The Topeka School, Ben Lerner’s third novel, begins with a self-aware joke. Adam Gordon, Lerner’s protagonist—who also narrates Lerner’s acclaimed first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station—is sitting in a boat, talking. He’s 17, a speech-and-debate whiz and an aspiring poet living in Topeka, Kansas. It’s the middle of the night and he’s with his girlfriend, Amber, monologuing passionately about something or other, when he suddenly looks around and realizes that he’s sitting in the boat alone. She has jumped overboard and swum away, and he didn’t even notice.
Men talking—specifically young white male poets from Kansas talking—have been a fixture of Lerner’s novels. Lerner, a white male poet from Kansas, even gave the name Ben to the narrator of his second novel, 10:04, in addition to endowing him with roughly his own biography. Both earlier books feature the interior monologues and exterior dealings of Lerner-types. Both are also ironic, formally experimental, skeptical of their narrators while deeply enmeshed in their particular way of seeing the world. And both books are beautifully, exasperatingly, transcendently wordy. In Atocha Station, an extremely stoned Adam—again monologuing—marvels, before passing out, at “language becoming the experience it described.” In 10:04, Ben is the kind of guy who admits that he cried on a park bench by referring to “a mild lacrimal event.”
So it is funny and welcome to open The Topeka School and find Adam talking so fluently and intently that he doesn’t notice his girlfriend’s escape. The scene signals a return of familiar themes in Lerner’s work—an obsession with language, a particular genus of American male subjectivity—and signals that he is confronting these subjects in a more direct and critical way. The Topeka School trains the reader’s eye on the dramas and dangers of being a person—or a nation—enthralled, bombarded, and imprisoned by rhetoric.
One of the hallmarks of Lerner’s fiction is the way that it brings a single consciousness into collision with broad sociopolitical movements. The backdrop of Atocha Station is the Iraq War, already souring globalism, America in decline. In 10:04, it is Occupy Wall Street, Hurricane Sandy, and growing questions in the Obama years about whether an American “we,” in a Whitmanesque sense, is still possible. In The Topeka School, Lerner writes from the vantage of 2019, and from the premise that the collective is broken and common discourse has been derailed. The implicit bid of the book is that exploring myopic white male monologuists, simmering with rage in the Midwest in the late 1990s, might shed light on today’s America.
The main action of The Topeka School takes place during Adam’s final year of high school, in 1997. He is the son of two psychologists, Jonathan and Jane, who are members of a famous psychoanalytic institute called the Foundation, something like a “Mayo Clinic for the mind.” Jane’s research—which remains vague but concerns romantic relationships—has made her nationally famous. (Lerner’s mother, Harriet Lerner, a clinical psychologist, rose to national prominence after writing a book about women’s anger that sold millions of copies.) Jonathan is a therapist primarily for disaffected young white men of privilege, teenagers who seem to have everything but who suddenly turn angry, sullen, withdrawn, violent. Jonathan calls them the “lost boys.”
Adam isn’t one of those boys, but he straddles two ways of being. He is part of the hyperintellectual, Freudian world of his parents, where the most successful men think calmly and talk calmly, where emotions require verbal “processing,” and where any adolescent outbursts are followed by “think[ing] along with” his parents about the causes. At the same time, he is immersed in the teenage masculinity of late-’90s Topeka; among his peers, the most expressible emotions are rage or disdain, and the lingua franca is physical violence or torrents of freestyle rap in an absurd—if earnest—appropriation of a black culture they have no direct contact with.
At school, Adam falls in with the kids of the Foundation faculty; the boys among them have a tense and violent relationship with the sons of blue-collar Topekans. The estrangement of these two groups prefigures the elite-versus-real-America animosity that now dominates political and social rhetoric—though what’s striking is how similarly angry and anxious about the demands of masculinity all these young white men seem. Adam often feels lost and enraged for reasons he can’t quite explain. His behavior at home grows so explosive that his parents insist he either see a therapist or learn biofeedback methods for regulating his emotions. He opts for the biofeedback.
For the most part, Adam navigates both worlds reasonably well, verbal virtuoso that he is, a state debate champion. He can deploy “his Foundation vocabulary” and freestyle rap with fluidity and abandon, words “unfold[ing] at a speed he could not consciously control.” Adam is especially gifted at extemporaneous argument, which has become his way of aggressively dominating others. His rages at his parents often take the form of “an overwhelming barrage of ridiculous but somehow irrefutable arguments,” and his attitude during interscholastic tournaments is competitive to the point of maliciousness. At the same time, debate is a route to the flow state he craves:
He passed, as he often passed, a mysterious threshold. He began to feel less like he was delivering a speech and more like a speech was delivering him, that the rhythm and intonation of his presentation were beginning to dictate its content, that he no longer had to organize his arguments so much as let them flow through him.
Again and again in The Topeka School, characters fall into a kind of glossolalia, or “word salad,” the breakdown of grammar commonly observed in religious rapture or extreme states of psychosis. Glossolalia is either pure communication, the presence of the divine in language, or terrible babble, the impulse to be understood and to understand pushed to the point of implosion. Adam trains for the national speech-and-debate tournament with a former champion also from Topeka, Peter Evanson, who is even better at verbal combat than Adam—and who will later “be a key architect of the most right-wing governorship Kansas has ever known … an important model for the Trump administration.” He is a master of what’s called “the spread,” or the act of making arguments and jamming in facts at such an unintelligibly fast pace that an opponent can’t possibly respond to them all effectively. In his lessons for Adam, we see the beginnings of a national political glossolalia:
I want quick swerves into the folksy … After you go off about a treaty regulating drilling in the Arctic: “Now, in Kansas, we wouldn’t shake on that.” I don’t care if they’re not real sayings, just deliver them like they’re tried-and-true. Say “tried and true.” Say “ain’t” if you want. You can go agrammatical so long as they know it’s a choice, that it’s in quotes. Interrupt your highbrow fluency with bland sound bites of regional decency … Deliver little tautologies like they’re proverbs.
Looking back on a scene of himself sparring with Evanson, the older Adam—now a writer living in New York—comments that the younger Adam will go on to “attempt this genealogy of his speech, its theaters and extremes,” referring to the book we are reading. If the novel is a chronicle of his coming-of-age in language, the suggestion is that it is also a larger semantic origin story, about faux-populist, frenetic Trumpian rhetoric, and the subset of articulate, angry men who helped cultivate it.
But why are these men so angry? Like Jonathan’s “lost boys,” they seem to have plenty of advantages—so what is the rage about? In the book, a Foundation analyst offers an explanation:
[Men are told] 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; they don’t even have a father—President Carter!—to kill or a father to tell them to kill the Jew; they have no Jew; they are libidinally driven to mass surrender without anything to surrender to; they don’t even believe in money or in science, or those beliefs are insufficient; their country has fought and lost its last real war; in a word, they are overfed; in a word, they are starving.
This diagnosis is compelling but unsatisfying, partly because it ignores how directed white male rage is: It has targets, and those targets bespeak something more than godlessness or hunger or existential emptiness. They betray anxiety—anxiety about power. After Amber jumps out of the boat and swims away at the beginning of the novel, Adam looks for her frantically, stumbling through a community of lake houses so uncannily identical that he accidentally lets himself into the wrong home, thinking it’s Amber’s. He’s frightened, and when he eventually finds her, he’s furious. She doesn’t apologize for scaring him. Instead, she recounts a story about how her stepfather used to talk so endlessly at dinner that she once just slipped under the table and crawled off into the kitchen, where her mother was doing dishes. The two women looked at each other and then stood together in the doorway, watching him talking with vigor to an empty room. It’s funny, but the humor vanishes when Amber describes what happened when her stepfather turned around:
He looks at my chair then back at us and now my mom and I start really cracking up. Then he gets this fucked-up smile that’s pure rage. Like how dare you cunts laugh at me. But I give him the stepdaughter smile back and hold it, hold it. We basically have a staring contest and my mom’s laughter gets all nervous until finally his face relaxes and it’s all a big joke.
Young Adam doesn’t understand why she’s telling him this story, but Lerner makes the connection explicit. Though Adam is sensitive and well intentioned, he exists on a spectrum of men who use language not to communicate or connect, but to indulge in ecstatic solipsism, or to effectively erase the person they’re addressing. When they are challenged, they explode. Throughout the novel, the women who love them gently try to persuade them to slow down, make sense, and shut up, with little lasting effect. Adam’s mother, Jane, receives phone calls from male anti-fans, angry about some feminist element in her books. They empty streams of abuse and death threats into the phone until she interrupts them in an innocent tone to say the connection is bad; could they please speak up? Can they say that again, but louder? She prods “the Men” until they’re shouting or, unwilling to shout, forced to hang up. It works for the moment, but then more men call. The male vitriol seems inexorable.
In The Topeka School, women are neither geniuses of language nor abusers of it in the manner of men. They are often better, more profound communicators (with her books, Jane reaches more people than any other character does), but they exist here as men’s linguistic and emotional foils. The working class, too, seems mostly tangential: The anger of midwestern, educated, middle-class men and their blue-collar counterparts blurs together, even if it’s expressed in different vocabularies. Race goes largely unexplored, other than that all of these Kansan teenagers like to rap and make gang signs, believing that they’re expressing their alienation in a way that is somehow powerful and dangerous. Teenage Adam thinks that the era of white men’s dominance is passing, but the “genealogy” he writes—and the world he lives in—as an adult indicates that this hasn’t happened.
Lerner seems interested in reiterating via the details of his own biography the now-evident political reality that these alienated men are powerful and dangerous precisely when they feel they are not. Even in Adam—a relatively sensitive poet, who nominally embraces feminism and prides himself on being the only boy he knows who studiously performs oral sex on his girlfriend—we see threatened white masculinity deploying whatever language is at its disposal to reclaim the ascendancy it believes is its birthright. The words may be stolen from Tupac or funneled through poetry, “spread” in extemporaneous argument, shouted in a blind rage, or completely nonsensical. Even when babbling (Adam’s and Jonathan’s mode during panic attacks or flights of fancy) or intentionally dissembling (Evanson’s debate specialty), the men dominate the spaces they occupy. It seems sort of ridiculous until you remember the specter haunting this book, an extemporaneous wonder whose incoherent babbling serves to dissemble, deceive, distract. In America, Lerner reminds us, you can sound like an idiot all you want, but if you master the spread, you rule.