06 Sep 2020


In this photo taken July 2007, Fred Phelps Sr., pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, prepares to protest outside the Kansas Statehouse | AP
In this photo taken July 2007, Fred Phelps Sr., pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, prepares to protest outside the Kansas Statehouse | AP

The Topeka School is the final instalment of Ben Lerner’s dynamic autofiction trilogy. His previous works — 2011’s Leaving the Atocha Station and its luminous 2014 follow up, 10:04 — were explorations of the inner world of the author, which he continues in his latest novel.

In Leaving the Atocha Station, Adam Gordon is a 24-year-old, fresh college graduate who is whisked away to Spain via a fellowship programme, finds himself suffocated by his own self-consciousness and habitually lies to make himself appear more desirable and interesting. He knows a lot, but understands nothing and this ironic detachment extends as far as his nonchalant response to the Madrid train bombings of 2004.

Adam returns in The Topeka School, this time as a haughty teenager growing up in the American Midwestern town of Topeka in the 1990s. He is best known as a poet, a diehard feminist and an outstanding extemporaneous speaker, who picks up and traces the roots of white male rage and toxic masculinity. In 10:04, the narrator — literally named Ben — declares that in his next book, he aspires to work his way from “irony to sincerity” and The Topeka School achieves exactly that. It is as big-brained as it is large-hearted, which is precisely why the novelist was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2020 and the novel was former American president Barack Obama’s favourite book of the year.

Adam does not have a typical, Midwestern upbringing. He hails from a family where both parents are psychologists, working for “The Foundation.” This is an elite, psychiatric clinic that thrives as an experimental, pro-LGBTQ+ establishment, almost as if it were an oasis, smack dab in the middle of a bigoted, intolerable society, where Reverend Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church have utmost influence, and Topekans are bombarded with chants such as “God Hates Fags” on a daily basis.

Adam’s home is frequented by “Folk singers and community organisers, sexperts and Feminist scholars”, which explains why he stands out and apart from the rest of his peers. He is exceptionally perceptive and is open to understanding disparate discourses, often taking everything as a debate, using language as a tool for dissent as well as a weapon to get the attention of his self-involved parents, whose crumbling marriage is something he has to witness.

Ben Lerner’s final instalment of his autofiction trilogy is as big-brained as it is large-hearted and goes beyond excavating the author’s own origins

Perhaps what sets The Topeka School apart from its preceding works, elevating it as bravura, coming-of-age autofiction, is the fact that it is a triptych. That is to say, the narrative is not only told from a third-person perspective, but from the third-person perspective of three people: Adam and his parents, Jane and Jonathan Gordon. This triptych persona of Lerner’s latest work enriches the narrative and adds another dimension to an already multi-dimensional genre of literary fiction. The point is not to take a stab at the vein of Karl Ove Knausgaard, the pioneer of autofiction and whose work is more confessional and an attempt at truthfulness and self-disclosure, but to celebrate Lerner’s storytelling abilities and his exercise of ventriloquising the voice of his parents into a narrative designed specifically to excavate his beginnings.

Lerner’s writing is most remarkable in places depicting the inter-generational trauma that is as much prevalent in America as it is universally. The Topeka School delves much deeper into the domineering brand of toxic masculinity than in the intersectionality of race, which may upset some, but hones the novel’s main focus.

This is particularly apparent in Jane Gordon’s rise to fame as a life-changing psychologist and bestselling author and the way her success threatens the ego of the men around her, including her own husband. To be sure, Jane is an autofictional adaption of Harriet Lerner, the author’s actual, award-winning, Oprah-endorsed mother and author of The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Pattern of Intimate Relationships, which has been translated into 35 languages.

Jane is a victim of severe hate-filled invective, to the point where she receives threats from strange men in Topeka via telephone. She is described by the same men as having “penis envy”, implying her achievements are those that men only deserve. Jonathan Gordon, Jane’s husband, is the exact contrast of his wife. He is complacent, lacks ambition and considers his wife’s commitment to her career as a ticket to act as irresponsibly as he desires. His wandering eye fixates on Jane’s best friend and confidant, Sima — a gorgeous Irani woman, who also happens to be married. The Gordons’ whole marriage turns into a farce, but Jane excuses her husband’s bad behaviour and continues to stay with him because of the “security” promised to a woman in marriage: an age-old maxim planted in the minds of young women by the patriarchy to ensure its survival.

Through a masterfully passive voice, we also access the disturbed musings of a local outcast, Darren Eberheart, who is initially the laughing stock of his peers but eventually is brought into Adam’s group of alpha-boys through horrifying means. But Darren’s story, at times, can be grossly confusing and drags a bit. It is difficult to decipher if he has a mental illness or is simply someone who gets into a lot of trouble with the law.

The last chapter of the book zooms into the year 2019, where we see Darren wearing a red Trump hat at a Trump rally, thereby capturing the United States in a microcosm: with its islands of “coastal elites” and “liberal cosmopolitans”, a place where the warring tribes of America live side-by-side. At several points in his writing, Lerner compares the current Trumpian America to Bill Clinton’s era of the 1990s, during which he grew up, and opines that times were much better before.

It is easy to write off The Topeka School as a story about a moody teenage boy who cannot come to terms with his own brilliance. However, there is something much more radical at play here. Lerner employs a concoction of artworks and short story references as an aesthetic licence to create running metaphors within the narrative.

For example, Italian artist Duccio’s Madonna and Child is a real painting with a fictional parapet. Its appearance in The Topeka School is representative of the unstable mixture of fact and fiction that the genre of autofiction promises. Similarly, Hermann Hesse’s short story, ‘A Man by the Name of Ziegler’, and its anachronistic occurrence also reinforces the blurring of fact and fiction, when Jane and Jonathan drop acid on their first date and can’t tell the difference between illusion and reality.

The Topeka School is a compelling, effectual conclusion to Lerner’s autofiction trilogy. He subsumes timely philosophical and literary references in his narrative to analyse his life story with regard to what he calls “Places That Matter”, which had significant impact on his life, growing up.

This is why he chooses to chronicle his childhood in Topeka, using language as a vehicle for social criticism to portray the socio-political discrepancies in the Midwest and how the ‘Bible Belt’ became a breeding ground for hate-speech and misogyny. This is evidenced by the rampant influence of Republicans and the Westboro Baptist Church in morphing the America we see today.

The reviewer is the Digital Director of the Lahore Literary Festival

The Topeka School
By Ben Lerner
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, US
ISBN: 978-0374277789

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 6th, 2020