My fiction consumption lately has featured novels with 90s high school boys at their centers, a kick driven by some of my own preferences and a product of what some good younger writers have put out in 2019. The first, Ben Lerner’s critically acclaimed The Topeka School, operates on a different level from the second, Alexander Tilney’s The Expectations; the latter is content to present its characters’ thoughts as-is, but the chapters in The Topeka School often have extended allegories and drift into stream of consciousness to tie the threads together. Its style is one a New York Times review calls “autofiction”: borderline autobiographical, the fourth wall broken as the protagonist, Adam Gordon, writes in 2019 about his teenage self and includes excerpts from his parents.
At its core, The Topeka School is a meditation on the power of language and an argument for its importance in how we understand our world. Adam in his prime contends for a national high school debate championship by mastering a technique known as the spread, an incoherent, rapid-fire style designed to game the rules of the competition that Lerner none too subtly suggests has leeched into American corporate culture and politics. (The causal arrow most likely goes the other direction.) Another chapter delivers a pained portrait of the loss of those faculties in old age, as dementia removes any possibility of comprehension. Whether an intentional debate tactic or a loss of bodily control, the collapse of language upends the world.
Adam’s parents, two psychologists at an institute in Topeka called The Foundation and direct stand-ins for Lerner’s parents, take over the narration for extended stretches of the book. Jonathan, Dr. J, makes for the most lyrical of the narrators, the man himself practically a living Hermann Hesse novel. But Adam’s mother, Jane, is the book’s moral core, a celebrated feminist author who withstands the misogynistic abuse she endures with carefully refined tactics, a pillar even as some of her most vital relationships crumble. The Topeka School has garnered deserved praise for its treatment of toxic masculinity, and at its best, it shows a way out of that hell, a love letter from a son to his mother for what she taught him, even if he often failed to see it.
The Topeka School makes a concerted effort to diagnose the ills of modern America through frequent references to the nation’s imperial decline. One chapter, “The New York School,” lays bare the underbelly of a glamorous life in the diplomatic corps at the apex of American hegemony, an attempt to question the idea that those really were the glory days. The novel checks the “end of history” phrase box several times and pokes at the conceit that filters down from grandstanding politicians to self-important high school debaters. More often, though, it lingers in the mid-90s ennui of well-off white kids in Kansas, following their forays into sex and drugs and gangsta rap. Each chapter begins with an interlude in the story of Darren Eberheart, a childhood acquaintance of Adam’s and a social outcast who becomes one of Jonathan’s “lost boys,” consumed by male rage. If this is the empire, Lerner seems to say, is its demise all that sad?
While Jonathan is the narrator in “The New York School,” Jane takes command of that chapter, which makes an extended metaphor out of guiding an airplane safely to the ground. That great machine up in the sky, so far beyond the imagination of previous generations, incredible until it suddenly becomes a machine barreling along at hundreds of miles per hour, one small mistake all the only thing between its passengers and certain death. While reading this chapter my mind went to the “Flight 93 election” conservative analogy to Trump, the claim that the salvation of the republic require that people of good faith take down the hijacked plane. This, Lerner seems to say, is exactly the wrong way to react when the plane starts to smoke. Jonathan and Jane’s patients’ attempts to talk through their problems are an attempted corrective to the spread, a hope for a halting path out from the incoherence. When crisis strikes Adam, Jane is there to guide him down, and Jonathan is there as our flawed and awed witness to both the heights and recesses of the mind. Here, amid an otherwise fairly dark rendering of modern American life, Lerner finds hope.
I have two great critiques of The Topeka School. One is that, despite growing up in a comfortable Middle American community a decade later with some talent of my own in academic competitions before heading East, I could not relate to Adam at all. This isn’t to say he’s a false character; maybe the world changed drastically in a decade, and maybe there’s a a red state-blue state split or some other cultural divide between Duluth and Topeka at play. I also don’t think relatability should necessarily be the foremost concern in rating a book’s merits. But I never felt Adam come together as a character the way Ben Weeks does in The Expectations, in part because it skipped over the years between innocent ten-year-old Adam and troubled seventeen-year-old Adam that would have described how he became the way he was. Though he is the supposed protagonist, his parents came to life better than he did, more obvious products of their own briefly rendered parents than Adam is of Jonathan and Jane.
Why does Lerner not seem to care about Adam’s progression through life? I’d hazard to say it’s because he sees his world as fundamentally fallen, a product of nature and forces beyond anyone’s control. A pool cue ball, a symbol of Darren Eberheart’s violent rage, “had been there all his life;” Jonathan cannot say how his lost boys of privilege come to be, and his mentor, Klaus, offers up a contradictory claim of both eternal failings and the product of imperial decline. Some combination of male aggression is inherent, and culture (especially in late capitalist America, a land of “adolescence without end”) acts as an accelerant; the best we can hope for is to tame it. In broad terms I’d buy this hypothesis, and Lerner captures many of its contours. But I’m not sure he gives Adam (and, through Adam, his own teenage self) enough credit; while Jane tells us that teenage Adam is really a pretty decent guy, we see him only at particular flash points, and this never really comes through. The portrait just doesn’t feel complete.
My second critique, related and more serious, is of the ending, which I won’t spoil except to say that its attempt at a zeitgeisty twist fell completely flat for me. I felt some unease when I read the first chapter of the book when it was excerpted in the New Yorker this year: the subject matter drew me in immediately, but I worried it might be too clean in its vision of suburbia, too exaggerated in its effort to wash away nuance in its quest to set a brooding mood and say Important Things about contemporary American life. Beneath this desire to plunge into a full examination lay a simplistic, rather ideological lens, and in the last chapter, it all came back out again. If Jane’s plane had a gentle landing, Lerner’s skids along the runway.
Perhaps this is the price we pay for having a poet for an autobiographical novelist, a writer more drawn to rendering moods and meditative auras than crisp declarative prose. (Either that, or I wasn’t on enough drugs when I read the thing.) The Times review, trading off a point made in the Zadie Smith essay I quoted on here last month, thinks Lerner’s lack of authorial authority is just what the novel needs now, an admission that this author who is trying to say something about contemporary life (notably, a straight white guy from the Heartland) needs to acknowledge where his own perspective stops. The point, surely, is a valuable one. But the counterpoint, right there before us, is Jane Gordon, a far more interesting character than the autobiographical Adam. If only Jane could’ve had the last word; she wouldn’t have needed to append an account of her wokeness to prove she’s on the right side of history. Her life, as rendered in the book, is testament enough to everything that she and Lerner stand for.