The Pure Present: Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School
The Topeka School
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019)
Ben Lerner belongs to a rarefied cadre of writer: the poet-novelist. His sedulous understanding of poetry informs the language of his prose, which is beautiful and complicated but never lapses into gaudy braggadocio; it is empathetic, intellectual without being masturbatory, anxious yet assured, a deft coalescence of memoirish self-vivisection and critical commentary. He employs words with a carefulness that one doesn’t usually find in the MFA-manufactured fiction put out by major publishers (often called “sparse” or “spare”). Mainstream fiction can at times feel like a homogeneity of plain prose, influenced not by literature and certainly not by poetry, but by the informality of the Internet—writing that emulates the formal insouciance of a friendly conversation. (One thinks, perhaps, of the infamous debate between William H. Gass and John Gardner.) An air of erudition suffuses Lerner’s writing. His sentences quiver with an edified energy. 10:04 (2014), his second novel, which earned the poet a six-figure paycheck, is a strange amalgamation of styles, at times blatantly autobiographical and containing an abundance of esoteric information and minutiae (i.e. obscure diseases and arthouse films), which brings to mind the kind of encyclopedic postmodern aesthetic that became ubiquitous in the wake of David Foster Wallace’s epochal tome Infinite Jest (1996). Yet Lerner is never verbose, never beholden to any one genre. His novels are slender, lissome. His syntax and word choices are sometimes odd, but always precisely right.
“I seem to have no fucking control over what I write,” Lerner said in an interview with The Quietus. He seems compelled by obsessions, by an immedicable need to try to understand the past. Lerner is as adroit at writing about the personal as he is the political, and his newest novel, The Topeka School, which takes place in his home state of Kansas, mostly during the ’90s, when a teenage Lerner was forming (malforming?) his mind at high school debates and basement parties, is Lerner’s most political novel yet. The poet William Stafford once wrote of the “treasured unimportance” of Kansas, and it is these nugatory moments, these trivialities, that Lerner writes about so beautifully; it is their quiet importance that lingers after the page has been turned. The novel oscillates between the perspectives of Lerner’s stand-in, Adam (also the name of his stand-in in his debut novel Leaving the Atocha Station (2011)), and Adam’s parents, Jonathan and Jane, respected psychologists at The Foundation, an internationally recognized psychiatric institution. Each character has a different voice, different syntax and vocabulary—Adam in close third-person, Jonathan in first-person, Jane in first-person addressing Adam in second-person. The dust jacket says the novel is about “toxic masculinity,” but this seems too simple and reductive, too buzzwordy a way to describe such a complicated work. Yes, manhood and manliness and masculinity and all the maladies innate to such constructed gender norms are integral to the story, but The Topeka School is, in a deeper sense, also about language, about the menace and mendacity of which language is capable. It’s about the precariousness of communication. Lerner extrapolates the innate violence of language, its dangers, the brutality lurking within the beauty of words, but also how these same words can express love, assuage anxiety, provide comfort in a moment of need. (Lerner writes with great compassion. This is a political novel, but not a cynical novel.) The novel portrays the way men use language, the way language uses men. “I’m the father,” Adam says in the closing pages. “I’m the archaic medium of male violence that literature is supposed to overcome by replacing physicality with language.”
Adam is a prodigious high school debater, considered the best in the country. The older Adam, looking back at the hijinks of his younger self, has the knowledge now to understand the problems inherent in high school debate. He ruminates on what it means that the former debate champion who is sent to coach him, who would go on “to be a key architect of the most right-wing governorship Kansas has ever known,” was a mentor to the young, ambitious Adam. The debate sections, adapted from Lerner’s terrific essay “Contest of Words” (2012) that ran in Harper’s Magazine, are among the most fluid and enthralling prose writing Lerner has ever done. While not as poetic or rarefied as in 10:04 (remember those long, undulating sentences about octopuses?), the writing here is just as emotional and alive, the prejudices of the present informing the depiction of the past.
The spoken word is dangerous, but so is the written word. Jane, like Lerner’s mother, writes a critically acclaimed and best-selling feminist book that brings her success and notoriety, but also causes a series of schisms—between her and her best friend, her and her colleagues, and her and her husband, who increasingly philanders with Jane’s best friend as the rift in their marriage widens. Jane’s book spurs mercurial men to make obscene phone calls, their fragile ego imploding as they blame her for the dissolution of their marriages. There’s also the vitriolic chants of the nefarious Fred Phelps clan, and young Adam freestyle rapping at parties, “about bitches and blunts,” his affinity for poetry in its awkward adolescent stage. Language is a great responsibility; it comes with consequences. In the final chapter, an adult Adam tries to reason with other grown men, and is greeted with irate insolence, threats of violence. People can be such a disappointment.
“The pure present is an ungraspable advance of the past devouring the future,” Henri Bergson said. “In truth, all sensation is already memory.” From the present, Lerner's characters navigate their pasts, try to make sense of life and the lies we tell others and ourselves in order to live. Narrative, Lerner has opined, is about the meaningful organization of time. The novel is a portrait of a family, of a place, of a time that, fragile and fleeting, will lead to the imbroglio in which we presently find ourselves. Without pontificating or succumbing to the allure of performative wokeness, Lerner writes earnest, empathetic political prose. He posits no answers—he can’t even find ways to articulate his questions, sometimes. But not knowing is part of life, and part of The Topeka School. Liberal democracy appeared to be on the cusp of victory when Clinton crushed Dole, Lerner writes. “It would confirm that history has ended.” But history does not end in the mid-’90s. It goes on to repeat itself, caught in a scoriation.
And yet, simply by giving his characters the gift of hindsight, the knowledge of accumulated years, the opportunity to be unsure, by allowing them to make mistakes, Lerner shows how maybe things are also getting better. After all, isn’t this book’s existence evidence of progress?