(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019)
If it can be said that the nineteenth century novel bore witness to the rise of the bourgeoisie, and the twentieth century novel to its neurotic dominion, then it might not be premature to suggest that the novel of the twenty-first century bears witness to that dominion’s radical reorganization—a reorganization, in places, indistinguishable from decline. It’s appropriate, then, that the contemporary novel—not just an artifact of this dominion, but a chief instrument of its reproduction—should choose, in approaching this theme, to start with the reorganization of the novel itself.
The fiction of Ben Lerner stakes out a position in this shifting tide. In two lean, luminescent books, the poet-turned-novelist has distilled, first, the hectic liminality of the self-examining mind (Leaving the Atocha Station) and, then, the baroque complications of that mind faced with the choice to act meaningfully in the world (10:04). Along with Sheila Heti, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and others, Lerner is an exponent of the emerging autofiction movement, a strain of storytelling wherein the intimate (and often mundane) details of contemporary experience are rendered memoiristically and in real time, displacing the traditional emphasis on dramatic event, and leaving the work’s status as fiction or memoir in superposition.
As with the present bourgeois order to which it is largely still accountable, autofiction’s inherent instability reflects the larger pressures of our irrevocably networked world. Though its roots run deep, the movement is an unmistakable literary extension of a language of self-authorship—both online and off—that has become an ambient, everyday background practice in the culture at large. Lerner’s particular contribution to the movement is his hermeneutical style, one that anticipates the reader’s response to the deeds and thoughts of his protagonist (typically a stand-in for Lerner himself) and, in so doing, draws the reader closer. At the height of its power, Lerner’s work crystallizes the sensation of networked life as a kind of inter-reference where the boundaries between language and reality bend and blur.
The question before Lerner, then, in his formidable third novel, is how to bring this futurist aesthetic into alignment with a story of the past. The Topeka School is an effort at a bildungsroman proper, a fictionalization of his own youth in Kansas in the late nineties. But it is also an effort to press the boundaries of autofiction laid out in his first two novels. To mind and world, Lerner has added history—one whose telos is, both personally and nationally, conjured in advance.
The Topeka School uncovers the origins of our contemporary language as they are refracted in the linguistic origins of one of its contemporary practitioners, i.e. the author-protagonist. Readers may recognize the hero of Atocha Station, Adam Gordon, about six years younger, and in third-person this time. Adam is a high school senior in affluent suburban Topeka with an affinity for extemporaneous speech that lends itself well to hip hop freestyling and, more significantly, to competitive high school debate. It’s in the successive rounds of the national debate tournament that a recurring motif in Lerner’s work surfaces at its strongest: a vision of language as something material, constitutive, embedded in reality; a substance at the point of exchange between subject and object. It’s also these moments in which The Topeka School feels most vitally like a “story” in the conventional sense. As Adam debates, we see political language among teenagers (some of it pointedly familiar) rehearsing itself for conversion into substance, into policy and, eventually, history itself. We also see it taking on epidemic proportions, particularly in the case of a technique called “the spread,” in which the speed of a debater’s argumentation manifests a kind of incomprehensible, four-dimensional word-object—a handy metaphor for the internet at as we know it.
Constitutive as language is for Adam, the antecedents of his own particular language-game are naturally his parents. Jonathan and Jane Gordon each narrate sections of The Topeka School, in a style that resembles the free-floating talk therapy common to their profession. Both are psychoanalysts at an experimental research institute (based on a real place, at which Lerner’s parents actually worked) called the Foundation. Both, like Adam, are observant outsiders—New Yorkers, secular Jews, Freudians, feminists. Through this conscientiously traditional, polyphonic structure, we gain insight not only into the continuum between familial generations, but between generations of the American novel.
In the Gordons’ faith in the therapeutic power of language, we see flashes of the radical empathy and inclusivity that have grown popular in mainstream liberal discourse. The Gordons, in a word, are woke, and their faith persists despite its “paradoxical effects.” When Jane finds fame as an author of books on feminist psychoanalysis, the resentment it stirs leads to an affair between Jonathan and her best friend, who also happens to be her analyst. The resulting tryst places a marriage, a friendship, and a course of treatment in jeopardy—a chain reaction each of these relationships have been carefully structured (and as we see, are powerless) to prevent.
These effects have more acute casualties elsewhere. Darren Eberhardt, a disturbed former playmate of Adam’s, and current patient of Jonathan’s, also narrates. A loner and a dropout, he is gradually resocialized into Adam’s peer group with the tacit approval of the senior class parents. But Darren has no real inkling of his friends’ contempt, until a cocktail of substance and emotional abuse spills over into violence. His brief, Faulknerian intercuts amount to Lerner’s most earnest attempt to reach beyond the inherent solipsism (or, in this case, nepotism) at the heart of autofiction, into the more utopian novelistic ambitions enshrined within the liberal imagination: to bridge irreconcilable psychologies, classes, ideologies; to create a more perfect union. That they’re also some of the novel’s weakest sections—stylistically inert, competent in a bare, dramatic sense—suggests a more profound conceptual function that remains, nevertheless, merely academic.
Darren, and the possibilities for a language to accommodate him, are treated similarly, from a distance. The Topeka School is much more interested in Adam—in the forlorn near-understanding he shares with his girlfriend Amber, in his composition of a freestyle rap inspired by the aisles of a big box retailer, in his close encounter with a Foundation guru’s Reichian copper wall. To which, generally satisfied readers will reply: fair enough.
But in Darren, we sense an urge Lerner can neither resist nor totally assimilate, an urge to make The Topeka School that much more what it already is: a novel for the age of Trump. In an unwieldy coda, a series of episodes attempts to process the novel’s latent political content brought forward to the present day. Darren, frozen in tableau among the faces of a hate group, becomes the opposite number for Adam, protesting at an ICE detention center, virtuous and awkward by turn. Much of consequence happens in The Topeka School that is, like trauma, repressed from the narrative’s view. Instead, we feel consequences—of Jane’s abuse by her father, of Adam’s final debate round, of Darren’s shocking act of violence—like shrapnel from an explosion off-stage. Here, however, there is a sense of meaningful action ground down to a paralysis of knowing gestures.
The politics of The Topeka School are unambiguously liberal; that is to say, on the matter of speech and action, they are consciously ambiguous. An analytical style that can anticipate all possible developments—that can render all material commensurable with language—in the end, can also foreclose those same possibilities, and preempt action with idle chatter. The aesthetic and domestic systems into which Adam is installed in the novel’s final pages cast their horizons far short of the scale of the issues that afflict the land upon which The Topeka School finally fades out in a moment, not of productive ambiguity, but of managed decline.
In his essay “The Hatred of Poetry,” Lerner writes of his hope for a poetry that can, at once, contain transformative aspirations and the awareness of those same aspirations’ impossibility. Literature, it seems, cannot be revolutionary, and it takes a revolutionary literature to point this out. From the position of a critic, what Lerner says is true. But for an artist whose work, at its best, tracks the slip and cascade of language and life across systems, over and into one another, while the old order dismantles itself before our eyes, such proclamations verge on an aesthetics of defeat. This dialectic between revolution and defeat, between action and speech, is for the critics to resolve. In 2019, the political artist cannot negotiate a position in between: if he is bold, he must choose.
Where The Topeka School excels, instead, is in those moments of passionate belief in which we glimpse beliefs of our own; in its witness to the possibility of art and politics in its earliest days, to the ecstasy of inter-reference that can elapse in the lifetime between this moment and the one still to come, the one in which each of us is given a name.