gordon—who also narrates Lerner’s debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station—as a high school senior and national debate whiz, plus his mother and father, both researchers at a psychoanalysis clinic called the Foundation, as the three of them navigate Adam’s transition into a particularly American kind of adulthood, or, as Lerner might argue, “adolescence without end.”

There’s a ton to admire here. Lerner’s characters, for one, constantly observe others in a way that displays the uniqueness of both observer and observee—Klaus, a sort of grandfather figure to Adam, for instance, speaks in a voice “like an imitation of itself; Klaus was an actor bemused to be playing Klaus.” Adam sees Peter Evanson, his private debate tutor, both as “an accomplished elder” and as “a species of man-child.” Lerner’s intimate knowledge of the debate world is riveting, from observations about each debater’s flaws and styles to the explanation of “the spread,” in which a debater packs as many arguments as possible into a given timeframe. Even the smallest bit characters and interstitial vignettes come alive on the page, and Lerner, a poet’s poet, can’t help but sketch them in breathtaking language. The most striking passage in the novel lands in the penultimate chapter, when, after Adam performs oral sex on his girlfriend, she explains her desire to be with him and gradually slips into a surreal, associative monologue in which the distinction between speech and narration breaks down. Somehow the effect draws the reader in rather than dragging them out. It’s beautiful to see that kind of craft at work.

The overriding sensation here, however, is that this is an Important Book about Important Things. When we read about the way Adam displaces his adolescent male aggression into the act of debate—“the verbal equivalent of forearms and elbows”—we’re to understand this isn’t just about Adam’s aggression, but the adolescent male aggression of America itself, an aggression that seeps into nearly every interaction in the novel. While Lerner draws these confrontations with a clear and insightful eye, the weight of his language never lets you forget that although he may be writing about people—even himself—what matters in the end is the language itself, the argument, the spread.

Benjamin Van Voorhis

Ben Lerner’s newest novel, The Topeka School addresses just how far men have come fucking up society. At the core of this novel is this question of how did we get here? Set in the late nineties in the suburbs of Topeka, Kansas we follow Adam, a pretentious debate prodigy whose parents work at a cultish psychiatric hospital called The Foundation. His father  a psychiatrist who caters to “lost boys.” His mother a famous feminist author.

The story is told through intersecting points of view: Adam and his parents, Jonathan and Jane. And while at times his father’s narrative feels like a phantom appendage to the story, meandering in the way so many of our own fathers do when they attempt a story, we are grounded in the relationship between mother and son. In a letter written to Adam, detailing his parent’s unraveling relationship, we learn about The Men who call her at all hours for writing a book that has destroyed their own marriages. And like so many men in this novel, the blame falls on anyone but themselves.

And in a way, this novel is structured very much like The Men: unsolicited calls ringing abruptly at all hours of the night. We do not know whose perspective or time or space we will get with the next chapter, but we pick up the call anyways. Is it because we are lonely? Because we want to be told everything will be okay from the other end? This novel is a historical party line, or in this day and age a group text, a Zoom meeting, Facetime; a collection of narratives that blend together to tell Adam Gordon’s bildungsroman, straddling the line between hyper intellectual and hyper masculine. It is this balancing act that holds the novel together and keeps one reading until the final page. Will Adam answer the call or will he be alone, late in the night breathing heavily into the speaker?

Sean Frede

My initial thoughts were about the overall flow, which is extremely stagnated in the beginning. It was like I wanted a shorter sentence—or sometimes the opposite, with a longer one. Also, using “had had” has never looked good in a written form, which is why most people avoid it. These are more technical and nitpicky things. I was surprised to be fussing over them as much as I did, and this likely stems from the fact that the writing itself isn’t nearly as intriguing and clever as it wants to be. It is, overall, horrendously boring.

I began to wonder if I wasn’t listening to one of my own uncles droning on as much the stepfather in Adam’s section, and in that first chapter alone, I had to re-read passages. Then I slogged through the mock trials segment, became intrigued by the use of first-person in Jonathan’s section (I did like Klaus), and it doesn’t pick up again until Jonathan makes another entry. Jane’s sections do not hold the intrigue of her husband’s narration, and her opening thoughts seem very pandering to me (and it likely wouldn’t have read that way if it was written well).

After finishing the novel, I realized that Lerner is excellent at composing a male voice, but his female utterances need practice. Also, how does us knowing what gross thing Adam (Jane and Jonathan’s son) did to his penis as a child at all relevant to the story? Sure, Jane says it was funny and then upsetting, and that’s it. Another one of the those deeply personal anecdotes that should be reserved between close comrades, rather than a wide audience, because that’s what we as the readers are. We are an audience watching a mundane display of characters float around in a pool of medical and psychological rhetoric. By the end, I cared very little for any of them, and it takes over a hundred pages for Darren’s relevancy to actually unfold. This novel is messy and monotonous, even if it is technically proficient.

S.N. Valadez

Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, much like the novels of Rachel Cusk, often introduces the reader to characters and situations solely so the protagonist can respond in page-and-a-half paragraphs of thought that deepen the book’s themes in a writing style that feels not unlike a fictionalized essay. Still, Lerner does lean into story here, shifting perspective and time period until the characters and their relationships, by maybe halfway through the novel, start to feel like they sort of matter. Which isn’t to say that the book fails. In fact, it manages to take on a myriad of complicated ideas surrounding the use and manipulation of language, politics, family, memory, and the severely divided ethos and background of right and left-leaning America. One of the book’s largest successes lies in its sensitive (albeit somewhat flat) portrayal of Darren, the bullied kid turned violent teenager turned MAGA protester.

With so much thematic depth, it becomes tempting to assign this novel the hackneyed workshop phrase: it’s trying to do too much. The thing is, though, that Lerner accomplishes a hell of a lot in under three hundred pages; my head was spinning in a hundred different directions each time I flipped the page and is spinning still after closing the book. The novel is nothing if not intellectually stimulating, and it succeeds and excels on those terms. Lerner may not allow for a reading experience that feels entirely inviting or immersive or character driven (though it is certainly all of these things in flashes), but he’s written a book that pushes the boundaries of what a novel can accomplish and how.

Josh Olivier

Curated by Brandon Williams


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

Follow Us On Social

Masters Review, 2024 © All Rights Reserved