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Jews of Kansas

Ben Lerner’s new ‘The Topeka School’ and the problem of masculinity

Adam Kirsch
September 25, 2019
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine; original photos: Flickr
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine; original photos: Flickr
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine; original photos: Flickr
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine; original photos: Flickr

Though Ben Lerner probably wouldn’t put it this way, his new novel, The Topeka School, is a story about what happens when a Jewish intellectual gets born in the wrong place. Today, Lerner lives in New York City, where being a Jewish intellectual is, if not exactly common, at least a recognized cultural type. But he was born in 1979 in Topeka, Kansas, a state whose total Jewish population is about 15,000. The options available to a teenage boy in that time and place did not include poet or novelist, the callings Lerner would go on to pursue with conspicuous brilliance.

Rather, Lerner suggests, what he learned in the school that was the American Midwest was how to be a man, in the narrowest, most noxious sense of the word. And the problem of masculinity—how to define it, achieve it, control it—is the central theme of The Topeka School. Lerner does not address this issue in explicitly Jewish terms, though it places him in a long line of masculinity-obsessed Jewish writers that includes Isaac Babel and Philip Roth. For Lerner, rather, masculinity is an American dilemma, one that the country has never managed to figure out. “America is adolescence without end,” says Klaus, a psychologist and Holocaust survivor who serves as something like the novel’s voice of conscience. “Boys will be boys … and spoiled boys will be spoiled boys … and the violence will recur periodically—like cicadas.”

For Adam Gordon, the author’s alter ego, the best way to reconcile his native inclination toward verbal creativity with the social imperative to toughness and aggression is competitive debate. Much of The Topeka School takes place in the world of high school debate, with its baroque forms of verbal peacocking. “The problem for him in high school,” Adam reflects, “was that debate made you a nerd and poetry made you a pussy—even if both could help you get to the vaguely imagined East Coast city from which your experiences in Topeka would be recounted with great irony.”

The Topeka School is the book that the teenage Adam dreamed of escaping to write. But its irony is profound rather than merely satirical, and it is directed at Adam himself as much as at the society that fostered him. The novel opens with a scene of the teenage Adam delivering a “rambling confession of feeling” to his girlfriend Amber while they are sailing on a neighborhood lake; only when he’s done talking does he realize that she has dived into the water, swimming away to escape him. Here is a comic example of the oppressiveness of being talked at by a self-absorbed man, a situation that will recur in various forms throughout the novel.

For Lerner, the emblem of eloquence-as-aggression is the debater’s trick known as “spreading.” This involves talking as fast as humanly possible, so as to cram into one’s allotted time more arguments than one’s opponent can hope to rebut. Adam recognizes that this is a perversion of speech, a way of using words to bludgeon rather than communicate. Yet it is a technique that earns rewards: By the end of the novel, Adam has won a national debate tournament, proving how adept he is at adopting a nerd’s version of masculine belligerence. “He was with every passing hour absorbing an interpersonal style it would take him decades fully to unlearn,” Lerner writes, “the verbal equivalent of forearms and elbows.”

A related but more sinister form of speech is directed at Adam’s mother, Jane. Jane and his father, Jonathan, are New Yorkers who ended up in Topeka because they are psychologists at what Lerner calls “the Foundation”—just like Lerner’s real-life parents, who were psychologists at Topeka’s renowned Menninger Clinic. His mother Harriet Lerner is the author of bestselling books of popular psychology, as is Jane Gordon. In the novel, Jane is the target of anonymous phone calls from the disgruntled husbands of women who have been empowered to leave them by reading her books. These are what she calls “The Men,” and Lerner clearly intends us to see them as forerunners of today’s misogynistic internet trolls: “There were variations on the theme of rape: I’m going to rape you; Somebody should rape you,” and so on. The ur-trolls, Lerner suggests, are the members of Westboro Baptist Church, the Topeka-based hate group that specializes in picketing funerals with obscene anti-gay signs.

In a novel so concerned with who has the right to be heard, it is a fruitful irony that much of the story is narrated not by Adam himself but by Jonathan and Jane, in alternating monologues. In a sense, this is a generous gesture, since Adam is surrendering his domination over the story. The Jane sections, in particular, are cast almost like an oral history, giving the impression that perhaps we are hearing the voice of Lerner’s actual mother. (“I bet you won’t put this in your novel,” she says before recounting an embarrassing incident from Adam’s childhood—which does, in fact, make it into the novel.)

These stories enrich the scope of the novel, allowing us to see what autobiographical novelists often forget—that theirs is not the only story taking place, that parents’ lives can be as complex and conflicted as their children’s. Yet in the end, inevitably, it is only Lerner whose words we are reading, raising the question of whether literary ventriloquism may itself be just a form of “spreading”—a way of crowding out other voices.

All this makes it sound as if The Topeka School were a thesis-driven book, and compared to Lerner’s earlier novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, it certainly feels that way. The reason for Lerner’s polemical interest in defective masculinity and its byproducts, cruelty and rage, lies of course less in the 1990s, when the novel takes place, than in our own moment. (By the end of the book, in the present day, Adam is attending an anti-ICE rally with his wife and daughter in New York.) To a teenager growing up under the Clinton administration, Lerner suggests, it was plausible to believe that history was moving permanently in the “right” direction, that American society would become kinder, fairer, freer. Against that background, Trumpism appears like a return of the repressed.

But Lerner, it seems to me, is less interesting as a political novelist than as an imaginative stylist. The politics that are implied in The Topeka School are admirable, but they will be familiar to most readers and writers of literary fiction. (When was the last time you read a novel in favor of toxic masculinity?) What Lerner does that few other novelists can takes place on the level of language. He wrote several books of poetry before turning to fiction, and the texture and organization of his fiction is essentially poetic: Its ideas and images “rhyme,” so that an element from one part of the book will find an analogue in another part, tying them together on a level more fundamental than plot.

In The Topeka School, a good example of this technique concerns “spreading.” When Adam talks too fast to be comprehended in a debate, he is deploying a tool of verbal domination. But long before Adam was born, his father Jonathan relates that he conducted a psychology experiment in which the subjects listened to an accelerated stream of words on headphones and were told to repeat them. As the recording sped up, the subject started speaking pure gibberish, all the while believing that he was making perfect sense—a form of “spreading” that seems akin to madness. And near the end of the book, when Adam is dumped by a college girlfriend and calls his parents for help, his lament devolves into another kind of manic monologue: ”At one point it was like he was speaking nonsense rhyme. … Jane was taking the lead, trying to interrupt him, redirect him, while we kept looking at each other with alarm, a sense of helplessness.”

The Topeka School is full of such echoes, which make it a much richer experience than a thematic summary could capture. The result is a kind of writing that is self-consciously literary and intellectual, sometimes to the point of being precious, but that also has a thrilling imaginative vigor. By fusing therapeutic monologue, allusive poetry, critical theory, and social commentary, Lerner has turned a familiar genre—the adult writer revisiting his painful high school days—into something genuinely new.


Read Adam Kirsch’s book reviews for Tablet magazine here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.