Ben Lerner’s vision of America in The Topeka School is one of an angry and twisted “adolescence without end,” where boys are victimized by impossible expectations, and a culture of toxic cruelty and deception warps their response to life’s demands. Interrogating the ability of the novel to reflect the chaos of human experience, Lerner asks the reader to surrender expectations of closure, as they enter the lives of characters whose wounds will not easily heal. At the same time, he offers a kind of hope in the “special power involved in repurposing language” in order to make sense of both pain and survival.
At the center of the novel is Adam Gordon, a gifted high school student in the 1990s of Topeka, Kansas, whose parents are Jewish East Coast transplants working as psychologists at a renowned clinic. Alternating chapters assume the perspective of different characters, including Adam himself, each of his parents, and a student with cognitive disabilities who becomes the pawn of his anxious peers’ struggle with their own vulnerabilities. Adam’s involvement in forensic competitions is emblematic of his need to stand out in a forum uncorrupted by crude standards of male accomplishment, but even these verbal competitions are compromised by aggression and lies. His mentor is a native Midwesterner who slyly suggests that Adam erase his family’s origins and appeal to the conservative prejudices of the region. Throughout the narrative, the Freudian theories which underpin his parents’ perspectives contrast with a milieu where drinking to the point of oblivion and resorting to force are accepted social currency.
The novel has an apparent contradiction at its core. Lerner’s immersion in the minute details of Adam’s life and the ramifications of family betrayals and secrets threaten to become overwhelming. Adam’s parents and their peers seem consumed by their personal and professional conflicts, almost to the point of self-absorption. Yet, Lerner unobtrusively assembles their individual experiences across time and geography to construct a convincing picture of a world distorted by dishonesty and unrestrained power. Adam’s father recalls his own childhood spent partly in the American community of Taiwan, where postwar imperialism and racism intersected with unquestioned male power. His mother recalls the response of her male colleagues to her increasing success as an author, wryly using her own analytical training to explain why she threatens their world view. The equation of individual failures with the broad collapse of social structures is not new in literature, but Lerner brings sharply incisive language and insights to prove how devastating this relation can be. He is unsparing in suggesting connections between the distortions of reality which Adam sees all around him, and the daily assault on the truth which now characterize public communication.
The Topeka School teaches how life leaves scars and how fragile self-constructed identities may be. When a young Adam remarks on a “brief but hideous analogy” between his grandfather’s hospital bed and the reclining driver’s seat of his own car, readers know that this novel is worth the ride.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.