The Topeka School
by Ben Lerner
Allen & Unwin
Published November, 2019
If I tell you I love you, why would you believe me? Why would you doubt me? Under what conditions can faith in another’s words, or lack of faith, be justified? And what might you take my confession of love to represent? Perhaps you understand it as a mark on a surface that merely represents the inaccessible depths beneath, where something truer, something more authentic, resides. Our words, in this picture, are inevitable distortions of our selves. So, when I tell you I love you, the words can’t quite encapsulate the attachment; something is lost along the way. Your faith, if you give it, bridges this gap.
The sense (the irritation? the terror?) that there exists a gap between language and the world is the theme to which Ben Lerner’s writing has most relentlessly returned. In The Topeka School, his third novel, he also returns to using what he describes in the acknowledgments as ‘an unstable mixture of fact and fiction’. The novel is told from three points of view, sometimes in third person, sometimes in first, by fictionalised versions of the author (Adam), his mother (Jane), and his father (Jonathan). It spans an era from before Adam’s birth to his contemporary adulthood, under the Trump administration; the action takes place mostly in Topeka and New York. Adam shares a name with the protagonist of Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station; he also, we find out in the novel’s final chapter, shares a medical condition with the unnamed protagonist of Lerner’s second novel, 10:04. Are these the same people? They are certainly versions of Ben Lerner. To Lerner’s credit, your appreciation of his work will not depend on whether you find these features notable or provocative, but they are thematically significant because they have to do with what speech and writing can satisfactorily represent, and whether expression necessarily fictionalises.
Lerner’s thoughts on the possibilities and limits of language are articulated most explicitly in his 2016 chapbook, The Hatred of Poetry, part of the premise of which is that poetry feels perpetually insufficient, an inevitable failure: ‘The fatal problem with poetry: poems.’ He writes of the difference between the virtual poem, which the poet experiences the desire to express, and the bitter result of the actual poem, which can never match the promise of the virtual. I both sympathise with and resist this position. Sometimes I know that you love me, know that you are in pain, know what you think, because we have no ordinary criteria to distinguish ‘knowing’ from ‘really knowing’ (‘Yes, but do you really know he’s in pain?’). At other times, I’m cut loose from other people, desperate to collect and quantify their feelings like money, unable to quite get there, perpetually failing to comprehend.
Of course we can understand one another. If we couldn’t, none of us would ever know anything (our preferences, our desires), and the world would break apart. Of course we can’t understand one another; our worlds so often break apart. And I do not know myself entirely. I presume (I know?) the same is true of you. Despite this, a significant portion of my mind is dedicated to treating language (words and not-words) as evidence for something essential, something beyond. Why did she put it that way in particular? Why the look? Why the silence? What kind of explanation will be enough? What I want to believe is that the transcendent magic of sociality, of loving one another, occurs when we put these anxieties aside.
Lerner is concerned with these problems in general, but his third novel links them, in particular, to masculinity and power, to what men do when they feel disempowered and cannot understand why. Stanley Cavell reads the tragedy of King Lear as an example of insanity induced by this kind of insatiable desire to know. Lear wants Cordelia to prove her love, and such proof can only, for Lear, be unambiguous as a transaction. Lear’s descent is what happens when we cannot let go of the desire to apply criteria of certainty to what others think, when we cannot gather the strength and bravery to place our faith in them.
Early in the novel, Adam, making out with his girlfriend, gently presses his fingers against her closed eyes, triggering phosphenes, the luminous patterns generated by the hidden retina. He wonders whether they share a vision when enclosed by the darkness of the self.
He hoped she liked the poetry he made out of it, how he wanted her to see what he saw, and to imagine seeing with or as her; the world’s subtlest fireworks announcing the problem of other minds.
The borders between the social world and the private world, where our visions become unshareable, is a thread that runs through the rest of the novel.
Soon they were kissing again and he didn’t know if they would fuck. But that night in Topeka’s premier housing community conveniently located near West Ridge Mall she separated from him gently, decisively; maybe she was on her period. Maybe she didn’t really care about him.
In a later chapter, during sex, Adam’s girlfriend ‘seemed to come’. Here, the fear that we cannot properly discern another’s intention, another’s experience, finds its intense mascot in the fragile, perplexed, indignant teenage boy, to whom others, particularly women and girls, are unfathomable. The peculiarly uncomprehending nature of teenagehood is a model that suits The Topeka School, as does its partial setting in the Clinton years, a time that, in retrospect, has the shape of the wild, unknowing adolescence that presaged the defective maturity of the American present.
The Topeka School will be treated as a book of the moment, articulating the distinctive contemporary panic around authenticity, what it means to believe politicians and one another. Most of the responses to this novel will likely speak about its portrayal of toxic masculinity and account of the origins of current political language – the particular way it has become unmoored from truth. The novel doesn’t pretend otherwise, finishing at an ICE sit-in, with an adult Adam and his family (a wife and two daughters, as with Lerner’s family) protesting family separations at the southern border. Yet what the novel does, through its concern for the present, is show that America has long been anxious about authenticity, and that these problems that seem particularly modern and distinctive are in fact spread wide across cultural and temporal planes, their symptoms and consequences ubiquitous.
The novel’s form demonstrates this reality by unfastening itself from time and perspective, and repeatedly drawing attention to this unfastening (readers familiar with Lerner’s work will be both surprised and unsurprised). He reuses snatches and long passages of previous writing. Portions of a chapter in which Adam describes the nature and stakes of his debating tournament are lifted directly from ‘Contest of Words’, a 2012 essay Lerner wrote for Harper’s (This section is altered by a temporal disruption, a declaration that ‘Later Adam would perceive a fearful symmetry between the ideological compartmentalization of high school and what passed for the national discourse’; this refers, of course, to the Adam/Ben who wrote the essay for Harper’s from which the passage is sampled). Lerner reveals in the acknowledgments that a chapter from Jane’s point of view repurposes ‘passages from Harriet Lerner’s article “Hating Fred,” which appeared in Psychotherapy Networker in 1994. The phrase ‘unheard melody’, which is used to describe Adam freestyling poetry or rap in his head, was previously used on the final page of The Hatred of Poetry and then repurposed as ‘Unheard Melodies’ for the title of his foreword to Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach. Adam searching a supermarket for creatine supplements is described as a moment he will recall when viewing Donald Judd’s boxes, artwork encountered by the protagonist of 10:04. References are made to portions of the narrative being looked back upon from ‘a vaguely imagined East Coast city where his experiences in Topeka could be recounted only with great irony.’ Lerner lives in New York, as does Adam at the novel’s end.
For the suspicious reader or critic, these features might be characterised as mere formal acrobatics: Lerner taking advantage of his readers’ knowingness, eliciting smug self-congratulation for being among those who get it, who know the facts about Lerner, who’ve read the right books, who’ve undertaken the requisite grad school reflection on the tradition and function of metafiction. It’s better to understand them, however, as gestures of sympathy, expressions of love. By pointing outside the bounds of the novel, to other texts, other incidents, acknowledging a book the reader has encountered, Lerner elegantly conjures the residue of literary memory, a formal recognition of community, of the fact that the reader is a person in the world, his world.
What makes this reading plausible is that the novel is concerned with performance, particularly linguistic performance, as an attempt at attaining fluency in connection with others, in making an impression upon others (as in the competitive debate and speech in which Adam participates, an activity shaping large sections of the narrative), or in attending to others’ internal worlds as best we can, by listening to what they say (as in the psychoanalytic relation, which is especially prominent in the chapters from the perspectives of Adam’s parents, both therapists). It is also about how these attempts can become corrupted, how we can fail others.
In the first of several of the novel’s overwhelming sequences (overwhelming in that they engulf the reader in a linguistic and temporal collapse, the themes of the novel and the stuff of the narrative made vibrant by their form in a way that is both disorienting and mesmerising), told from Jonathan’s perspective, Adam’s father travels to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art long before the birth of his child, having dropped acid.
Lerner is particularly skilled at writing about art (the opening of Leaving the Atocha Station, in which Adam watches a man weep ecstatically before a painting in the Prado, is among the most moving scenes in contemporary literature), and this scene – in which Jonathan gradually becomes increasingly disoriented and paranoid as the trip deepens – hinges on a viewing of Duccio’s Madonna and Child:
Old paintings usually bored me; this one stopped me cold. The foreknowledge in the woman’s expression, as though she could anticipate a distant recurrence. The weird parapet beneath the figures, how it linked the sacred world with the world of the viewers. One instant I saw the gold background as flat and another I saw depths. But what really fascinated me, really moved me, wasn’t in the painting: it was how the bottom edge of the original frame was marked by candle burns. Traces of an older medium of illumination, the shadow of devotion.
The painting holds the future, foreseen by its sacred subject, the past, preserved by the painter, the present, reified by the viewer, and the frame, physically transformed by the viewer. These temporalities, in their simultaneity, mirror the structural concerns of the novel they’re within. As Jonathan walks through the museum he experiences a ‘collapse of sense,’ a loss of language coinciding with new modes of expression in which, as in the painting, time follows the logic of memory rather than physics.
‘I wore a mustache on my collective face’ (later Adam describes his face the same way),
had shoulder-length hair, a secondhand corduroy jacket over a plaid button-down shirt and faded jeans; if, instead of an uncritical faith in money and science, I believed, I claimed to believe, in the liberation of repressed drives and the reorganization of social forces, the contempt communicated by the statues was still overwhelming, their mockery specific to me, my hypocrisy. Your received jargon regarding the mind and its functions. The contradiction between the normalizing force of therapy and your supposed belief in revolution; your use of your mother’s death to justify your behavior towards Rachel, behavior you’ll just repeat with Jane
The final accusations, migrating to the third person, are self-directed.
Moments where thought becomes subsumed by language recur throughout the novel, sometimes characters become linguistically incapacitated, returning to childhood vocabularies (‘laughter at the idea that he could ever make it in New York, whatever that means for a poet, be a cool or sophisticated writer, leave the protection of his mother, mom, mommy’), or are swept up in transcendent fits of prosody, as in competitive debating, where high schoolers who’ve trained with the obsession of Olympic sprinters in the specific art of speech execute arguments faster than they can be registered by the mind, adhering to the rulebook but challenging the laws of comprehensibility.
The shifts between perspective are not simply delineated by the chapter divisions; as in the passage above, voices often blend: first and third person, narratorial and authorial, characters taking on other’s voices. Adam, it is mentioned, sometimes misremembers giving a speech ‘in first person’ although it had been delivered by his coach (a prodigy who would later become a major ally of the Koch brothers), as he’d watched the recording so many times; Adam’s girlfriend, without quote marks, says ‘I love being with you, how it feels to know the sameness and difference even though you can’t represent my voice, the problem of other minds, phosphenes, phonemes.’ In these moments, the nature of speech as an inherently collective enterprise – dependent on community, on another person who will understand, on its being taught and learnt – overcomes the fear that speech is, ultimately private, unknowable. Even if a person’s voice cannot be represented, it can be gestured towards, and our continuing to live with one another depends on such gestures.
The Topeka School’s most resonant precursor, I think, is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Both describe hyperarticulate men involved with institutions, struggling to express themselves; both owe a debt (sometimes explicit) to the philosophy of Wittgenstein; both begin with scenes that dramatise this theme – boys in rooms being interrogated by officials who fail to comprehend them; both include a father who makes films but is not a filmmaker by profession, a self-reflexive narrative with circular elements, individual obsession with competition as a synecdoche for political crisis (in Infinite Jest, a tennis court is adapted for a game in which teenagers simulate nuclear Armageddon; in The Topeka School, competitive debate in 1997 portends a 2019 in which the President’s words so swiftly outpace their meaning that their prosody overwhelms before the substance can be interrogated), a paranoia about the distance between language and the world, about whether we can ever be truly understood, and this paranoia is performed at both narrative and structural levels, bringing the reader to reflect on the potential of literature, prose, speech, to generate understanding.
Infinite Jest is an astonishing achievement (an achievement often obscured by the novel’s transmutation into a shorthand for toxic masculinity in literary culture, detached from its matter; the exposure of Wallace’s abuse of Mary Karr, showing the author to himself be an exemplar of misogyny, contributed to the novel’s already troubled cultural baggage, understood as the archetypal book that men who exalt their own intelligence above all else thrust onto women to test their commitments), yet The Topeka School benefits from the comparison. Throughout Wallace’s writing, the mind is figured as a kind of prison, sometimes discernible but never entirely penetrable. The problem of other minds is ironised, yet remains posed in the form of an unresolvable crisis. The Topeka School shares some of Wallace’s unquenchable skepticism, but where, in Wallace, the limits of language are threatening, in Lerner’s novel the poetic possibilities of speech and writing are exhilarating.
In a scene where boys are fighting in a Topeka basement, the narrator stops to ask ‘Where were the parents?’ And this novel, as it does on occasion, zooms out to sweep through the community, taking in its sameness and distinction, encompassing its various vocabularies. ‘Some,’ he says, ‘were doing deskwork or wiping down the kitchen islands. Some were reading Rice and some were reading Clancy, some were reading Adrienne Rich or “Non-Interpretive Mechanisms in Psychoanalytic Therapy.” Or pretending to read.’ And then we hear Lerner’s voice and Adam’s, both at once, expressive, clear: ‘some were writing this in Brooklyn while their daughters slept beside them.’
If you find that you are able to put aside your suspicions of a certain kind of contemporary literature as strategy, as self-reflexive performance, you will discover, in this novel, new ways of speaking that refer to old ways of being, existing high above the cities and in the tangled depths of your anxieties about what others think and what they see. I hope you can do this. Regardless, I love you.