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Unlike many of the reviewers, I found the structure of The Topeka School intriguing, intricately patterned, true to life as lived and the way we remember things. I really enjoyed the connections and the way the parts became whole. Nevertheless, I have a few gripes: I do have a problem dealing with, as Lerner acknowledges, 'the unstable mixture of fact and fiction'. I am aware that this is being done a lot now and often makes for absorbing reading, however, it still seems a bit like cheating (using your own life and passing it off as fiction). I am aware that all fiction has to come from somewhere and that writers of traditional fiction also draw upon their own and others' experiences to make stuff up but don't we expect fiction to be more imagined than non-fiction? And, isn't that harder? And isn't it fairer for the reader to know this when they read a literary work?
And, as much as I admire and really enjoy Lerner's writing and structure and originality, there lingers, for me beneath the surface, a discernible 'smarty-pants' undergraduate tone. And, more than a touch of self-indulgent whinging from a group of entitled, intellectually superior folk whose endless analysis of their personal problems at times tip into banality. Lerner's writing saves them.
Ich habe auf den ersten Seiten etwas wichtiges über mein Leben gelernt. Ich möchte meine Lebenszeit nicht damit verbringen, über die verrückten, abwegigen, depressiven Gedanken anderer Menschen nachzudenken. Dann habe ich das Buch weggelegt.
This book was certainly a challenging read. If you are looking for a quick, easy read, this is not that book (buy it anyway for when you are wanting something with more depth). This book seemed like it was one long run-on sentence and had a non-linear time line and switches between four interrelated characters; despite this or maybe in spite of this, this novel was a must-read in my opinion and tries to help make sense of the country we now find ourselves in.
As I read this book, I have to admit that I wondered how much of it would make sense unless you grew up in Northeast Kansas during the 90s. Likewise, unless you were a Debater or Forensics "nerd" in high school, I wondered how much someone would understand the references to these activities that were discussed throughout the book. Like the author, I grew up in NE Kansas during the 90s (I am ever-so slightly older) and was a frequent visitor to Topeka, so a lot of references were familiar to me. (As a HS Forensics participant, and having had one child (so far) be a Debater, I was very familiar with the numerous Debate and Forensics references). Invariably, we saw protests from Fred Phelps' "church." Most of us, even my ultra-conservative mother, were appalled by the protests, but much like the book states, the objections to Fred Phelps had little to do with the demeaning of the LGBTQ community. While this book touched on a lot of issues, one of the most profound moments of this book for me revolved around the issue of Fred Phelps: Why were the citizens of Topeka (or anywhere) so offended by him when they agreed with him? (Please note: I do not agree with Fred Phelps or his ideologies.)
I never imagined that I would receive parenting insight with this book, but as a mom to two boys, the issue of toxic masculinity is a recurrent concern and is something that weighs on my heart. I do not want my boys to think it is acceptable to treat girls/women as only sex objects (as was my experience growing up in the 90s and even still now, ugh!) nor in any way inferior, yet I do not want them to feel that they are somehow inferior or invalidated because they are male.
And now, I feel compelled to address the, ahem, elephant in the room. This novel tried to provide a backstory for how Donald Trump happened. Yes, I still live in Kansas, but I can assure you there are cities/areas in this "red" state that are liberal (or purple), much like the family portrayed in this novel. (I would argue that we do not have "red" or "blue" states, we have concentrated areas in each state that lean politically one way and they are better defined by rural, urban, suburban.) The subject of Donald Trump and how anyone can support him is certainly a compelling psychological examination, no matter which side you are on. I think this book makes some interesting conclusions that show how some of this absurd current circumstance even became possible. Which brings it back to the conclusion about Fred Phelps: Why are they offended when they agree? Yikes.
So, go find a quiet, comfy space, grab a cup of tea (or coffee), and allot yourself chunk of time to try to read this gem of a book in a single setting (or 2). It's well worth your time.
Despite the obvious pretension--or maybe because of--I enjoyed Ben Lerner's previous books, and so decided to give The Topeka School a go. As always, Lerner is a fine writer. The issue here is the story is not terribly compelling. It is no secret that the book is based on the author's years, and perhaps therein lies the problem: Everyone is interested in their own story, but that doesn't mean that their story is interesting.
I read the reviews, and couldn't wait to read the book. I enjoyed the beginning of the book, but struggled to finish the middle and end. I found it confusing and rambling, and stopped caring about the characters.
While Ben Lerner is finding his own voice and plot and characters, he's appropriated Foster Wallace. And why not? It's always good for a critically reviewed author to be linked with the master. It makes for great book blurbs although not necessarily great literature. So with lots of words and watered down Foster Wallace, Lerner happily sails into Topeka Kansas and parodying Menningers,writes about a surreal institute called, imaginatively the Institute--but wait, isn't this the terroritory of Boyle stories reimaging insttions for fictional purposes? Reading Topeka School is like reading an anthology of 20-21 century American literature. His disturbed main character also has a lot of Holden Caulfeld and lots of other young, disturbed, smart mouthed, disaffected young men. So there's nothing really new or innovative here but since I'm too plebian to get through Infinite Jest it's nice to have it reduced to Cliff Notes that I can access.
From my perspective as a voracious reader, but only occasional amateur reviewer, this is a book that makes no sense. I tried three times to read it and each time, cast it aside. It might be written by someone very high on mind-altering substances or just basically disconnected from everything. A given sentence might make a bit of sense, but a following sentence has nothing to do with the preceding sentence. That seems to be way the entire book is structured. I've given it to friends who are far brighter than I and asked them to please let me know what it is about.