The Tope­ka School 

  • Review
By – October 7, 2019

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 TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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