Near the beginning of Ben Lerner’s third novel, a teenager named Adam Gordon creeps into what he thinks is his girlfriend’s house. He goes into the bathroom and notices the toiletries there aren’t hers. “Along with the sheer terror of finding himself in the wrong house,” writes Lerner, “with his recognition of its difference, was a sense, because of the houses’ sameness, that he was in all the houses around the lake at once; the sublime of identical layouts”. It’s a typical Lerner moment: an anecdotal event is mined for latent content, the literal uncanniness of Adam’s experience suggesting something of the uniformity – both comforting and terrifying – of suburban America.
Lerner’s first two works of fiction were intelligent novels of ideas about characters who were more or less like him: disaffected, overeducated young men. What saved them from self-indulgence was their sentence-by-sentence virtuosity, their imaginative density, and the fact that the cleverness of his prose always felt appropriate to the stories he told.
Much of this is recognisable in The Topeka School (Adam is a pretentious high school student and gifted rhetorician: exactly the kind of person who would think of the “sublime of identical layouts” when he has wandered into a stranger’s house). But it is also a more earnest and sentimental novel than his previous books, which often sought to reconcile authenticity with postmodernist posturing by invoking a kind of ironic indeterminacy. The Topeka School – as dazzling as anything Lerner has written – is also his most successful effort at navigating between communal experience (the shared tropes, ideologies and cliches of a culture) and individual feeling (the specificities and textures of poetic expression) without denaturing either.
His first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), was about a US poet, also named Adam Gordon, living in Madrid on a poetry fellowship. He strolled around museums, spent time online “looking at videos of terrible things”, smoked hash and lamented his inability to have a “profound experience of art”. His second, 2014’s 10:04, was about a writer who, like Lerner, taught at a New York university and had published his first book to great acclaim. In blurring the boundary between biography and novel these books had affinities with the autofictional projects of Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk; what distinguished them was their tendency to insist on the conditions of their own interpretation. Both Gordon and the narrator of 10:04 were trained to deconstruct the framing devices Lerner erected around them, so that the books – peppered with essays on art and literature and anxious digressions on the impossibility of authenticity in the age of the internet – sometimes read as manifestos as much as novels.
The Topeka School is a sort of prequel to these two novels. It is set in the late 1990s, at the end of history (which turned out to be more of a pause) in Topeka, Kansas, where Lerner himself grew up. It is told in three intertwined narratives, alternating between the perspectives of Adam and his parents, Jonathan and Jane. When crossed, Adam uses his debating skills to launch on his parents “an overwhelming barrage of ridiculous but somehow irrefutable arguments”. Jonathan and Jane are New York psychiatrists who moved to Topeka to work at “the Foundation”, a psychiatric institution that is a liberal enclave in the otherwise conservative town. Jane has found national fame and local notoriety after writing a book about relationships and toxic masculinity. Jonathan is a therapist who as a research student discovered “speech shadowing”: a phenomenon sometimes observed when subjects who are asked to repeat words played to them at increasing speed descend into nonsense.
Interleaved with these is the story of Darren, a social misfit adopted by Adam and the alphas of their social group. Part mascot, part clown, Darren is treated with both ironic cruelty and confused affection. At a house party he joins the huddle of white middle-class schoolboys as they freestyle rap: his classmates “all shouted their encouragement and amazement and bobbed their heads to the nonexistent beat as though Darren were disclosing new territories of thought and feeling, new worlds, as though he were their Caedmon”. But they also take him to a party by a lake and leave him to walk home on his own. The compulsive drive of the novel (which Lerner’s previous books sometimes lacked) is provided by the foreknowledge that this treatment is going to make Darren do something awful.
Unlike Darren, Adam is able to use his articulacy to access the cultural capital of freestyle rapping and competitive debating. But he dreams of becoming a poet, “because poems were spells, were shaped sound unmaking and remaking sense that inflicted and repelled violence and made you renowned”. It is this same verbal magic that sustains the novel. The prose is thickened with precise descriptions but also with micro-essays about everything from visual phenomena (as Adam and his girlfriend kiss he sees patterns of light against his closed eyes: “Phosphenes, tiny fading Rorschachs formed by the inherent electrical charges the retina produces while at rest, an experience of light in the absence of light”) to the intricacies of competitive debating.
Language’s potential as both a tool and a weapon is one of the novel’s central concerns. Competitive debating depends on a strategy called “the spread”, in which many arguments are presented rapid fire, in a way that makes them difficult to respond to. Since the “rule among serious debaters” is that a “dropped argument”, no matter its quality or its content, is conceded, the more arguments you can advance, the more are likely to be dropped by your competitors. This means that a contest designed to test the ability of participants to use language, to persuade and to share a point of view, often descends into what looks from the outside like meaningless verbiage. “To an anthropologist or ghost wandering the halls of Russell High School,” Lerner writes, “interscholastic debate would appear less competitive speech than glossolalic ritual.”
A key inspiration for The Topeka School is Hermann Hesse’s “A Man Named Zeigler”, about a man who takes a pill that makes it possible for him to speak with animals. The new intimacy he gains is also a fall: no longer is he able to maintain a difference between human and animal. Adam has grown up in a culture where language is a source of power. It can do things in the world, either through antagonism (debate; rap battles) or seduction (poetry; psychoanalysis), but it is only available to those who can wield it. Unlike Darren, who in his inarticulacy is compelled to employ actual violence, Adam is free to perform roles and move between registers as easily as he moves between social hierarchies.
The fear in such a world is not muteness, which has its own significance, but meaninglessness: the linguistic breakdowns that constantly threaten Lerner’s characters. Baby talk, nonsense poetry, the impenetrable traditions of the rap cipher, the babbling of regressive “speech shadowing”: the novel positions language’s destruction as something literature alone can address. But it also shows this to be a dangerous desire. “The stupid mistake psychologists make,” thinks Jonathan at one point, “a very Foundation mistake; we thought that if we had a language for our feelings we might transcend them.”
The poet John Ashbery, one of Lerner’s literary heroes, thought of cliches not as threats to original expression but as comforting manifestations of human continuity. In an interview near the end of his life he said: “I’m attracted to well-worn language that has been used for ages, when people are trying to express something that is really important to them, and thus it ends up sounding banal, which for me is somehow holy because this speech has served so many times for so many people at important moments in their lives.”
It’s this same belief that underpins Lerner’s understanding of the solaces of writing in The Topeka School. When Adam and his girlfriend kiss they become literary tropes: “He tasted the sugary gloss and tobacco, the hints of mint and metal that made him when he kissed her think of blood. It was good to be inflicting optional damage on your bright pink lungs; it was good to be two young people tasting of Lancôme and Philip Morris, synthetic pheromones and carcinogens, to be at the point of their most intimate contact, their most interchangeable, corporate persons; cliches, types.” It’s self-knowledge that liberates them, but also the fact that, despite their interchangeability, they remain specific people having a specific experience, in a specific place, at a specific time.
• The Topeka School is published by Granta (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.