Ben Lerner again walks the outer edges of prose form and perspective in his third novel, The Topeka School, a book "about family and art and memory and meaning, how it's made and unmade," to borrow a line from one of its many extraordinary passages.
The obsession humming under the well-wrought, perfectly paced, at times riveting scenes about family and art and memory, etc. is the troubling (to say the least) rise in power of the man-child, the Large Adult Son, and his penchant for violence and tyranny. The gender-based expectations that many of us (often unconsciously) patrol and enforce keep America and its leaders in a state of "adolescence without end," to borrow another extraordinary line from the book, and they course through all the boys and men in this book.
Lerner examines this phenomenon in a fictionalized version of his own early life through the character of Adam Gordon, who is also the protagonist of Lerner's two other critically acclaimed works of autofiction, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04.
Adam is a precocious, Ivy-bound, master debater who excels at extemporaneous speaking, a talent he taps during freestyle rap battles with his friends at keg parties in Topeka, Kansas. His parents, Jane and Jonathan, are clinical psychologists at the "Foundation," which Lerner uses as shorthand for the Menninger Foundation, a revolutionary school/clinic/psychiatric training facility that focuses on adolescent mental health.
Despite rampant sexism in the field of psychoanalysis, Jane's work in the discipline and her general-audience feminist books about family dynamics have earned her fame, which complicates her personal, professional, and social lives. The other main character is Darren, a proto-MAGA hat who throws a pool cue at someone's head, causing irreversible injury, though that's not the total expression of his being.
Lerner tells the story from the perspectives of all of those characters (with the exception, arguably, of Darren) while also acknowledging through certain literary flourishes that each of those perspectives is really just him. It's altered autobiography in drag as third-person narration in drag as multiple-POV first-person narration.
It's altered autobiography in drag as third-person narration in drag as multiple-POV first-person narration.
Aside from being just kind of cool and wonderfully destabilizing, and aside from displaying the difficulty of ever truly jettisoning the ego in fiction, and aside from offering a form of collective speech that might combat the rhetorical tools corrupt politicians use to gain power, the perspective play accurately reflects the experience of living.
As anyone who has reached some semblance of adulthood understands, our "self" is really just a composite of our mothers and fathers and the language from the culture around us, filtered through our perception. Most memoirs still heavily rely on the fiction of the reliable narrator, but with this work of autofiction, at least Lerner is being honest about lying to you in his attempt to make meaning of experience in a way that isn't completely self-serving.
The diction here is less erudite than it is in Lerner's other books. This keeps the psychoanalytical meditations moving at a good clip and helps Lerner's lyrical sequences—runs of quick sentences at the end of some paragraphs that unite many of the themes in the book like little linguistic super-cuts—hit harder.
The most enjoyable parts of Lerner's books for me are his academic close readings of pedestrian situations. His take on the dynamics of "couple's skate" at roller rinks is particularly illuminating and hilarious. The Topeka School is crawling with similar insights, and they remind you that you're dealing with a literary genius whose books make you feel like your brain and heart are growing with every sentence.