One evening in the mid-1980s, when he was 6 or 7, Ben Lerner appeared in the doorway of his parents’ bedroom. It was late, and Harriet and Stephen — clinical psychologists at the world-renowned Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kan. — were watching a movie in bed. Why wasn’t Ben asleep? they wanted to know. In a casual tone, he told them he’d had an accident: Some gum had fallen out of his mouth while he was going potty. So had he cleaned it up? they asked. When he didn’t respond, Harriet switched on the bedside light and beckoned him over. It took her a moment to figure out what she was looking at.
“He was standing there completely naked, and he’d wrapped his penis in chewing gum,” she told me recently. “He’d somehow managed to cover his entire penis in gum.”
We were barreling down a stretch of highway toward Lawrence, a university town in northeastern Kansas, where Harriet and Stephen have lived for the past 17 years. It was late August, and Ben, together with his older brother, Matt, and their wives and children, were in town for a visit.
“Even hisballswere covered, right?” Matt called out from behind the wheel of the rented minivan.
“Totally covered,” Harriet confirmed.
In“The Topeka School,” Lerner’s extraordinary new novel, the story of the chewing gum is recounted by Jane Gordon, a fictionalized version of the author’s mother. Like Harriet, Jane is a therapist at a leading psychiatric clinic and a best-selling author. When her son, Adam — Lerner’s alter ego — pays her and her husband, Jonathan, a night visit with his gum-encased genitals, she has recently shot to fame with the publication ofa book about women’s anger.1It isn’t hard to see why it has struck a chord. Reagan is in office, the backlash against the second wave of feminism is in full swing and Jane has begun to receive anonymous phone calls from aggrieved men, analog precursors of today’s digital trolls. “There were variations on the theme of rape,” she tells us. “I’m going to rape you; Somebody should rape you; You were probably raped; If you weren’t so ugly, you’d get raped.” Jane suspects that Adam has been listening in on these calls and worries they may be doing lasting damage to his psyche. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar; but a penis wrapped in gum is never just a penis wrapped in gum. “I couldn’t help but wonder if it was a kind of simulated castration thing, an attempt not to be a boy, a man, one of the Men,” says Jane, ever the analyst.
“The Men” are her anonymous callers, but as it’s repeated throughout Lerner’s novel, the term comes to stand for something larger — a gathering storm of white male fury. Those who live in present-day America will know how this story ends, or at least where it’s headed: The Men who once abused Jane over the phone in a trembling whisper now speak in a deafening collective voice. That the young Adam Gordon, the son of Jewish intellectuals, will not end up among their ranks would seem to be a foregone conclusion, and yet part of the power of “The Topeka School” — the best book yet by the most talented writer of his generation — is its ability to make everything feel up for grabs. As the title suggests, it is a novel about schooling, formal and otherwise; about how we learn to speak the way we do; and about how, as individuals and as a nation, we might learn to speak differently.
At 40, Lerner has already overachieved in two genres. His three books of poetry and two previous novels won hima MacArthur Fellowship (the “genius” grant)2in 2015. Two years later, Granta put him on its list of Best Young American Novelists. When I first met him in Brooklyn earlier this summer, he and his wife, Ariana Mangual, a professor of Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center, were about to buy a house in Kensington, not far from Brooklyn College, where Lerner teaches English and creative writing.
The couple has two young daughters. As it does for many people, parenthood not only brought back memories of his own childhood, but also gave Lerner new imaginative access to what that time must have been like for his mother and father. A few years ago, he found himself ventriloquizing younger versions of his parents, coastal transplants who arrive in Topeka for postdoctoral fellowships in the early 1970s and end up staying for four decades. A design began to take shape: the parts of a novel narrated by Jonathan and Jane would be interwoven with third-person sections from Adam’s point of view, forming a kind of narrative rondo in which each character’s experience is refracted and reconfigured by the others.
Something similar was happening in the minivan on the way to Lawrence. A few minutes earlier we’d made a pit stop at thelargest gas station I’d ever seen,3and Lerner had returned from the convenience store with a pack of Juicy Fruit, which prompted him to begin recounting the gum story from his childhood. As a teenager, he excelled at competitive debate, and he remains a formidable talker — fluent, composed and quick on his feet. He had no first-person memory of the gum incident, he said, only the euphemistic account he gave his parents afterward: The gum had fallen out of his mouth and “got stuck” on his body.
“Steve and I were laughing so much,” Harriet recalled, picking up the anecdote. “ ‘It got stuck!’ As though the whole thing had been an accident!”
The laughter stopped when they realized the gum wasn’t coming loose.
“How did you get it off?” one of Lerner’s nephews asked from the third-row seat. (His daughters, along with his wife and father, were riding in a separate car.)
Lerner was sitting in the middle row. He has a solid, looming frame, though his rectangular glasses and short-sleeve button-downs dispel any hint of swagger or bravado. Then there is the matter of his eyebrows: dramatically arched, with a kind of gothic intensity, they resemble the birds in Van Gogh’s “Wheatfield With Crows” and give him a look of permanent surprise or alarm. Slowly twisting his neck around the headrest, he looked his nephew in the eye and, in a house-of-horrors voice, replied: “It’s still there!”
Not so long ago,the big, ambitious social novel, the novel that wanted to tell us about “the way we live now” or “the state of the nation” — the novel as exemplified by Don DeLillo’s “Underworld” (1997) or Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” (2001) — enjoyed a prestige and cultural centrality that, in recent years, have come to seem distinctly suspect. Looking increasingly through the lens of identity, some critics have begun to see the universalizing impulse behind such books — their belief in their ability to write across differences of race and class and gender — as presumptuous if not outright aggressive, a kind of epistemological gate-crashing (especially when the author is a well-off white man). One result of this development is that readers have become skeptical when a novel about, say, a white Midwestern family bills itself, and is celebrated as, a novel about America at large. Another result is a spike in books of radical imaginative humility, in which a first-person narrator — usually a more or less transparent proxy for the author — disavows altogether the power to represent the wider world or inhabit the hearts and minds of others. Instead, these novels, by authors like Sheila Heti and Jenny Offill, center on a richly turbulent subjectivity, a welcome corrective to manly bloat and overreach.
The name for this kind of book is“autofiction,”4and in the early 2010s Lerner emerged as one if its most gifted exponents. The character Adam Gordon will already be familiar to readers of “Leaving the Atocha Station” (2011), Lerner’s very funny debut novel, where he appears as a rudderless young poet on a fellowship in Madrid.
Callow, lazy and insecure, Adam spends a lot of time in museums fretting over his inability to feel absorbed or transported by what’son the walls.5He invests most of his creative energies not in composing the “long, research-driven poem” about the Spanish Civil War he has supposedly come to Spain to write (an instance of white male overreach if ever there was one) but in constructing a persona he hopes will make him alluring to the locals. His parents don’t appear in the book, but they are briefly mentioned when, in desperate bids to impress the two women he’s been orbiting, he says, falsely, that his mother has just died and that his father (“gentlest of men”) is a fascist.
Lerner never intended to write a novel, and some would question whether that label adequately describes what he produced. His ambition since high school had been to write poems — though some would question whetherthatlabel adequately describes the contents of his three books of verse, publishedbetween 2004 and 2010.6Surreal and obscene, a patter of references high and low, Lerner’s “poems” sounded like the death throes of a cyborg implanted with the memoryof a comp-lit grad student.7The books won him critical acclaim, as well as a steady income in the form of teaching jobs. It was during a stint in Pittsburgh with Mangual, whom he’d dated since their freshman year at Brown, that Lerner began to reflect on his own time in Madrid, where he, too, had spent a year on a fellowship in his early 20s. One morning at the Prado Museum he’d seen a man burst into tears before an old painting. Thinking it might become a prose poem or a critical essay, he wrote up an account of the episode, and the self-doubt it had inspired in him. Lerner had decided to devote his life to art, but had he ever had an aesthetic experience of comparable magnitude? Was his failure to be moved by the same painting, or by other paintings to the same degree, a sign of fraudulence or deficiency? Or was the man just having a nervous breakdown? Scenes from Madrid continued to return to him, and within a few months he’d completed a draft of something that he still hesitated to call a novel.
If, as many critics remarked upon its release, the book didn’t read like fiction, that was hardly surprising. Lerner writes proselike a poet,8zeroing in on the supposedly “unnarratable” parts of life that get left out of most contemporary novels (of which, he told me, he had read very few at the time): walking aimlessly around a foreign city, getting high on a park bench, endlessly refreshing The New York Times home page. The idea that Adam might try to describe anything more ambitious — that he might somehow manage to produce an epic historical poem — is clearly a nonstarter; just getting through a basic conversation in Spanish is often beyond his abilities. This is the source of much of the book’s humor. “She began to say something either about the moon, the effect of the moon on the water, or was using the full moon to excuse Miguel or the evening’s general drama, though the moon wasn’t full” is a typically equivocal sentence. This is a long way from the expansive social novels of earlier times; Adam barely grasps what’s going on under his own nose.
When“Leaving the Atocha Station”appeared from Coffee House Press (a small, independent outfit), it received lavish praise and soon acquired classic status among a certain cohort of literary readers. His advance had been $3,000. For his next novel,“10:04”(2014), Farrar, Straus and Giroux paid him a “strong six-figure” advance, a detail we learn within the text itself. This time, the narrator is named Ben. He has recently published a critically acclaimed novel and finds himself having to navigate the social blowback that comes from being mistaken for, or conflated with, his book’s far-from-appealing protagonist.
Some have complained that Lerner only writes about one thing — himself — but this is imprecise: In these novels, introspection is a means, not an end. He treats the self like an archive of social data from which it is possible to construct a larger story about our times. Stocking up on supplies at Whole Foods in the hours before Hurricane Irene is set to hit New York, Ben is suddenly transfixed by a container of instant coffee: With planes grounded and highways closed by the coming storm, he finds himself newly sensitized to the labor — the harvesting, grinding, soaking, packaging and transportation — concealed within the commodity. Irene soon passes, leaving the city largely unscathed, but the specter of collapse it raises, however fleetingly, entrains an awareness that the way things are is neither permanent nor necessary. The book is rooted in the narrator’s subjectivity, but it keeps returning to instances of collective participation, from Occupy Wall Street to the fleeting solidarity of those afflicted by extreme weather.
With its broad social canvas, polyphonic narrative structure and manifest desire to tell a story about not just one man’s consciousness but an entire nation, “The Topeka School” sees Lerner moving into unexpected new territory. The book at once diagnoses and puts forth a possible solution to a central problem of fiction today. The social novel sets out to speak for others but often merely speaks over them. Autofiction, with its resolution to speak only for the authorial self, risks dead-ending in solipsism. Lerner’s escape hatch is a kind of synthesis, a narrative mode that dares to imagine the inner lives of other people while at the same time foregrounding how such efforts are always faulty and provisional, riddled with blind spots.
“Anything a white male writes is going to be disfigured by that subject position,” he told me. But this wasn’t a call for such writers to down tools — just to stop thinking of themselves as transhistorical human subjects. “I wanted to avoid the bad version of the critique of white male universality,” Lerner continued. “Which is, ‘We’ve learned our lesson, universality is impossible, so there’s no point in even testing which parts of consciousness are shareable.’ And that was something I felt now more than ever that I needed to do.”
“The Topeka School”is the story of a family, the Gordons, but it is also the story of a voice — that of the novel itself. As a teenager in Topeka in the mid-1990s, Adam Gordon serves as the book’s protagonist; but as a grown-up, a married man with two daughters, in present-day Brooklyn, he doubles as its narrator. Topeka Adam looks forward to a future from which his adolescent experiences can be “recounted with great irony,” but Brooklyn Adam looks back on him with emotional and intellectual investments his former self could not have anticipated. His goal, he says in an aside, is to trace a “genealogy of his speech.” In doing so, he uncovers a larger story about public speech in America and its debasement at the hands of people not unlike himself.
The novel opens in the fall of 1996, when Adam is a high-school senior and Bob Dole is about to be crushed by Bill Clinton at the polls — a resounding confirmation, it seems at the time, that cultural conservatism is on the wane. An aspiring poet and competitive debater whose gift for words extends tofreestyle rap battles,9Adam is enduring an identity crisis. Even his hair — drawn into a ponytail but shaved at the sides in “a disastrous tonsorial compromise between the lefty household of his parents and the red state in which he was raised” — bears the marks of struggle.
If poetry renders Adam suspiciously effete in the eyes of his peers, then debate offers a forum in which to flex his masculine will to domination. Employing a tactic known as “the spread,” he bombards the other side with more arguments than they can respond to in the allotted time, the rule being that a “dropped argument,” its quality notwithstanding, counts as an argument conceded. People complain that the spread divorces policy debate from the real world, that nobody — “save perhaps for auctioneers” — uses language in this maniacally accelerated fashion. But, as it’s pointed out, corporations use a version of it all the time: in the rapid-fire warnings at the end of prescription-drug commercials, in the reams of fine print from insurance companies and banks.
The world of competitive speech is portrayed, persuasively, as a school for future elites, a place where the next generation’s politicians and corporate personnel learn how to wield language for coercive and deceitful ends. One of the book’s plot arcs concerns Adam’s quest for victory in the extemporaneous-speech category at the national championships. His coach is a young man named Peter Evanson who, Brooklyn Adam interjects from the future, will go on to play a key role in “the most right-wing governorship Kansas has ever known,” that of Sam Brownback — “an important model for the Trump administration.” Evanson tells Adam to leaven his virtuosic command of policy details with “quick swerves into the folksy”:
I want you saying, right after some hyper-eloquent riff about Yeltsin breaking a promise, “Now, in Kansas, we call that alie.” After you go off about a treaty regulating drilling in the Arctic: “Now, in Kansas, we wouldn’t shake on that.” I don’t care if they’re not real sayings, just deliver them like they’re tried-and-true. Say “tried-and-true.”
Adam takes the message on board, and is duly crowned national champion. For America, the consequences are less sanguine.
“Karl Rove’s insight was that if you say a lot of dumb [expletive] and don’t make much sense, people will identify you as a populist, even if you’re a spoiled Yale rich kid,” Lerner said one evening in late June. We’d met at a bar in Prospect Heights to watch the second debate of the Democratic primary season. Throngs of 20- and 30-somethings in oversized T-shirts and cuffed pants sat around beer-garden picnic tables, their eyes trained on a projection screen at the end of the room. Hunched over a glass of pale German beer, Lerner took in the debate proceedings with the dispassionate scrutiny of a veteran public speaker, remarking on niceties of technique or missed rhetorical opportunities. He was encouraged by the leftward tilt of some of the field, but worried that a progressive Democrat speaking a language grounded in policy specifics would struggle against a Republican incumbent who used words for altogether different purposes. “Trump’s genius, which is indistinguishable from a kind of idiocy,” he said, “has been to do a dozen world-historically scandalous things a day while at the same time speaking in this slow, contentless, gestural language that appeals to people’s sense of being spread.”
If “The Topeka School” is making what sounds like a bold argument — that the seeds of our contemporary malaise were present in the language games that Adam played as a teenager — it is doing so tentatively, without the rhetorical bluster and aggression of its adolescent protagonist. It is an ambitious book that is also engagingly anxious about its own ambition. Brooklyn Adam hovers over the text like a ghostly presence, occasionally interrupting his otherwise seamless account of his own past to draw out an irony or, in the sections voiced by his parents, to ask a question or clarify a point. These glitches in the narrative flow aren’t part of a metafictional game, a redundant reminder that what we’re reading is all made up; they are Lerner’s way of dramatizing his lack of confidence in his ability to speak for others, let alone the country as a whole. In a disturbing current-day coda, Adam and his family attend an anti-ICE protest in Manhattan. When a cop orders him to tell one of his daughters to stop drawing with chalk on the sidewalk, Adam says his children barely listen to him. “Do you have kids?” he asks the cop. “Because I have no authority, is what I’m trying to say.” It is also what Lerner is trying to say, with moving sincerity, throughout the book.
The true measureof Lerner’s success in “The Topeka School” — of his ambition to write beyond the self and explore “what parts of consciousness are shareable” — lies in the depth and vitality of Adam’s parents. Jane, in particular, is an astonishing creation; it is hard to think of another character in recent fiction who shows up so vividly on the page. The essence of her personality is her pragmatic intelligence, the grace and ingenuity with which she faces down the trials of her professional life at the Foundation, where “objecting to the diagnosis of penis envy was a sure sign of penis envy.” When the Men call to harass her in the evenings, Jane pretends she can’t hear them, and asks that they speak up: “Typically what would happen is that the guy would repeat, confused, whatever he’d said a little more loudly, and while I could hear him fine, I would say, equally politely, betraying no knowledge of the nature of the call, ‘I’m sorry, it’s not a great connection, can you be a little louder?’ ” The callers grow self-conscious, embarrassed by the sound of their own voices, and hang up.
Jane’s biggest source of worry may be Adam himself, who she fears is absorbing the worst kinds of masculine behavior. When she asks him to tidy his room, he attempts to “spread” her with a barrage of arguments — “about her nagging, her hypocrisy, her failure to abide by the precepts she laid out in her books, her bizarre focus on conventional domestic order over the autonomy of others.” She responds by modeling a different kind of language, a sort of antispread: speech as a means of self-knowledge and authentic connection. The book thus embodiesa poignant reciprocity.10The grown-up Adam foregrounds the fact that Jane’s voice is his creation or reconstruction. At the same time, “The Topeka School” makes it clear that Adam’s voice — the supple, responsive, many-minded voice of the novel itself — was in large part shaped by that of his mother.
This reciprocity extends beyond the frame of the novel. Long before Lerner began to fictionalize his own experience, he was already a character in Harriet’s work.“The Mother Dance,”11her book on raising children, doesn’t stint on anecdotes about her two sons and the intergenerational power struggles that were a defining feature of their household (although it does omit the story of the chewing gum, something Ben explicitly requested). At age 10, we learn, Ben announced that he wanted to get his ear pierced. Harriet said no, inaugurating a lengthy filial pressure campaign. There follows a very funny portrait of the artist as a young mansplainer: “Then Ben pulled out all the stops to construct a major feminist case. His key point was that I lacked integrity because I fought against constricting gender roles on the public front while I perpetuated them at home.”
Lerner was a freshman at Brown when the book was published, in 1998. He’d opted not to read the manuscript, but the week it came out he called his mother in a frantic state and asked her to overnight him a copy. “It suddenly became much more real to him that he was in it,” Harriet told me. “He thought there would be all sorts of shameful, humiliating things in there. You know, people basically don’t want to be written about, even if it’s favorable, because they have their own story and their own way of viewing it.” A few days after she sent the book, a bunch of flowers appeared on her doorstep. They were from Ben, and Matt, who also went to Brown. “Congratulations!” said the card. “You couldn’t have done it without us!”
Without Harriet and Stephen, Ben certainly could not have written “The Topeka School,” a book about inheritance, about the “repetitions just beneath the threshold of consciousness.” His parents discussed the project with him at length as he was writing it, going over their memories of his childhood and reading multiple drafts. Neither of them objected to being used as models. “He was very worried we were going to be upset,” Harriet said. “Up until the very end he would say, ‘I will scrap this book, I’ll delete the whole book if it’s going to hurt you.’ ” They insisted it wouldn’t. Harriet and Stephen came from families in which certain subjects — a parent’s cancer, for one — had been strictly off limits, and they responded by creating a climate of honesty and openness with their own children. They made no secret, for example, of the fact that they hadn’t planned to have a second child, even if his arrival came as a welcome surprise. Sometimes, when the brothers fought, Ben would taunt Matt for being colorblind. “Well, you’re a broken condom!” Matt would shout back.
A determination to intervene in old patterns and create new ones is, for Ben, a common denominator of both therapy and fiction. “There’s this really intimate relation between my understanding of why my parents do the work they do and my understanding of what it means to write a novel,” he told me. “Not because writing fiction is supposed to be palliative, but because aesthetic form is about making conscious pattern, and having kids meant that this was a moment when aesthetic questions of patterning acquired a new urgency for me.”
On my secondday in Kansas, the Lerners took me to see Topeka, a half-hour drive from Lawrence, where Harriet and Stephen moved the year before the Menninger Foundation relocated to Houston in 2003. (They are now both in private practice.) As we rolled into town, the family pointed out various landmarks. For Ben and Matt, every street corner seemed to bring back the memory of some childhood ordeal.
“This is where I sustained head trauma,” Ben said matter-of-factly as we passed a football field. “My parents let me play even after I’d had two concussions.” The boys’ middle school scrolled by. “We both spent two years there trying not to get beaten up,” said Matt. This reminded Ben of his first migraine. “This kid, who I think was later murdered, came up to me in the hall while I was going to the nurse’s office.” He asked what Ben was doing; Ben said he was sick. “Then he kneed me in the stomach and threw me up against the wall and said, ‘Now you’re sick, you pussy.’ ” Everyone in the car laughed.
Over burgers at an old-style diner with red vinyl booths and checkered flooring, Ben was keen to stress his lasting affection for Topeka, where many of his closest friendships began. (The acknowledgments page of the new novel is filled with their names.) I asked Harriet if, like Jane Gordon, she’d ever worried that Ben would turn out to be one of the Men.
“No, what I worried about was that he’d always be a debater and not really be able to listen.”
“Now I often listen,” said Ben, impersonating a defensively sarcastic teenager. “I’ve listened on several occasions.”
“He has,” Harriet said.
“I was horribly argumentative,” Ben went on, in earnest now. “I could be a real bully, verbally. It was my way of being tough, of passing as a ‘real man.’ ”
Lerner wanted to be a lawyer until he discovered poetry in his midteens. The so-called New York School of John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara was especially formative (a debt acknowledged in the new book’s title). The playful, suggestive incoherence of such writers offered a kind of antidote to the zero-sum hostility of debate. Late on in “The Topeka School,” Adam, now a college freshman visiting New York, suffers a nervous breakdown during an Ashbery reading at the 92nd Street Y. It’s a frightening scene. As Adam babbles into the phone, his parents, back in Kansas, hear his speech — and his personality — coming apart at the seams.
“All his vocabularies were colliding and recombining,” says Jonathan, “his Topekan tough guy stuff, fast debate, language he’d lifted from depressing Germans, his experimental poets, the familiar terminology of heartbreak.” It’s as though the spread, which Adam once deployed so ruthlessly, has returned to take its revenge. Jonathan’s description, of course, is also a description of “The Topeka School” itself — a particle accelerator of a novel, in which Adam’s vocabularies continually collide and recombine. To learn how to speak again, Lerner suggests, you first need to unlearn the old way of speaking. Adam, we know by now, will survive this moment of semantic vertigo. For America, spread from above, it remains an open question.