The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

I’ll admit it, I found this book a challenge. I would go so far as to say it is the trickiest book I’ve read in years. Swinging between fact and fiction and jumping forward and back in time, reading The Topeka School was the most exercise I did all holiday.

The Topeka School is the third novel of US writer and celebrated poet, Ben Lerner. Lerner is also a Professor of English at Brooklyn College and when you read this novel, absolutely none of that will surprise you. I can only imagine this guy’s bookshelf.

The story centres around a teenage, competitive debater called Adam, growing up with parents who are both psychiatrists. Adam is just a kid but, when crossed, lashes out with “an overwhelming barrage of ridiculous but somehow irrefutable arguments” at even simple requests like unpacking the dishwasher.

I could give you more of a synopsis but to be honest, the best part of this book is the language, not the story.  The characters are all just vessels through which the author considers how different people use and abuse words and how others are lost without them. I think (or rather I contend) that it’s also about perpetual adolescence and how easily language and over-analysis can disguise the fact that we are all just kids in adult clothing.

If you can work through the three different narrators which move between the first and third person, you will be rewarded with some seriously sublime writing.  I’m talking about passages that leap off the page like harmonies and which will make you want to put down the book and just sigh.  For example, a short passage where Adam overhears his parents arguing and then re-phrases their attacks into a poem; only to delete it immediately afterwards. Or the re-telling of an award-winning extemporaneous speech on the topic of liberal democracy that references the way Wilde E Coyote from Road Runner goes over a cliff before looking down and falling.  In fact, all the writing about live debating, persuasion and public speaking in this book is exquisite.

I am not a poet and I don’t have a degree in literature but I know enough to spot exceptional writing when I see it. Writing that is simultaneously technical but innovative and precise but layered doesn’t come around often. Passages that tackle multiple themes at a time including modern American politics, education, bullies and male rage are also often attempted but rarely landed. Lerner pulls it off time and again making some very brutal points in the process.

Sadly, all of this didn’t mean that I enjoyed reading it and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t admit that here.  Call me basic, but I needed more plot and it was also too negative for me. Ironic, given that the whole work is about how people overwhelm others with language.

If you are going to give The Topeka School a go (which I sincerely hope you do), my best advice is to google a synopsis to understand the story first. Then you can settle in and enjoy the writing without having to waste too much headspace figuring out what is going on.  I only wish I had done the same thing before I started.

And that’s my 2 cents worth.