The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner

Ben Eastham traces the family line of the American writer’s third novel

By Ben Eastham

In the opening line of Ben Lerner’s third novel, a young man imagines ‘shattering the mirror’ in a police interrogation room. Darren is unable properly to understand what is being asked of him, or to communicate his version of the events that have resulted in his being taken into custody. The story’s beginning – perhaps unsurprisingly, given how much the plot owes to psychoanalytic principles of identity formation – is also its end. Its middle describes the social conditions that lead (inexorably, it seems to the forewarned reader) to the performance of a violent act by an alienated American citizen. 

The scene closely resembles the first in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, published in 1996, a year before The Topeka School is set, and long established as Gen X’s masterpiece of toxic masculinity, millennial anxiety and linguistic genius. It’s a lineage traceable back to Hamlet, and Lerner’s novel also revolves around the existential crises of a privileged and gifted adolescent white teenager with parental issues. The protagonist, Adam Gordon, will be familiar to readers of Lerner’s acclaimed Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) and 10:04 (2014), but it is his less entitled peer Darren who here suffers the consequences of being ostracised from society. 

The Topeka School is delivered in chapters mediated through four characters: in addition to Darren and Adam are Adam’s parents, Jonathan and Jane, two clinical psychologists at a progressive psychiatric foundation in the American Midwest. The structure establishes a shared space inhabited by competing interpretations of the same events, which is to say a society. The exclusion of Darren from that space – he suffers from learning disabilities, is bullied at school – lends the story its nagging dread. Recalling Benjy’s passages in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (Hamlet again!), Darren’s difference is signposted by the italics through which his experience is recounted. Adam, by contrast, is a brilliant high school debater, and thus written into conventional roman text. He specialises in a debating technique known as ‘the spread’. Less a form of reasoning than a ‘glossolalic ritual’, the spread has as its aim the verbal communication of the most information possible in order to overwhelm with data, like a DDOS attack. These ‘types of disclosure were designed to conceal’, disconnecting language from the real world and, in the political field, rhetoric from policy. Readers won’t have to work hard to draw parallels to our contemporary media landscape.

Adam’s linguistic facility is also – via his success in ‘rap battles’ at eye-wateringly obnoxious frat parties – translated directly into the kind of cultural capital that makes it possible for him to keep a girlfriend and stay in with the cool kids, despite his outstanding nerdiness. Rap is here figured as another form of speech uncoupled from the culture that generates its meaning, and Lerner (a great comic writer) plays on the spectacle of young white men in the American Midwest so unselfconsciously appropriating slangs, postures and gang signs. Yet Adam’s articulacy does not diminish his angst; indeed, his ability to deliver convincing interpretations of opposite sides of the same argument seems only to exacerbate it. Arguing with his parents, he slams doors, punches holes in the walls. Language is not a limpid vessel but an internally contradicted field, generating paradoxes that its speaker is unable to resolve. 

His psychotherapist parents are nonetheless convinced that ‘as long as there was language, there was processing’. Yet Jonathan made his reputation by discovering the phenomenon of ‘speech shadowing’, in which repeated phrases devolve into nonsense without the speaker’s being aware of it, and is preoccupied by a short story in which the protagonist learns to communicate with animals, which he relates to his own disorientating experience of taking LSD. Language is forever breaking down in situations of stress – when Adam is dumped, he babbles incomprehensibly down the phone – is treacherous, is weaponised. As Darren repeats to himself like a mantra, ‘May break my bones but words. Bounces off me sticks to you.’ 

The various distances from which the characters are narrated – from indirect third person to a more journalistic register – reflects on the difficulties of presuming to speak for others, and by extension in generating the connections between consciousnesses upon which communities depend. Jane’s account begins with a ‘false memory’ that illustrates how the thinking subject can be tricked by the (linguistic) constructs of her own mind. She, like Jonathan, speaks in the first person, in a tone resembling the edited transcript of an interview with Adam. 

If the portrayal of the mother can seem hagiographic compared to the surgical precision with which Adam’s and Jonathan’s neuroses are dissected, there are other occasions on which the reader might feel that punches are being pulled. It’s hard to ignore Lerner’s reluctance to report directly the misogynist, racist and homophobic language in which young white American men speak (and rap), for instance. On the one hand, this feels like pussyfooting; on the other, it exercises a restraint that maintains the novel as a democratic space governed by rules around what can be said, in which different voices can be heard. Indeed, The Topeka School advances an unmistakably American model of political discourse, apparent as much in the polyvocal poetry of Walt Whitman as the moral philosophy of John Rawls. 

Fiction and nonfiction are, as those twin influences suggest, entangled. Lerner’s mother is a clinical psychologist who, like Jane, has written several bestselling books and worked alongside her husband (at the Menninger Foundation in Kansas). To hoary questions about the separation of real life from art and the author’s responsibility to both, the only answer is, ‘hey, who cares?’ Or, as a perhaps more faithful reflection of the novel’s tone, ‘hey, who cares, given that truth is a linguistic concept we superimpose on to the world to order it?’ Or maybe,‘hey, who cares, given that truth is a fictional construct that serves the function of allowing us to communicate across the void separating one person from another, without which we are doomed to the lonely contemplation of our own mortality’. 

Because there is some light at the end of the tunnel. The broken mirror of that opening scene implies the kind of breakdown in language that drove Hamlet to madness (and might even, at an admittedly long stretch, nod to Foster Wallace’s short story ‘Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature’, 2004, and Richard Rorty’s 1979 treatise of the same name). But where its literary predecessors framed the breakdown of language as final and irrecoverable (‘the rest is silence’), The Topeka School’s closing chapter puts forward the possibility that different subject positions might join in something like temporary but workable consensus. In a coda to the central narrative, the adult Adam attends a demonstration with his wife and their young daughter and participates in the ‘human microphone’ that communicates messages across crowds by repeating phrases in union. Whether this final image of embodied and vocalised solidarity does more than sugar- coat the more brutal truths about language and society delivered by this exceptional novel is for the reader to decide.

The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner, Granta, £16.99 (hardcover)

This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of ArtReview