Book Review: The Topeka School – Ben Lerner


Posted December 18, 2019 in More

DDF 2021 – Desktop

The Topeka School

Ben Lerner

[Granta]

Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School sees the return of Adam Gordon, protagonist of his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. Like its predecessor, for which The Topeka School is a kind of prequel, the novel centres on the precocious Gordon, who excels at ‘destroying’ his opponents in debate.

Lerner uses the medium of debate as a proxy for exploring the derogation of public speech, and with it anything resembling civic dialogue, in contemporary America. Gordon’s method is to essentially tongue-tie opponents by assaulting them with lightening-speed logorrhea; to win a debate has little do with principles or conviction, and a lot to do with how effectively one deploys a series of devastating rhetorical salvos. So much for the lofty ideals of suasion.

The novel’s purview is far more capacious than this might suggest. Lerner’s narrative, told from a variety of perspectives – that of Adam, as well as his parents Jane and Jonathan, both psychologists at ‘the Foundation’ – ranges across the themes of language and meaning, the challenges of parenting, toxic masculinity, and how we relate to our own histories. The Topeka School is very much a Zeitgeist novel: it’s trying to tell us something about the contemporary world.

Lerner’s autofictional approach is far too suspicious of notions of omniscience, however, to arrogate to itself any bird’s-eye view. Instead, Lerner astutely sets the novel in the past (the 1990s) to brilliantly illuminate the present. I’m persuaded.

Words: Luke Warde

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