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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'm quite sure this is considered good fiction, but the difficulty I had sticking with the disjointed flow of the story is why I stick to less erudite literature. I enjoyed recognizing locations and scenes from my hometown (Topeka) immensely, and my own experiences in debate and speech at Topeka West came back to me in Lerner's descriptions of Adam's competitions. Unfortunately, the story itself escaped me.
THE TOPEKA SCHOOL is an unusual novel, very hard to read. It's about the Gordon family, a rather elite group, consisting of two therapists, one of whom is a published feminist. Their son Adam, is the main character.
There are several points of view: Adam, his father Jonathan, his mother Jane, and Darren Eberheart, who's a bit slow, but the elite families insist that Adam and his friends include Darren in their activities. These kids don't really consider Darren an equal and they go so far as to leave him at a party six hours from Topeka. There's a predictable blow-up at another party later. The adults never considered how alcohol might impact this relationship.
Adam is an expert policy debater and the best extemporaneous speaker in the country, maybe the best ever. When I was a speech coach, this was my favorite category. The speaker has forty-five minutes to prepare a five to seven minute speech, including research which he/she has done before the competition. He/she can pick from three domestic or three international questions. The good ones don't use a notecard on which they may have fifty words. Symbols count as words. The problem with this activity is that competitors are sometimes considered dorks or nerds by the other kids. Adam is quite concerned about his masculinity, pumps iron regularly and picks fights with other teens who question it.
For those not in the know, Topeka is home base for Fred Phelps and his family of homophobic mouth breathers. Fred is now dead, but the rest of the family shows up at funerals and liberal presentations to rain down cat calls on them, mostly obscenities. They even appear at Veterans' funerals. Jane is one of their principal targets. They refer to her as “The Brain”.
Author Ben Lerner eschews the traditional plot. He gets going in one direction, and the most you'll get is ten pages, before he changes focus. About the only suspense is whether Adam will win the national championship in Forensic extemporaneous speaking at the national tournament in Minneapolis. He is really nervous, so nervous he asks his mother for a valium. And she gives him half of one and another one the day of competition. Her husband is livid. You don't give someone else your prescription; she's a doctor of psychology so she should know.
Lerner is very minimalist in style. He doesn't tell you who's speaking. You need to pay attention to references in order to figure it out. Jane might refer to her husband or Adam. The biggest jump is at the end, which occurs twenty years after the main part of the book and includes another masculine confrontation.
Lerner does a good job of being critical of some of the faults of white male culture. This combined with his skewering the shallowness of modern debate, a major theme of the book, is probably what put this on the book lists. But, in spite of this, for me it didn't warrant all the critical hoopla.
Lerner's writing in places can get thin on substance (like the purposeless mumbo-jumbo around the Institute). He also demonstrates a kind of enthusiastic over-diligence in "sticking the landing" with scene or chapter endings, this kind of one-to-think-on summation at points that can seem stiff or land flat, like it doesn't come from hard-won experience. Some of the characters feel, simply, made up, "word people," like the German(?) analyst (complete with accent). And then there are the times where he comes close to the style of David Foster Wallace; DFW did a better job of being Wallacian, and if you've read much of Wallace, you're probably going to be disappointed with Lerner's stylistic flirtations.
Nothing against Mr. Lerner, I wish him well, but I think the critics got a little carried away on this one.
This novel was exceptionally well done-wonderful prose, Lerner skillfully moves between time frames fleshing out characters-up to a point. It felt like a memoir, and I later learned with the help of Google that it pretty much is. Three quarters of the way through this novel I was prepared to love it. It confronts male aggression in a way I haven't seen done before, however, the conclusion of the book felt incongruous and did not seem connected to the beginning. One major character arc (Darren) was left untied and frankly I wanted to know more about the mother character's history and her journey toward forgiveness (?) with Jonathan. Further, the last few scenes feel too recent to be resolved in the writer's mind, and seem to have nothing to do with the overall story. I really waffled between three or four stars but my frustration with the ending which has lingered in my mind for several days has me ultimately going with three, however, I consider the book worth reading.
This was a mixed bag for me. It is the first book by Ben Lerner I've read so can't compare it to others he has written. Obviously he is a gifted writer, but I felt that he often got in the way of the story by trying to "show off" a bit. The overall story interested me, there were parts that kept me highly engrossed and then there would be pages where I'd lose interest and zone out, forcing myself to reread those easily forgotten words. The last two chapters were the most even and engaging for me, although overall, I didn't feel "Topeka School" lived up to the critical praise that was showered upon it.
The book is a worthwhile read. But it's not easy as it follows 4 different characters - and others whose lives intersect them. The device of looking at a single time or event from several different POVs is staring to become a gimmick. This Rashomon device is used very often now, sometimes trying to bring an emotion to scenes and characters that might not be there or that the author doesn't deserve without the device. The final chapter is most disappointing. It goes into the future and has almost nothing (apart from the one character) to do with the rest of the book. I wanted to know about the other characters as well as the son. Mr. Lerner's a very good writer. But if this were his first book the editors would have been less enamored of Mr. Lerner's work in it and this book most likely would have been much better.
Regretfully, I failed to read the reviews prior to purchasing this book and spent hours wading through what I felt was a tangled jungle of words. I've spent years reading fiction and found some works boring, others spellbinding. The Topeka School was confusing. What's the author's point? I'm not sure. One critic calls TTS the 'future of the novel'. Gad, what a depressing thought.
Having lived in Topeka for 30+ years I found reading this book a unique experience; when the writer described driving around Topeka, streets, landmarks and businesses, I of course could readily see what he mentioned. However, the intricate plot aside, I found the language to be more complex and confusing than necessary. I appreciate the poetic influence but I have never been a debater so perhaps that is what caused me to get lost in the bushes. I did like the varying POVs. I thought the characters were meticulously drawn. From visualizing Lake Sherwood, SBA Hill, Potwin, the looming edifice of Topeka High (I am a Topeka West alumnus) to driving out to Clinton Lake and waking up on Mass Street, it was like a trip back to Topeka. But I did feel unsatisfied at the ending, but I also thought -- well, y'know, that is rather like life really is -- a little mysterious and a little unsatisfying.