Early in his new novel, poet and writer Ben Lerner describes “the spread,” a tactic used in high school debate: Competitors speak at an “almost unintelligible speed” in order to overwhelm their opponents through the sheer number of arguments made. “To anthropologist or ghost wandering the halls of Russell Hall,” Lerner writes, “interscholastic debate would appear less competitive speech than glossalalic ritual.”
Adam Gordon, a central character of “The Topeka School,” is a master of the spread. A high school senior from Kansas, he is headed to the national championship for forensics — just like the novel’s author once did. Indeed, Adam’s 1990s upbringing resembles Lerner’s own in numerous ways. Like Lerner, Adam has a mother who is a famous therapist. She is on staff at “the Foundation,” a psychiatric institute based on the real-life Menninger Clinic. She also narrates parts of the novel, whose perspective alternates between her, Adam, her husband Jonathan — also a therapist — and Darren, one of the “lost boys” whom Jonathan treats.
Several of these narrators break the fourth wall: Jane’s sections, for instance, are presented as interviews with her son who is writing a novel. Such self-consciousness will be familiar to those who’ve read Lerner’s previous novels. “Leaving the Atocha Station” and “10:04” are both works of “autofiction,” books that gain a frisson by blurring boundaries between biographical fact and writerly imagination.
But if these earlier efforts often tend toward satire — they poke a lot of fun at their author stand-ins — “The Topeka School” has more earnest ambitions. Here Lerner uses the trappings of fiction to see his youth as an anthropologist (or ghost) might — from a critical distance, or, as one character puts it, from both “first person and third.”
This impulse sometimes saps the plot’s momentum — Lerner can be reflexively reflective, more interested in analyzing motivations than dramatizing them. How many times can a novelist use the phrase “libidinal economy” before we lose a feeling for their characters? I sometimes felt like the book was using “the spread” on me, the reader.
At its best, though, “The Topeka School” is a kind of 21st-century “The Sound and the Fury” — a kaleidoscopic portrait that masterfully connects one family and its traumas to wider cultural dysfunction. Toxic masculinity — in the forms of privilege, sexual abuse, infidelity, casual violence — shapes each character, even those who “process” feelings for a living. “How do you rid yourself of a voice, keep it from becoming part of yours?” Adam (or Lerner?) asks himself. It’s a crucial question in our era of fake news, where “the spread” has gone viral. Lerner’s novel offers a compelling exploration of how we got here, and where we might go.
The Topeka School By: Ben Lerner. Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 304 pages, $27.
Benjamin Voigt is a poet and critic who teaches creative writing at Macalester College.