We are living in a moment defined by anger — anger at injustice and those who treat it with indifference (or even glee), anger at the gulf of understanding between divided parts of the country, anger at the impotence that many people feel in a society stratified by race, gender, class, and income inequality. The Topeka School journeys into the white-hot center of that anger, exploring its origins and its consequences, both in the 1990s setting of much of the action and in its reverberations into the present day. It’s also a book about the power, and the limits, of language, and the complications of family in a culture that doesn’t know how to handle its feelings. Nothing else I read this year made think, or feel, as much as this did. Recommended By Tim B., Powells.com
Lerner's newest work surprised me in its erudition, its subtlety, and its ability to perform prosodic magic in a way that should be deeply irritating and somehow isn't. It sometimes lapses into stream-of-consciousness, time/space/point-of-view slippages, and almost glossolalic bits of poetic language, but it never feels like a gimmick. It absolutely shouldn't be a page-turner, but it absolutely is.
At the core of the work is one of the most crucial points of artistic inquiry for our urgent times, namely the crisis of masculinity. Lerner vivisects American machismo, drawing a straight line from banal red-state expressions of homophobia and misogyny to such seemingly benign institutions as high school policy debate. In so doing, Lerner writes in the voice of his famous mother, an anxiety of influence that helps his younger self grow into a man without becoming one of "the Men." The passages where Lerner's largely autobiographical "Adam" is able to connect and empathize with his mother are the most moving in the book, and if Lerner has a prescription for retrofitting a masculinity that no longer serves us, it necessarily involves bringing women's voices and influence to the fore of our experiences. Recommended By Tyler D., Powells.com
Ben Lerner’s novel is both a contained story of family life and a far-reaching exploration of this exact moment in America. The focus doesn’t stray from Adam, a skilled high school debater, and his parents, both psychologists at a Topeka foundation, but the themes addressed are so numerous that they resemble the “spread” — when debaters inundate their opponents with every argument they can muster. Yet The Topeka School never buckles under the weight and multitude of its concerns. Rather, the reader is buoyed by the intelligence and insight that Lerner infuses into his characters. Recommended By Keith M., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
From the award-winning author of 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station, a tender and expansive family drama set in the American Midwest at the turn of the century: a tale of adolescence, transgression, and the conditions that have given rise to the trolls and tyrants of the New Right
Adam Gordon is a senior at Topeka High School, class of '97. His mother, Jane, is a famous feminist author; his father, Jonathan, is an expert at getting "lost boys" to open up. They both work at a psychiatric clinic that has attracted staff and patients from around the world. Adam is a renowned debater, expected to win a national championship before he heads to college. He is one of the cool kids, ready to fight or, better, freestyle about fighting if it keeps his peers from thinking of him as weak. Adam is also one of the seniors who bring the loner Darren Eberheart — who is, unbeknownst to Adam, his father's patient — into the social scene, to disastrous effect.
Deftly shifting perspectives and time periods, 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. It is also a riveting prehistory of the present: the collapse of public speech, the trolls and tyrants of the New Right, and the ongoing crisis of identity among white men.
"Ben Lerner is a masterful writer who destabilizes the very notion of what a novel can achieve by making it new at every turn. The Topeka School is not only a fiction for our times, but for the ages: insightful, humane, politically astute, and true."
Hilton Als, author of White Girls
"The Topeka School weaves a masterful narrative of the impact that mental illness, misogyny, homophobia, politics, and religion have on children who want to be men . . . It's rare to find a book that is simultaneously searing in its social critique and so lush in its prose that it verges on poetry." The Paris Review (Staff Pick)
"[Lerner] has written a perfectly weighted, hugely intelligent, entirely entertaining novel that does more than simply mine his childhood or explore what it is to be an author; he has taken on American masculinity, group identity and marginalization, political messaging and generational exchange, and has done so not didactically but generously and with admirable sensitivity." The Times Literary Supplement (UK)
"An extraordinarily brilliant novel that's also accessible to anyone yearning for illumination in our disputatious era . . . Through the wizardry of Lerner's prose, this battle of adolescent elocution becomes an emblem for the fiery state of American culture." The Washington Post
About the Author
Ben Lerner was born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1979. He has received fellowships from the Fulbright, Guggenheim, Howard, and MacArthur Foundations. His first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, won the 2012 Believer Book Award, and excerpts from 10:04 have been awarded The Paris Review's Terry Southern Prize. He has published three poetry collections: The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw (a finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry), and Mean Free Path. Lerner is a professor of English at Brooklyn College.
Ben Lerner on PowellsBooks.Blog
Ben Lerner is a critically acclaimed poet, novelist, and essayist with plenty of well-deserved accolades — he's currently a MacArthur Fellow, has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a finalist for the National Book Award, and has won the Believer Book Award and the Hayden Carruth Award, among others...