The Topeka School

Some friends and I got together virtually to write our “real time” reactions as we read Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School. As native Topekans and graduates of Lerner’s high school, we thought it would be fun to explore our reading experiences of a book set in our childhood home, lauded by The New York Times Book Review asa high-water mark on recent American fiction.” Out of respect for their privacy, I won’t publish my friends’ thoughts, but here are my half-baked parts of the exercise. 

The geography is actually a good starting point for discussion. I’m on page 57 and I wonder when the involuntary thrill of recognizing landmarks is going to fade. The book is chock full of them! With the exception of Dr. Jonathan’s early narration in New York, you can’t go two paragraphs without running not only into street names but actual businesses I have patroned, like Kaw Valley Hunt and Gun (or whatever it’s called), where we used to take my brother to get hunting bows on his birthday. I remember the dirty tile and the smell of rubber and the men who were chewing and spitting while they checked people out in hunter’s orange behind the counter. And Wolfe’s Camera. My parents always made it a point to take us to Wolfe’s Camera to get photos developed rather than Walgreens.

The thing is, I kind of want the novelty of knowing where I am (and where Adam is) to fade, because one of the pleasures of reading novels is building this whole new landscape in your head, this combination of the author’s description and whatever reference point you have for what they’re describing, i.e. all high schools mentioned in books become, in my imagination, a combination of Topeka High, Hayden, and whatever details about the fictional high school are mentioned. But now, I have a literal, physical connection between Adam Gordon’s Topeka and my Topeka. I was there when he was there. My subjectivity, my memories and understanding of these places, gets in the way of the narration sometimes. And by “gets in the way,” I mean like a half second of memories, at most. But it’s still not as smooth reading as I would like. 

In comparison, the opening sequence when Adam gets lost on the lakefront, that hurt me it was so beautiful. I knew it was Sherwood, of course, but I don’t have enough reference to Sherwood to have any sort of claim over it, and yet it seems a pillar of Midwestern adolescence and young adulthood to be disoriented up on some inland body of water, uncomfortable in the quiet, not really sure what to do with the unadorned, uncommercialized flatness, the bareness of all that natural beauty. (I remember looking at the Mississippi River when I was 18, trying consciously not to be contemplative, because I thought it was a cliche to look at water and think about one’s life. And then I found myself being contemplative, anyway, because natural beauty does that to everyone. It’s a cliche like death, unavoidable.) 

And the suburban home, God. The home among all homes where he imagines simultaneous, almost identical lives. The photograph of young people playing football in the leaves. It made me think of the ways in which we use photographs to place ourselves within desired national and cultural narratives, and how Instagram and Facebook have not necessarily brought us into new territory in this practice, but have made the process faster, more automated, more tied to self worth (symbolically, chemically). To make this commentary on American life within a trippy, high-suspense, and comical scene is number one, fantastic, and number two, could only be done with a novel. 

I’ll wrap up with that thought: Being in what some might say is the “golden age” of television, for the past couple years I’ve been focused on trying to pinpoint what parts of literature cannot be translated to the screen. Without some kind of narration over top of the visuals, or without a scene of dialogue after-the-fact explaining what Adam was thinking, the many layers of Adam Gordon’s consciousness during the accidental break-in would be impossible to manifest.

To your question, T (and I realize I’m treading some of the same ground here, but bear with me): in some cases, I can’t escape the urge to put my own singularity of experience on certain place settings where I spent literal days and hours; for the amount of time I played at the Randolph playground and in Westboro Park, Lerner might as well be describing the hallways of my own house. I’m trying to unpack why I am so bothered by this, not necessarily in a bad way, but not in a good way, either. I have no, like, immediate literar-ily sophisticated response to explain these emotions, which I don’t like. I suspect I’m upset for the following reasons, which may bring a more expansive answer to your question: 

  1. Like an infant, I feel like an object has been swiped from me. He took my places. This is further deepened by my profession; I think there’s a part of me that’s resentful he wrote about my childhood before I did. 
  2. But even so, it’s not like Darren’s voice particularly illuminates these places. These are mostly reference points, there for the sake of lending some kind of geographical authority to the narrative voice, and definitely not receiving the same kind of descriptive attention given to, like, say, the Sherwood section, or Dr. J’s walks through Potwin with Klaus. 

So that’s where my brain starts to hurt: if Lerner (specifically in Darren’s voice, but also in all of these characters’ voices) isn’t really interested in the placeness of the places (or even if he is), why does he need to be accurate to Topeka? Why couldn’t he call Greenwood Lockwood? Why couldn’t he call Huntoon Hestoon? He could write about the heat and the cicadas and the neighbors without naming it Potwin, without it being Greenwood. (And yet: he does he not call Menninger’s by its real name, another mystery. Maybe that’s for more practical copyright purposes.)

In that way, this feels like a deliberate callout to Topekans. Whether it has a broader significance, I don’t know, and I’m not sure I can know. That’s going to be the real test of this novel for me. Can I step out of being a Topekan and just f***ing read it? Did Lerner have Topekans in mind for his audience?  

Update: Jane Gordon’s voice has broken the spell. While her references are no less Topekan, her awareness of the medium through which she’s communicating (to her son, in the context of her son’s potential novel) make the book more of a book for me, and less of a landscape. Where it seems Darren and Adam and Jonathan react and try to place themselves in their surroundings (even in more reflective moments, both the third person and the first really seems interested in control, to narrate, to curate to storytell), Jane Gordon’s section seems more about an amused kind of wonder, taking a reflective distance from the events of her life and seeming to weave in and out of anecdotes by accident, with no lack of sharpness toward the significance of those anecdotes. While this, too, is a form of control, the use of the direct address from Jane to her son, especially the humility of her (wrong) assumptions about which of her stories are worthy of print, gives Jane’s storytelling the air of a conversation. Lerner has been especially praised for his ability to channel his (actual, real life) mother’s voice, and now I see why. It’s the real voice of his mother he’s carried with him. This might be just me projecting, but her voice feels like a stabilizing presence in the novel. A kind of prophet or wizard, only flawed to the extent that she is aware of these flaws, deeply wise and powerful.

This novel left me with a general sense of an orchestra tuning but the symphony never beginning. There’s value to prose pieces like this that have a tenuous relationship to traditional linear storytelling, and as K mentioned, The Topeka School uses techniques that resemble Leaving the Atocha Station: a repetition of phrases and images to create an atmosphere (the cue ball, Klaus’s voice, debate terms: variations on a theme), a sense of time passing but a fixation on certain moments, trying and failing to determine meaning. I also appreciated how these repetitions took an an orbital shape, increasing in speed and frequency as the novel wore on, using narrative less as an exploration in cause and effect and more of a cloud of effect circling central causes: Darren, the Montessori magic, the decline of Klaus. (Lol yes, a rotating cloud. Just realized that. Oh, well.) But unlike LAS, Lerner now seems more desperate to attribute certain meanings to certain events. He seems no longer comfortable with ambiguity, with confusion, with doubt. This is understandable, not only because he is writing about his own life and therefore this becomes a “meaning making” project (a masturbatory project, at times, thank you for that image K, lol), but also because I imagine any thinking person writing about the United States right now has an urge to figure out what the hell is going on. Of course we want to (and should) deconstruct all the weird kinds of whiteness that have grown in us and around us, to wade through the toxic sludge of American consciousness and search for the reasons our house is sinking (only to find that the load-bearing beams are rotten). This is a messy process, as aided by language as it is further poisoned. 

Thinking about Lerner’s seeming discomfort brings me back to one of my initial thoughts about what kind of storytelling novels, uniquely, can and should do, and I wonder if I’m disappointed in Lerner because he’s trying to do the job of pseudo-cultural analysis and autobiography on top of writing a novel. Because of this exercise in triplicate, he might have failed at all three. The failure of TTS as autobiography is that it is presented as a novel, and therefore the expectation is that the text will reveal something about its characters rather than its author. The failure of this book as a novel is not its language (BL’s prose is breathtaking, I’m obviously a fan) but in its poet-fueled faith that language is more important than the world that language seeks to build. And regarding its anthropological or perhaps historical attempts at criticism (references to the Koch brothers, the Brownbacks, the anachronistic breakdown of “man-children”), Lerner’s potentially sharp lens fogs up when autobiography insists that Brooklyn is the place from which this writer tells his story. Like K, I, as a multi-generational Kansan (and who will soon be moving back to Kansas), was frustrated by this. “But what then of Kensinger, who f***ed Kansas far more than this weird Darren character? Why didn’t wealth and privilege save him from being a world-historical shithead?” K’s question here is important not only because it contradicts Lerner’s half-assed thesis about the saving grace of a certain type of education, but also because Lerner seems to toss in Kensinger’s actual impact on KS with an ironic shrug, mentioning it once for shock value and then never really exploring how the Brownback administration affected any of the characters. The final implication that the Kansas suburban white boy rage hasn’t left him, even worlds away in cosmopolitan Brooklyn, isn’t enough to put skin in the game alongside the fates of his parents, or any other Kansans. Even if he is saying through this protest scene that the Kansas of the present still affects him (because KS is full of conservative voters, presumably, and 45 and his supporters are against whom he and his family are protesting), the narcissistic impulse of autobiography again trips him up: it is within his body, his thoughts, his consciousness that “the Topeka School” fights its final battle with the “real” Topeka, rather than on the very land (real or imaginary) that raised him. The present, where are all of the threads meet, is reserved for Lerner. He even gave himself the option of inhabiting characters who live there now (Jane’s narration of the present would have been particularly interesting to me), and instead he chooses himself, in New York. Which is great for autobiography. Not really useful for the kind of historical or cultural analysis he seems to be doing. A missed opportunity for the novel. 

Of course I remain dazzled by his prose, but now I wonder if he received the praise he did because those who didn’t grow up in Topeka don’t know the stakes of him trying to write about a place that, as K argued, he doesn’t consider himself “of.” Critics are pointing to this novel as a gut-punching portrait of the rise of 45’s America, or whatever, and now I see that the reason people are saying that about this book is merely because this book is saying that about itself. It’s funny, K, that one of your criticisms is that Lerner is “just as immersed in the muck” as his narrator, and maybe you mean to criticize the same autobiographical impulses I do, but I would actually argue that Lerner’s narrator is not in the muck enough. Even before the end, he often “zooms out” to Brooklyn for no good reason, where he is safe to monitor his Calibans (to use your term) from a distance, trying to name to what’s wrong with them. I’m thinking particularly of one of the moments where Topekans are featured; a rare, quiet paragraph cataloging what all the parents of the kids in the Topeka West basement are doing on pgs. 123 and 124, where Lerner doesn’t insist on yanking us through his layered cake of these people’s larger societal role. But soon it’s back to business: among all the parents, the author insists on referencing himself and his daughter at the time of writing. What he’s doing isn’t nonsensical; he’s seeding the fact that his relationship to his own story is just as important if not more important than the unnamed parents of Topeka, a dynamic that will echo throughout the book and culminate in New York, where his parents met. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this, and it’s actually quite clean and neat. But what does Lerner’s insistence on collapsing time do for us, as readers, other than remind us that our place in the world he’s building is with him, rather than with ourselves? 

For me, this moment and moments like it are are not just simple parallels (the Topeka parents, he is now a parent), they are nervous check-ins, making sure we know he’s still there, that he’s the one controlling our gaze. Why couldn’t he just let us sit in this moment without editorializing? I mean, I think I know the answer, as I’ve laid out above, and perhaps this is a similar frustration to K’s, regarding the uncited occurrences of “private language” and “language games.” I’m just like, why, instead of bringing in these phrases as some sort of secret nod to philosophy of language fans, can’t he just play the goddamn language games? Why can’t he trust his readers to pick up what he’s laying down, to make their own connections between (a small slice of) Topeka and the present political moment? Why can’t he trust us to wade in his characters’ consciousness and find our own way out? Why can’t he trust himself?

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