No Direction Home: On Ben Lerner’s “The Topeka School”

By Natasha BoydOctober 9, 2019

No Direction Home: On Ben Lerner’s “The Topeka School”

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

AN ADOLESCENT NAMED Adam Gordon is the protagonist of Ben Lerner’s new novel, The Topeka School. He shares this name with the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station, Lerner’s debut novel from 2011. Leaving the Atocha Station was about the quarter-life crisis of a talented misanthrope; 10:04 (2014), Lerner’s second novel, was a negotiation with the success that Adam Gordon of Leaving the Atocha Station both desired and reviled. In 10:04, Lerner’s narrator, also named Ben, frets over how to act meaningfully in a world that often feels meaningless. Though we are more interconnected than ever, this phenomenon is most akin to the sensation of spiraling on a mass scale; daily life requires reckoning with being an actor in the thrall of forces far more powerful than any individual.

10:04 was a reckoning with responsibility that was not yet required of the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station. In 10:04, Ben’s meditations on art, concerns about selling out, and doubts about artificially inseminating his best friend (“Because [having sex with her] would have been bizarre”) were framed by two massive weather events: Tropical Storm Irene, which hit New York in summer of 2011, and Hurricane Sandy, which landed in the autumn of 2012. Destruction and entropy do not merely foreground Ben’s concerns, but are fundamental to the understanding he eventually reaches regarding his own place in a world that is far stranger, wider, and out of control than we can usually bear to fathom. On the second page of 10:04, Ben tells us the way he should have described the novel he is writing — also called 10:04 — to his agent: “‘I’ll project myself into several futures simultaneously,’ I should have said, ‘a minor tremor in my hand; I’ll work my way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city, a would-be Whitman of the vulnerable grid.’”

Lerner had been recognized and awarded for his poetry before embarking on writing novels; both Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 also garnered praise for their intelligence and originality. Perhaps because of his success, Lerner has given himself reign in The Topeka School to write about something yet more challenging: the past. The Topeka School is told almost entirely in retrospect by different characters, revolving around the Gordon family: Adam, a debate champion finishing his senior year of high school; his father, Jonathan; and his mother, Jane. Both parents are doctors employed by the Foundation, a prestigious psychiatric institute that resembles the Menninger Clinic, which was founded in Topeka. One person aside from the Gordons is given narrative chapters — Darren, a peer of Adam’s with special needs, who is occasionally seen by Jonathan as part of his practice.

The language in 10:04 is sometimes hyperinflated to the point of exasperation, as when Ben notes that he is crying by announcing “a mild lacrimal event.” Lerner clearly enjoys playing with potentiality by folding sentences back in on themselves, taking unexpected swerves in content, or stretching them out into anxious, humorous spirals. The Topeka School is less of a linguistic trapeze act, but the narration can be equally dizzying. It jumps back and forth in time, sometimes overlapping and sometimes jarring with other characters’ accounts. Darren’s narration is an italicized, addled, impressionistic close third person. Jane and Jonathan take turns seeming to speak directly to an off-stage adult Adam, who is presumably amassing information for this book, and reflecting to themselves, talking about Adam referentially. Sometimes they meander further back in time, reflecting on their own childhoods under the dominion of Adam’s respective grandparents. During Adam’s adolescence in Kansas, his chapters are a close third person, but as an adult in New York City, near the end of the book, Adam speaks from the first person.

Initially, the overall effect is destabilizing. This dislocation commands attention, as you try to anchor yourself in time, place, and the speaker’s voice; a measure of sensate alertness is required of the reader, despite the chapter headings bearing the speaker’s name. This mimics the movement of The Topeka School, which slowly reveals itself as an attempt to piece together two traumatic events from adolescence. One is an explosion of life-altering violence involving Darren, and the other is the revelation of a father’s betrayal. The adult Adam gives the impression of trying to take an almost scientific approach by gathering testimonials from different perspectives, not necessarily to get to the bottom of what happened, but to show how many ways it did.

Memory, potentiality, the subjective versus the collective, and the dissolution of society — all central concerns in Lerner’s previous work — are freshly complicated in The Topeka School by the effort to move backward through time as opposed to projecting oneself forward. Though we tend to imagine that the future will unfold in a coherent way from our present actions, attempts to go backward reinforce what circuitous routes are taken to arrive at any present condition. Lerner constantly reminds us of this, inducing vertigo on a sentence-by-sentence basis, as when Adam’s grandmother explains to him how she met his grandfather: “[That was] in Brooklyn,” she said in Topeka. “‘After I left high school to work as a typist to help bring in money for the family when my father fell ill, I would get home late to Avenue J; I always took the bus. And your grandfather would always be waiting there for me, asking if he could walk me home. This was in 1932,’ she said in 1997.”

This temporal hopscotch both creates and confounds linearity. We know, for instance, that Peter Evanson, Adam’s personal debate tutor, will “go on […] to be a key architect of the most right-wing governorship Kansas has ever known”; we know this even as Evanson coaches Adam in an empty classroom at Topeka High, at the age of 25, having just completed graduate school at Georgetown. This implies that ominous forces were gathering even within the classroom that would propel Evanson to his future position, where he can further propagate his own influences. Klaus, on the other hand, is a fellow doctor at the Foundation and friend of the Gordons who narrowly escaped the concentration camps. He survived the Holocaust by hiding in a chicken coop and ends up in Topeka, Kansas. This raises the question: does the confluence of historical forces render trajectories inevitable, or random?

This is a pressing question for the young men of the eponymous Topeka School, Adam and Darren among them. In a beautiful passage from Jonathan’s narration, Jonathan and Klaus walk through the suburbs in the evening, discussing the “lost boys” of Topeka that make up Jonathan’s practice:

On the one hand, Klaus […] could not take these kids — with their refrigerators full of food, their air-conditioning and television, their freedom from stigma or state violence — seriously; what could be more obvious than the fact that they did not know what suffering was, that if they suffered from anything it was precisely this lack of suffering, a kind of neuropathy that came from too much ease, too much sugar, a kind of existential gout? And then, on the other hand, Klaus took them very seriously indeed; they are told constantly, the culture tells them, although “culture” is hardly the word, Klaus said, patting his forehead with a handkerchief cut from the same linen as his suit, that they are individuals, rugged even, but in fact they are emptied out, isolate, mass men without a mass, although they’re not men, obviously, but boys, perpetual boys, Peter Pans, man-children, since America is adolescence without end, boys without religion on the one hand or a charismatic leader on the other […] in a word, they are overfed; in a word, they are starving.

Darren, who is poor and mentally disabled, sponges up the atmosphere of aimless violence. He doesn’t always understand how to perform his duties correctly, but he knows that some embodiment of masculine bravado is expected from him at all times, and his poor imitation brings to the fore how much of a performance it is in general. Adam, on the other hand, is an Ivy-bound wunderkind, but on the cusp of leaving home he’s struggling with the pitfalls of hyper-masculinity. Adam is constantly sizing up other boys for their potential weaknesses, participates in drunken brawls at parties, and feels embarrassed by the idea that his peers might find out he gives his girlfriend oral. He gets unbearable stress migraines that make him vomit for hours and lose the ability to read; “The pressures of passing himself off as a real man, of staying true to type — the constant weight lifting, the verbal combat — would eventually reduce him to a child again, calling out for his mother from his bed.” At the beginning of the novel, Adam is showing wear from the Topeka School’s education, exploding in rage over innocuous comments from his parents; “twice he punched holes in his bedroom wall.”

What becomes clear as details slowly accumulate in The Topeka School is that Adam’s sublimated anxiety and aggression are not merely from external forces — he is picking up on tension that exist within the household. Despite the fact that “[f]olk singers and community organizers and sexperts and writers and feminist scholars stayed in their big Victorian house when they passed through the Midwest,” despite the fact that his mother has written a best-selling book on family dynamics and his father is a good-natured, intelligent bohemian who, by his own account, “once shared a cigarette with Bob Dylan,” patriarchal sexism is a corrosive agent always at work, including within his own family. Jane and Jonathan have their own historical forces to contend with, not to mention the current power differentials in their life. “I was well liked and, for reasons I never entirely understood, Thomas Attison loved me, summoning me on one pretext or another to his large office lined with first editions and various antiquarian books,” Jonathan notes, bragging self-effacingly of his popularity at the clinic, though “[r]eally he wanted to talk about movies.” Jane, meanwhile, is a much more devoted doctor and scholar, but her ambition and popular acclaim bring scorn at the Foundation. These nebulous societal forces take on weight and substance as their characters grow in depth and get closer and closer to a revelatory betrayal.

But just because it did occur, does this mean that it had to? Everybody, at some point, must come to terms with the fact that we lead lives of interdependence, while the identities of our friends, loved ones, even nemeses are not stable. The stories you tell involve other people, and they have their own stories too. In Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, she remarks that those attempting to live collectively are always reckoning with “the haphazardness and moral irresponsibility inherent in a plurality of agents.” Few things will make this knowledge so embodied as the infidelity of a parent. Even when the visceral shock has worn off, it tends to echo through the rest of one’s life, mellowing into a constant, diffuse awareness of the limitations of one’s perceptions and the delicacy of collective life. “But there are no grown-ups, that’s what you must grow up to know fully”; Jane reflects, watching Adam take the stage during the debate championships, “your parents were just two more bodies experiencing landscape and weather, trying to make sense by vibrating columns of air.”

Any investigation into linearity is also one into free will, and there is no better place to probe this than that “vibrating column of air” language. If 10:04’s themes of memory, identity, and potentiality were embodied by a concern with fiction and metafiction, the intensification of these themes in The Topeka School creates a parallel interest in language itself. Any time you try to get multiple people to tell the same story, it becomes clear how many ways there are to do exactly that. And yet, if Henri Laborit, speaking through one of the characters in Alain Resnais’s Mon oncle d'Amérique, is correct when he proposes that “a living being is a memory that acts,” then language is the action of collective memory. It is both of us and outside us, shaping our perception while allowing us to share it with other people; a living stream from the beginning of time that picks up historical detritus and keeps it afloat for decades, sometimes centuries. Language is a wall and a ladder. As Klaus proclaims, “If I assert it’s August when it isn’t — simply false; but if I say that life is pain, that is true, profoundly so; so, too, that life is joy; the more profound the statement, the more reversible; the deep truths are sedimented in syntax, the terms can be reversed.”

Narratively, there are upsides and downsides to maintaining this plurality. In some senses, this is a less satisfying book than 10:04, wherein the transition from irony to sincerity, projected over multiple futures, is smoothly routed. In The Topeka School, the center doesn’t quite hold. With Jane and Jonathan, the collapse of time, place, and perspective allows for a remarkably empathetic rendering of two people in a marriage, who remain compelling even as their blind spots reveal themselves. Darren’s arc, however, is almost anticlimatic. Darren’s chapter begins the book, as he is interviewed by policemen for some kind of violent assault involving a cue ball, a cue ball that somehow, “[l]ike the moon, […] had been there all his life.” But it is difficult to maintain the momentum going backward, split up as it is, and additionally it verges on exploitative, or perhaps too obvious, to make Darren — a mentally disabled teenager so disturbed that he often hides in bushes by a park — a foil for Adam, the debate champion. Deflating what would conventionally be a point of convergence is all too fitting for The Topeka School’s historical scope, however. It should be a comfort that no one’s life is completely determined by any one moment, if for no other reason than because nothing is actually a climax in the scope of history.

In The Human Condition, Arendt indicts those who try to escape the issue of plurality in collective life: “[Such attempts] always amount to seeking shelter from action’s calamities in an activity where one man, isolated from all others, remains master of his doings from beginning to end.” Sounds an awful lot like writing a novel. Anyone who has embarked on a creative endeavor, however, realizes how many voices, and places, reside within one person. The best art is always unrecognizable to the artist for this very reason. At one point, Jonathan realizes he misremembered something. He describes to Jane a memory of the first time he held a camera, and the origins of his interest in filmmaking. He’d found the reels in an attic, and it was exactly as he had recalled: a silent, washed-out clip of his mother, smiling and a little off-balance on a pony: “I remembered calling out to her as I filmed, to get her to look my way. She did, she waved. But suddenly a teenager appears in the shot, seems to say something to my mom. And as I watched him walk out of the frame, I realized he was me.”


Natasha Boyd is a writer living in Los Angeles. For inquiries, contact her at [email protected].

LARB Contributor

Natasha Boyd is a writer living in Los Angeles. For inquiries, contact her at [email protected]


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