December 2019 – January 2020


‘The Topeka School’ by Ben Lerner

By Emma Fajgenbaum
Cover of ‘The Topeka School’
The American author’s latest novel canvasses the seething hate speech of the burgeoning alt-right and white-boy rap battles in the Midwest

Ben Lerner’s books have always been concerned with his own sense of fraudulence – a striking theme for an author who, at just 40 years of age, has published three celebrated novels and as many books of poetry. The fascination is evident across both forms: his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, followed a callow and insecure young American poet named Adam Gordon (a version of the author himself) who receives a prestigious grant to write poetry in Madrid – and spends the entire book avoiding the task. Meanwhile, in his treatise on poetry, Lerner’s thesis was that poetic form is always caught between its ideal ambitions and the mundane reality of the poems themselves. Dubiously universalising his own sense of failure, to write poetry, for Lerner, is to take aim but to always miss the mark.

His latest novel, The Topeka School (Granta), is also driven by questions of self-deception, though here the author looks beyond the neuroses of the poet to exhume an entire American malaise. Lerner sheds the (very funny) solipsistic monologues of the earlier novel, and opts for a capacious, multilayered and multi-vocal form that lets him target a whole swathe of verbal misdemeanours. His targets are usually male, and include the phenomena of white-boy rap battles in the Midwest, the bullying tactics of Republican Party politicians, the ventriloquised mash-up of young boys learning to be men and the seething hate speech of a burgeoning alt-right.

All this finds its distillation in the novel’s narrative centrepiece. In 1996, in addition to being a budding poet, Adam Gordon is (as his author was) the star member of Topeka High’s extemporaneous debate team. In extemp debate, competitors have 30 minutes to prepare a six-minute speech, delivered without notes, on questions that range from the particular (“Will the Ukrainian parliament ratify the new constitution next month?”) to the general (“What is the future of Mexico?”). Preoccupied as he is with linguistic fraudulence, it’s no surprise that Lerner seizes on the charade of teenagers in ill­fitting suits, hunched over copies of The Economist on a Saturday morning, discoursing aggressively and at speed on topics they can only pretend to understand: “See the sixteen­year-old in a ‘prep room’ before a final round choosing among three questions of almost sadistic obscurity … He goes with the question about water disputes in Djibouti because he at least knows what water is.”

Discreet sections of The Topeka School are given over to this comedy of competitive debate, but when Lerner proceeds to weave these scenes into a larger picture of toxic masculinity – with President Trump as abominable exemplar – the book begins to buckle under its own weight. Lerner wants to show the ways in which the vacuous combat of debate is part of the same contagion that leads to Trump’s pussy-grabbing America, but the novel’s foray into social critique is crude and unpersuasive, and ultimately annoying. Lerner’s much better at interrogating his own sense of failure than he is at diagnosing the ills of the nation.

Emma Fajgenbaum

Emma Fajgenbaum is an editor at Black Inc.

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