A Technical Masterwork: On Ben Lerner's THE TOPEKA SCHOOL
by Zack Graham
You don’t read Ben Lerner’s writing. You read Ben Lerner’s mind. His immense, contorted, self-effacing, hilarious intellect propels his narratives. Sure, his novels have characters, plots, themes. But those elements aren’t why Lerner is one of America’s best young fiction writers. Lerner is brilliant, and his novels resemble doctored and polished transcripts of his mind’s inner workings.
Most people know how the story goes, but for those who don’t: Ben Lerner, a tortured poet, graduates from Brown University, publishes his critically acclaimed first book of poems, goes to Spain on a Fulbright, returns to the States, publishes his second and third critically acclaimed books of poems, and no one outside of the poetry community knows or cares. Like a true poet, Lerner believed he would “never write fiction,” as his alter ego Adam Gordon claims in his debut novel Leaving the Atocha Station. In the end, he breaks the golden rule to write that very novel, which Coffee House publishes in 2011 to unexpected acclaim.
Why was Atocha such a success? On it surface, it’s nothing new. Adam Gordon, a white male poet from Kansas, goes to Spain on a Fulbright and meanders around, making friends, falling in love, getting heartbroken, living through a terrorist attack, and, most of all, smoking hash. But the events depicted simply function as veneer, facade, a lens through which we can gaze upon the splendor of Lerner’s mind.
Three years later Lerner outdoes himself. 10:04 is a longer, better-executed, and more critically praised novel than Atocha. We find the same poet from Atocha (though he’s named Ben this time) in Brooklyn, taking the subway, remembering Spain, trying to digest and negotiate the unexpected acclaim his first novel has garnered, going back and forth with the New Yorker on edits to a short story (which he then inserts as a chapter of the novel), grappling with what may be a life-threatening illness or else a creation of his manic mind, and trying to impregnate his “best friend” via in vitro fertilization, though he's clearly in love with her. In 10:04 we find the same impeccable writing as we found in Atocha, the same conceptual nuance, the same existential brilliance.
Atocha and 10:04 function as installments in the same work. For one, it’s clear that Lerner is the narrator of both works, and that he is writing about a past version of himself. The events depicted in both works are at least intended to feel as though they’ve happened to him, though in novels such things can never be proven. Lerner’s preoccupations and themes are consistent through both novels, namely his hatred of the American military-industrial complex and endless war in the Middle East, his own status and privilege as an upper middle class white American, his poetry, and the poetry of others. Lerner’s nuance is so delicious it can make your eyes water.
Five years have passed since the release of 10:04, after which, we finally receive Lerner’s third novel The Topeka School (FSG).
The Topeka School is not a third installment in the style of Atocha and 10:04: it is far grander in scale, scope and ambition. Set mostly in the late 1980s in the titular city that is also Lerner’s birthplace, the novel rotates through a cast of characters — Adam Gordon (the Lerner stand-in from Atocha), a high school debate champion; Jonathan, Adam’s father; Jane, Adam’s mother; and a tortured student at Adam’s school named Darren — alternating between first- and third-person narration, and weaving across time as it tells the story of their family’s origin, the trials and tribulations of upholding progressive values while living in middle America, and how the events depicted have culminated in the world we know today.
Lerner’s political commentary weighs heavier in Topeka School than it does in his other novels. His decision to revisit the past, to focus on figures like Ross Perot, to have his high school debaters proclaim that “liberal democracy, combined with American-style capitalism, is the only viable political framework for an increasingly globalized world,” shows Lerner building on the leftist angst of his earlier years to stage an all-out deconstruction of the kind of Clinton-esque “end of history” neoliberalism that set the backdrop for the rise of far-right nationalist authoritarianism and the popularity of strongmen like Donald Trump. What’s more, Adam the narrator often interrupts his own narration to comment on the scene, directly addressing the reader, even explicitly stating the connections between the current action and the ethnonationalist-run country America is today.
The Topeka School is a technical masterwork. As always, Lerner’s prose is electric. His ambitious shifts in perspective, tense, and time are flawlessly executed, particularly when you consider the relatively straightforward approaches he took to his first two novels. It feels as though Lerner has been training for this moment his entire career, a reckoning with himself as a writer that goes back to his own formation as a poet, which took root from his passions for freestyle rapping and high school debate. His latest novel is a monumental achievement, his most ambitious book, and his best.
Even masterworks have their flaws, however, and Topeka’s is overreach. Lerner’s insistence upon interrupting the perfect magic of his fiction to say the words “Donald Trump,” or their equivalents, feels unnecessary. His urgency in the use of direct address doesn’t ring right when placed in the context of his immaculate prose. Lerner doesn’t need to interrupt himself; he’s already saying everything he needs to say.
There’s also the question of white male rage, which lives inside Darren, Adam’s man-child classmate. Darren’s voice is that of the incel, the school shooter, the dejected white man who turns almost involuntarily to violence in order to cope with his pitiful position in the world, a position he believes his race and societal status should have never allowed him to descend to. Lerner handles this dynamic with care. Darren doesn’t feel overdone or heavy-handed, and his portions of the novel mesh nicely with the rest of the work. Though Darren’s narrative comes from the same place as Lerner’s urge to directly address, it fits right in with the novel’s fictional fabric, which is all it needs to do.
The novel’s conclusion feels particularly comforting, as we aren’t only returning to the present: we’re returning to Lerner himself, finding ourselves in the modern day. Adam, whom we’ve previously seen through retrospective third-person narration, is now narrating in first. He is a poet that has returned to Topeka for a reading. And just like that, we slide back into the mind from Atocha and 10:04. He faces us, confessing all of the things he is afraid of, revealing to us why he wrote this book, how he believes the book will help. We realize the novel is his story as he understands it—the full story, not just chunks. The Topeka School is an utter delight that will stand the test of time.
Zack Graham’s writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, GQ, The Believer, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of an Emerging Critics Fellowship from the National Book Critics Circle, and is at work on a collection of short stories and a novel.