Review – Lerner, “The Topeka School”

Ben Lerner, “The Topeka School” (2019) (read by Peter Berkrot, Nancy Linari, and Tristan Wright) – Well, well! An actually ambitious contemporary literary novel! And it’s… good? Perhaps great? You know, I’m going to go with “it’s great.” Perhaps it’s not for everyone but I thought it was great. Moreover, I “disagreed” with it, to the extent it has a thesis, and still think that! And it’s not even in one of the more-or-less official dissident categories that cranky lefty readers like me are “supposed” to reach out towards- right-wingers (conveniently, usually from outdated flavors of fash), people who are shitheads in their personal lives, etc. No, my disagreement is what seems to be a sort of left-liberal outlook on our current pass, the sort of thing that’s supposed to be poisonous to thinking and writing, in our bestiary. And it’s by a poet whose previous two novels look like the sort of stuff I’d hate, praised by the likes of Jonathan Franzen! But here we are.

This is primarily the story of the Gordons, a transparent and admitted stand-in for the Lerners: an upper-middle class family in Topeka, Kansas at the end of the twentieth century, composed of two psychotherapist parents (the mother is somewhat famous) and a highly successful but neurotic son set to graduate high school in 1997 (apparently there’s a second Lerner brother but he’s nowhere to be found in the Gordons). The stories are mostly told in the past tense, and we linger most with the son, Adam, a high school debate champion who is now a successful novelist and father in Brooklyn. We learn of his parents’ courtship and troubles, their efforts to live a psychoanalytically-informed, lightly culturally liberal life in increasingly conservative Topeka, anchored by a psychological institute that was there (for some reason) and was apparently hot shit between the fifties and the nineties. The present tense stuff we get entails mostly a final chapter, with Adam discussing experiences in contemporary New York, and brief interludes from the perspectives of a high school classmate of his, Darren, who was mentally ill, probably on the autism spectrum, and gets involved in some terrible violence.

What’s so great about “The Topeka School”? It’s an intellectual novel (partially) about intellectual life as lived, and seems to come from an honest place, without self-flattery or its cousin, self-flagellation. The language gets Lerner’s points across with the flourishes one might expect from a poet, but never gets in his way. The characters make sense, and, miraculously for a novel steeped in psychoanalysis, are fleshed out deeply, feel lived in, but that fleshing out is never tedious. It kept my interest. That’s a lot, for a contemporary novel without a genre hook (and for many contemporary novels with such hooks!).

All compliments in the negative, what “The Topeka School” avoids, but there’s positive goods too. I especially enjoyed the painful scenes of Adam’s debate career (there’s another champion debater who writes pretty good contemporary fiction: Sally Rooney). I knew I didn’t care for formal debate. I didn’t realize how much of it involved literally spewing out as many bullshit arguments as quickly as you could, so as to browbeat opponents, to the (adult!) judges approval. Apparently, “Lincoln-Douglas” debates, which prioritize declamation and thoughtfulness over “owning” the other guy, are increasingly popular in scholastic competitive debate, but as Lerner makes clear, determined shitty teen pedants can make those awful, too. Lerner’s good with stuff like that- the feeling of these debates and preparation for them, parties with the gangsta-fied rich white high school kids of suburban Kansas in the late nineties, passive-aggressive scenes between analysts in highly entangled relationships, and other scenes that make one question whether leaving the oceans was a worthwhile choice for terrestrial life.

The debate stuff enters into “the point” of the novel. People say that novels shouldn’t have points, that that should be left to nonfiction, which should in turn be all about the thesis. I almost believe the opposite. Thesis-heavy nonfiction books are often repetitive drags to read. I think a novel that makes an argument can often be fun and can avoid a lot of pitfalls. There are many, many bad examples of pointed novels and pointless nonfiction (and of pointless novels and thesis-heavy nonfiction), I know, but I think at this point one of the problems of anglophone fiction is that it often makes a fetish of pointlessness, or else of points so childlike that they haven’t really got a point to an adult reader (hence, maybe, the rise of an adult YA fiction readership…).

Anyway! The debate stuff is just the most prominent example in “The Topeka School” of characters slipping into non-signifying speech or glossolalia, talking a mile a minute but saying nothing. Teenage Adam goes to a therapist (at his parents’ employer, natch) who plays glossolalia tapes at him to get him to “open up.” Little kid Adam gets a concussion that messes with his memory and speech and gives him migraines for the rest of his life, and his parents witness college-aged Adam slip into nonsense-speak after he gets dumped. His (at the time married) dad has a bad trip on acid when courting his mom in New York in the sixties and loses control of his speech. But the debate stuff above all, and “the spread” — where one debater deluges another in bullshit — is the central metaphor for this problem, for the way language slips the bounds of civilization — of which it is the main support — and threatens to undo all that it’s done, to become a non-communication.

This is relevant, in the Trump years! I think the idea here is that the lives of the Gordons and those around them in the late nineties/early aughts are canaries in the coal mine of a communicative apocalypse that led to Trump, of the meaningful speech that builds society giving way to the glossolalia that is always under the surface. Lerner doesn’t say why, exactly this happens- the internet is an unwelcome, ungemutlich, porn-laden presence, and the fecklessness of the guardians of civil society in the book, the psychologists (including Adam’s parents and a refugee from Nazi Germany), probably doesn’t help. The antidote is to learn to speak together, meaningfully- and here, Lerner cites the Occupy-style “people’s mic,” at the end of the book, where he and his family are protesting ICE and telling off cops who tell his kids not to chalk on the sidewalk.

There’s much to be said about this! I agree with the basic framework of the thesis: there is indeed something different and at the very least unhelpful — perhaps “sinister” and “wrong” are warranted adjectives here — about many characteristic modes of recent discourse compared to discourse within living memory. I disagree with the notion that those who take up so much of public life discoursing in a way orthogonal to what were once commonly (maybe not so commonly?)-held conventions of truth and rationality are practicing glossolalia. Or else, I need to borrow a scene from another novelist who thinks a lot about contemporary communication, and arguably stole a march on Adam/Ben when they were in middle school-

“‘Cut,’ the journalist says, turning into the camera. ‘Just cut. The Babble Brigade has started again.’

“The soundtrack now consists of thousands of people speaking in tongues under the high-pitched, shit-eating chuckles of L. Bob Rife.

“‘This is the miracle of tongues,’ Rife shouts above the tumult. ‘I can understand every word these people are saying. Can you, brother?’”

As a certain clade of my readership will no doubt have caught on, this is from Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash,” a novel with a distinctly mixed reputation these days (I still think it’s good). The basic plot of the book is that Rife, an evangelical billionaire, wants to un-do the sundering of human language effected by the fall of the Tower of Babel (in Stephenson’s telling, a neurolinguistic virus created by Sumerian hackers to overthrow the tyranny of priests and create humans with personality- neuro people and people who know anything about Sumerian are among the major detractors of “Snow Crash”) and with it, the creation of separate languages- and separate human consciousnesses. We can all be a mishmash hive mind gabbing away in tongues, like God intended? The worst thing a hyper-literate nineties edgy dude could imagine (to be fair, I don’t like it either).

The point here isn’t that “Snow Crash” is better or worse than “The Topeka School” (a real apples and oranges comparison), but that Stephenson gets the power equation with language more than Lerner seems to. Rife has a purpose in mind with glossolalia, and he can understand it just fine. It communicates- just in a different mode than the one the protagonists of “Snow Crash” (and the writer and the audience) prefer and have built an existence around. Similarly, Trump may not “make sense” in the way a finely-written essay might, but he absolutely conveys meaning. You can argue that the internet has a higher static-signal ratio, and I think you’d be right, but there’s plenty of message there — hate, lust, desperation, affection for cats — if you listen. You can make use of these communicative techniques to build community, of a sort. I mean, look at this essay, or the rest of my writing- clearly, not my sort of community. But there it is.

Intermittently, Lerner seems to get that, or anyway gets there’s power at work, it’s not just a descent into nothingness. In the last chapter, he encounters a shitty dad of a child misbehaving in a sexist fashion and who won’t do anything about it, and a shitty cop trying to intimidate him and his kids. I think Lerner tries to depict their communications — the dad’s repetitions of cliches and refusal to engage, the cop’s tough guy woofing aimed at children — as part of the decline of speech. But their speech communicates, differently, but clearly. Similarly, he seems to get that the debate glossolalia he once indulged in, practiced like a sport, isn’t value-neutral madness, but a domination ritual. It’s meant to dominate another, and adult judges reward it, see it as grooming for further power positions.

Lerner also discusses hip hop and fighting. In trying to be cool — in Adam’s case, rebelling, before returning to, his parents gentle liberal humanism — the Topeka boys fight a lot, and try to do rap, both supposedly inspired by hip hop culture. Fighting is harsher than it used to be, Lerner argues, due to these white boys taking on hip hop posturing (and watching early televised MMA, with its ground fighting and elbows); attempts at rap were the first real poetry Adam tries, before becoming a renowned poet as an adult. The fighting is seen as entirely negative, a degeneration, a morbid symptom, and that seems reasonably fair. Adam gives his efforts at rap some credit for building his poetical skills, but is sufficiently ironic about his expensively bred white corpus mouthing phrases about bitches and gats so as to see it as basically foolish, a failed communication. Are either failed communications, or are they borrowings to express things that always were there under the surface of the lives of these boys? Is it entirely impossible that they could have found an outlet for their desire for conflict that kept hip hop’s power (and the knowledge that an elbow often does better than a fist at close range) without taking on board dysfunctions?

And then there’s Darren. Darren can’t communicate, never could, except in inept lies and sporadic violence. Adam and his friends intermittently bully him and people at his parents’ center try to treat him. Nothing works. The deck is stacked- broken home, almost certainly some degree of developmental disability, he just never had a chance. Some of the high school seniors start letting Darren hang around, semi-ironically (how often is anything that any privileged teen does entirely sincere?). When it becomes clear they’re playing with him, Darren uses a pool cue to cold-cock a girl. That’s the last we see of him until Adam comes home to Topeka for a poetry reading, and there’s Darren with the Westboro Baptist Church protestors.

This might be the wrongest part of a book the theses of which I have several disagreements. And even here, Lerner’s Darren is still human, thoughtfully portrayed. He’s pitiful and enraging in turn. There’s an interesting discursus Lerner makes on the man-child and his place in middle American life, the way in which that by being the same gender and race of the dominant type of the empire, man-children like Darren are allowed to be mascots, sometimes even muscle for an officially permitted body, in a way women or people of color with similar inability to grow up aren’t. Of course, they always know they’re on the outside… but… the idea that the Darrens of the world represent the Trump base, what happens to us when the communicative bridges collapse… that doesn’t work. WBC muscle, maybe, but not the Trump base. That’s more like the cop, or the shitty office worker dad, Lerner encounters in the end. My take is that Lerner is smart and perceptive enough to write his way into the mind of a loser enough to get us to believe him, but not enough to really get what makes those losers — or the worlds made by people cynically appealing to senses of inarticulate loss and rage — what they are. They’re just a mystery. You know how “serious” novelists love their unsolvable mysteries.

Well… I think that’s a fine position for a novelist, as long as they’ve got the chops to back it up. I’m dedicated to not treating these things like a mystery, and I’m not at all certain I’ll succeed! Moreover, if we’re writing passes for Celine, Kipling, Mishima (do we write passes for writers who co-signed or lied about communist atrocities, or is it either we pretend they didn’t on the left and the right and the center never forgives them? Asking for a friend), Norman Mailer, and so on, we can allow that a liberal with some mildly useless liberal opinions can write a great novel expressing those opinions, especially when there’s a lot else going on in said novel. That’s what Lerner accomplished here. Five stars? Ding half a star for liberalism? Fuck it, no. Five stars! *****

Review – Lerner, “The Topeka School”

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