The Topeka School by Ben Lerner review – a work of extraordinary intelligence

The knowing US novelist displays a new maturity in this state-of-the-nation novel about violence and public discourse

Reading a new book from a writer you admire is never a straightforward thing, particularly when the advance buzz, while positive, suggests a change of direction, a new maturity and seriousness. Ben Lerner’s first two novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, were funny, cynical, metafictive delights, taking the raw material of Lerner’s life – a Kansas boy making it big in the world of avant-garde poetry – and playing modish games with the knowing, waspish first-person narrative, constantly destabilising the reading experience. The books were absurdly smart, occasionally infuriating and often hilarious.

The protagonist of Lerner’s third novel, The Topeka School, is called Adam Gordon – the same name as the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station. While 10:04 dispensed with fictionalised titles and called its narrator Ben, the three books can be considered a trilogy, in that the basic facts of the life being presented are clearly those of Lerner himself – growing up in Topeka, Kansas, moving to Brooklyn via an interlude in Spain, writing poetry and then novels, and becoming the father of two girls.

If 10:04 was a diptych, asking the reader to hold in their mind two visions at once – Lerner’s life and its fictionalised reflection – The Topeka School is a triptych. Moving into the third person, it adds a supplementary layer to the reader’s understanding of the novel. While still asking us to step between Lerner’s life and that of Adam Gordon, there is something deeper, more sincere and radical at play here. This is a state-of-the-nation novel, a book that seeks to determine how we reached the age of “grab them by the pussy”, of Steve Bannon and toxic masculinity.

The school of the title refers to “the Foundation”, a community of progressive psychoanalysts living in Topeka. Adam’s parents are members and each narrates two of the book’s eight chapters. Lerner’s real mother, Harriet, is a renowned psychologist who is attached to the Menninger Foundation. In the book, the parents, Jane and Jonathan, are revealed as well intentioned but desperately unhappy. One of the many powerful questions the book asks is how, when we know ourselves so well, do we still manage to be so monstrous to one another? Or in Jonathan’s words: “We thought that if we had a language for our feelings we might transcend them. More often we fed them.”

That titular school has other meanings, though. First, there’s Adam’s training in public speaking (Lerner was a national debating champion at high school). This is a book about the way public discourse has been debased in recent years, how “the spread” – the overpowering of reasoned debate by fast-talking shysters – has come to dominate politics. There’s also the way that young American men are still schooled in the Marlboro Man culture of masculinity. Lerner makes a powerful link between the violence of young white men and the state of politics. “America,” he says, “is adolescence without end…” The act of teenage violence that foreshadows each of the book’s chapters becomes a complex but convincing metaphor for the way America’s heartlands have responded to being left behind by the onward march of progress and globalisation.

I think Lerner would resist the idea of the Great American Novel – indeed the very word “great” has been indelibly tarnished by its association with Trump. During a protest against the caging of immigrant children at the end of the novel, Adam Gordon admits that he didn’t know “what the agents of the state were capable of, now that America was great again”. But this is a great novel, one summoned by the desperate times in which it was written.

Lerner has indeed grown up and he has created a work of extraordinary intelligence and subtlety, of lasting importance. The Topeka School is the sound of “a public learning slowly how to speak again, in the middle of the spread”.

• The Topeka School by Ben Lerner is published by Granta (£16.99). To order a copy go to or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Alex Preston

The GuardianTramp

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