The Topeka School
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