The Topeka School: A Novel by Ben Lerner


They felt at once profoundly numb and profoundly ecstatic to be young and inflicting optional damage on each other; the heat was its own justification, but so was the cold- there was a second-order thrill in knowing you could kick someone in the chest without emotion. 

With two parents who are highly successful psychologists working for “The Foundation”, surely one would imagine their son Adam would have a solid structure to build his life upon. It’s not so, the parents marriage isn’t so perfect neither is he the well rounded, popular student the surface would have people believe. Like other foundation kids, he is on his way up, a debater and orator sure to win the state championship, popular with the other foundation kids despite being a poet (whom everyone knows makes you a total wimp, right), growing up in middle class Kansas, a seemingly charmed existence but his parents strategies are enough to drive him into a rage. He’s got verbal battles to channel bullying, a safe outlet. Thank god for his ‘language’, and he can always do ‘talk therapy’ or consult with someone they really admire, anything to dull that ‘intensity’ of his. A concussion leads to migraines, and of course there is terror in the debilitating neurological effects for people of any age. Are these migraines just the effects and pressures of ‘passing himself off as a real man?’ Lucky for Adam he has The Foundation and Erwood, “a pioneer in biofeedback” to pull him through.

There are pages where we get inside of Darren’s mind, a student with mental problems who is pulled into Adam’s circle,“Hadn’t they always been told to include him?” and involved in an incident that leads to a violent episode. In fact, this was what I loved most about the novel… that even parents with all their brilliant research and Adam’s father with his keen insight into troubled boys can still fail just like the rest of us. “Of course they knew better, but knowing is a weak state, you cannot assume your son will opt out of the dominant libidinal economy…” you want to talk about intensity and aggression how about what it means for boys to embrace violent masculinity even in a world that is ‘inclusive’, with a top-notch support system. Kids will be cruel, even when they know better, even when they are trying to be better. There is a mockery of the world as modeled by their parents, and no one exposes it in the way Lerner does in this novel. Even the adults, like Adam’s father understands that you can’t transcend feelings, even if you do understand them.

Going back in time and reading about Adam’s parents family dynamics leads us to some understanding on why they are concerned about the human psyche, what they themselves have embraced or discarded from their own childhoods, all the old wounds. But a parent can’t apply their own lessons perfectly to their own children, we live in different times, different worlds. You still have to fight societal norms, the culture of youth, the expectations of peers and the world always breathing down your neck. Jane’s interactions with The Men, the harassment she tolerates because other women suffer so much worse. How it touches Adam when he is a young boy. Just who are the men? You know them, the woman haters, the ones who would have her raped and ‘taught a lesson’ if wishes could make it happen.

Having a successfully famous feminist mother, and wondering during an interaction with another mother and son should he feel proud or emasculated by mom’s success is a fascinating thought to explore. It seems her very existence can generate situations that demand Adam act out, with ape mentality.  There is a section of the novel where his mother Jane is receiving an award after an encounter Adam has with a member of the Westboro Baptist Church. His behavior the opposite effect of what his feminist mother teaches others. The mockery from the protester when Adam does show his own hatred. When does masculinity cross the line, when is it more about appearances? What causes so much anger inside of Adam, whose been raised to redirect any form of aggression in a healthy way? The world still demands a man ‘prove’ his strength, the world still sizes him up. How do we fight back without losing our own dignity? This isn’t the last he will see of the protesters.

There seem to be pivotal moments in Adam’s life, the concussion and the incident that he drags with him into adulthood. Adam blames himself for Darren still too. The collapse of a serious relationship, the collapse of his own parents calm little marriage. Has he really ‘graduated from childhood’? What does that even mean? Has he learned to be a man yet, the sort of man mom wouldn’t be ashamed of, the sort of man that channels his own father’s calmness? But there are so many tests for a man beginning in childhood to adolescence, and then fatherhood?

The story shifts perspectives, we see the infidelities through his father Jonathan (how we cross the lines of intimacy in marriage), the toxic violence of our current times, the issue of masculinity, why Jane holds herself back, how our past can both guide and haunt us and the impossible task of trying to understand what it means to even be a man anymore in the world. How we distort the truth, how we make sense of the chaos outside and inside of us. Time skips, and folds in on us through the telling, it works in this novel. How do you raise a solid human being when our culture is crumbling, especially as Adam is coming of age in the 90s, where being a man seems to be modeled on demeaning others, on knowing if you can ‘take someone down’?  Having a feminist mother, parents who understand the human psyche doesn’t mean the rot of the world won’t stick to you. This is an intelligent novel but it felt scattered sometimes. There is a lot going on, and you have to keep up.

Publication Date: October 1, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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