By Drew Hart
All told, The Topeka School is engaging — it’s a talented and kaleidoscopic story touching down just about everywhere in modern life.
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. Farrar Straus Giroux, 304 pp.
My my: here’s a moo cow coming down the road! And there’s Baby Tuckoo! The references to James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist are oddly grounding as you read Ben Lerner’s third novel — they’re a reminder that you are adrift in a shape-shifting narrative that trades in stream of consciousness, external and internal voices, and time travel. Extremely immersive, dense, and somehow quite readable (also re-readable — one has to backtrack a lot to establish what’s happening), The Topeka School is a most curious outing.
Three principal characters carry things here: a career psychotherapist; his wife — a best-selling author of a ’how-to’ marriage manual; and their son, growing into an intellect in his own right. Chapters shift between their perspectives, some in the first person, some related via an unseen and yet not omniscient voice. As advertised, much of the time, the setting is in Topeka, KS, where Lerner hails from — the school of the title is an institute for psychotherapy — but a great deal also involves time spent in an academic Manhattan.
So things are rather rarified; even in the Midwestern world — you will see a great deal of sniping at ‘flyover’ culture — these folks are from a world apart. Therapist Jonathan plies his trade, but worries over his commitment as a father; Jane the author dodges local men who harass her for being a ‘home wrecker’ with her advice; son Adam grows into a prominent poet, after earlier years as a gifted debater — his life is shaped by a concussion he has while young, causing him to hear voices and see other dimensions. We look in on these people, and they are also related to the period, one by one, in lengthy and detailed views, over a span of fifty years — protest marches in the ’60s, rap culture in the ’90s, and the present day miasma of Trump and the G.O.P. There are cameos by Bob Dole and Cardi B! They don’t really matter, except they do: they’re part of the immense fabric under consideration.
There is some adultery; the campus setting of the institute lends itself to their shenanigans, not that that’s the only place. And there are occasional flare-ups of adolescent violence. This last element is a part of the novel that doesn’t seem to meld with the rest so well: between chapters focusing on the principal characters, there are italicized sidebars that feature an alienated loner, a childhood and then teenage dropout neighbor of Adam’s — one Darren. You imagine that his appearances will lead to something tragic, given his depressed nature, but they really don’t. So it’s hard to grasp — exactly what he’s doing here?
All told, The Topeka School is engaging — it’s a talented and kaleidoscopic story touching down just about everywhere in modern life. But come prepared: it demands great attention, and I suppose, familiarity and comfort with an extremely urban, neurotic sensibility. The author teaches English in Brooklyn, and though they say you can’t take the country out of the country boy, it’s true in the opposite path of a city intellect as well. I do wonder how this will play in Peoria …
Drew Hart is from Santa Barbara, California.