Boys Will Be Boys: On Ben Lerner’s “The Topeka School”

Early in Ben Lerner’s third novel, The Topeka School (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), there is a moment where seventeen-year-old Adam Gordon, Lerner’s protagonist, is congratulated by Senator Bob Dole after winning a debate tournament. It’s 1996, and, according to Adam, Dole “was less than a month away from being crushed by Bill Clinton, a landslide victory for the Democrat that would confirm that cultural conservatism was giving, had all but given . . . It would confirm that history had ended.”

An older Adam, writing from the vantage of 2019, knows that Dole’s failed presidential bid does not end history. He knows that in twenty years the President will be a racist reality television star who refers to himself in the third person and brags about grabbing women by the pussy, a man who harnesses white male rage for political profit. Throughout The Topeka School, Lerner considers the factors that “led up to this scene,” isolating his late ’90s Midwestern upbringing as a geographical time capsule capable of illuminating America’s most urgent cultural conflicts.

Like Lerner’s first two novels, The Topeka School is largely autobiographical. Leaving the Atocha Station, Lerner’s 2011 fictional debut, shows a stoned and self-conscious Adam Gordon meandering through Madrid on a Fulbright Scholarship and grappling with his identity as a “young American poet.” As Madrid experiences a number of political protests, Adam loafs around his flat, jerking off and reading Tolstoy. In Lerner’s second novel, 10:04, a writer named Ben wanders through New York considering mortality and fatherhood in a city struck with social and ecological unrest. He’s vaguely supportive of the Occupy Wall Street movement but does not engage in any meaningful political activism himself.

Structurally, a defining quality of both Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 is the rejection of conventional plotting. Both books are discursive, inconclusive, and cerebral. So it is ironic when, in 10:04, a literary agent instructs Ben, who is writing a novel, to “develop a clear, geometrical plot . . . make sure the protagonist undergoes a dramatic transformation.” The novel Ben writes—which is the novel we read, 10:04—ignores the agent’s recommendations. It is a fragmented, splintered story, prone to exhaustive and sublime monologues about seemingly banal things: staring at a skyline, smoking a cigarette outside an art gallery, eating a raw octopus at an uncomfortably posh restaurant. Under a lesser writer’s watch, such stuffy interiority might feel unbearably solipsistic, but Lerner’s incessantly specific cerebration evokes expansion and empathy rather than egotism.

The Topeka School, then, is both a culmination and departure for Lerner. Without sacrificing any intellectual or linguistic prowess, the novel bodes clear narrative arcs and a protagonist transformation; there might even be a—gulp—geometric plot. And while the novel expands on many familiar themes seen throughout Lerner’s oeuvre—the limitations of language, the blurred line between fact and fictionThe Topeka School moves beyond Lerner’s singular consciousness and into other voices. The point of view shifts between Adam, his father (Jonathan), his mother (Jane), and Darren, a troubled high school dropout whose short, italicized sections haunt the novel like a recurring nightmare. From the opening pages, Darren promises to produce an act of violence, the suspense of which propels the novel’s present action forward: “Long before the freshman called him the customary names, before he’d taken it from the corner pocket, felt its weight, the cool and smoothness of the resin, before he’d hurled it into the crowded darkness—the cue ball was hanging in the air, rotating slowly. Like the moon, it had been there all his life.”

We meet these characters while high school whiz Adam finds himself split between worlds. He lives in a conservative Midwestern town, but is surrounded by hyperintellectual lefties. His parents work for the Foundation, a world-renowned psychiatric institution. Jane has written a best-selling book about women’s empowerment; Jonathan is a therapist for “lost boys,” many of whom struggle with violent impulses. Unbeknownst to Adam and his friends, Darren is one of Jonathan’s patients.

Darren’s sudden inclusion in Adam’s social world—an inclusion Jonathan deems, in retrospect, “fraternal hazing” in a “dominant libidinal economy”—prefigures the political narrative that positions coastal elites against Middle Americans. In Topeka, there is a distinct class divide between Foundation kids (upper middle class and college-bound) and working-class Topekans (blue-collar Kansas lifers, like Darren). Although much separates these two groups, they are united by an appetite for violence:

At some difficult-to-determine point, among middle-class white boys in the Middle West, fights, instead of ending when a combatant hit the ground, took on new life there, the “boys will be boys” chivalry of boxing giving way to the archaic regression of overkill, a term that dates from 1946; every opponent must be spread; every offense, however minor, leads to holocaust . . . They felt at once profoundly numb and profoundly ecstatic to be young and inflicting optimal damage on each other . . . To have violent conflict without competing notions of the good.

Adam is more witness than participant in this world of teenage masculinity. He loves weightlifting and binge drinking, but he’s also an Ivy-bound poet who prides himself on giving proper oral sex to his girlfriend. Around his friends, he turns his passion for words into social currency by freestyling with “[hip-hop’s] dominant and to [Adam] totally inapplicable clichés.” After fistfights, Foundation kids flash gang signs; Adam mimics Tupac. This appropriation of black culture is one of the only languages capable of conveying the Foundation kids’ collective angst.

Because he’s not much of a fighter, Adam directs his rage toward his parents and whatever unlucky debate opponent he faces in a given tournament. To his mom and dad, he issues an “overwhelming barrage of ridiculous but somehow irrefutable arguments” whenever he disagrees with them. When he debates, he passes through “a mysterious threshold” where it feels “less like he was delivering a speech and more like a speech was delivering him.” It should be no surprise, then, that Adam is a prodigious extemporaneous debater with dreams of winning the national speech-and-debate tournament

In preparation for the tournament, Adam trains with Peter Evanson, a former extemporaneous debate champion from Topeka. Evanson teaches Adam how to offset his progressive intellectualism by flaunting his Midwestern roots: “Interrupt your highbrow fluency with bland sound bites of regional decency. Deliver little tautologies like they’re proverbs.” Although Evanson is a better debater than Adam, Adam pities him because he is “on the wrong side of history that ended with Dole” and died when “the Republicans [died] as a national party.”

Again, older Adam knows better. Evanson does not wither away with the Republican Party. Instead, he becomes a “key architect of the most right-wing governorship Kansas has ever known . . . an important model for the Trump administration.” Evanson is a master of “the spread,” a debate technique that crams broad arguments together at rapid speeds. Adam, on the other hand, does not value the spread, as he’s unable to discern a real-world corollary for the skill: “The most common criticism of the spread was that it detached policy debate from the real world, that nobody used language the way that these debaters did, save perhaps for auctioneers.” But because Evanson sees the “fearful symmetry between the ideological compartmentalization of high school debate and what passed for the national political discourse,” he seamlessly translates his articulate aggression into nativist policy making.

In The Topeka School, Lerner deftly traces the connection between our disintegrated political discourse and white male rage. Without judgment, he examines how American men find misplaced targets (e.g., women, people of color, immigrants, etc.) for this rage. Yet amazingly, Lerner does not demonize or other these men. Instead, he looks inward, analyzing Adam’s conditioned masculinity as a vehicle to understand the ways in which white American men embrace power—as enraged politicians or school shooters or serial sexual assaulters. But, as Lerner’s past work proves, self-reflection and intellectual extrapolation can only go so far. In the novel’s epilogue, older Adam attends an anti-ICE rally in New York City with his wife and daughter, making a move outside of his head and into the world.

The Topeka School is a stunning narrative display of humanity and intellectual insight, a work of virtuosity written by a generationally gifted writer. It’s Lerner’s best novel yet.