Ben Lerner writes novels about Ben Lerner. This sentence might have once sounded like a criticism. But since writing that collapses the distance between fiction and author—so-called autofiction—is au courant, it is nearer an endorsement. The hero of Lerner’s debut novel, 2011’s Leaving the Atocha Station, is a poet named Adam Gordon. He’s anxiety-ridden, callow, and too clever for his own good; Lerner is himself a poet, and the book reads as a not exactly flattering portrait of the artist as a young man. The first novel’s success propelled the writer from a modest indie press to a major commercial publisher and the elusive six-figure advance. Lerner dramatized precisely this process in his second novel, 10:04, whose protagonist was a writer called Ben.
When summarized, these two books don’t sound like much. A young poet knocks around Madrid and acts like kind of a jerk; a young novelist knocks around New York and tries his best not to be a jerk. At its worst, this kind of fiction, the writer Hari Kunzru has observed, can “degenerate into something like an artfully curated social media feed,” lapsing into solipsism and betraying a lack of imagination. 10:04 has the makings of an exercise in self-obsession—the equivalent of a famous pop star singing about the difficulties of being a famous pop star—but it’s superb. Lerner is a careful student of how people behave, and brilliant at conjuring the verisimilitude of actual thought. He’s a beautiful stylist and an erudite companion (conversant in John Ashbery, Hermann Hesse, old master paintings, Tupac Shakur, catholic interests shared by almost every straight boy I knew in college). However specific his protagonists are, the reader can almost inhabit them. In 10:04, there’s a scene where Ben feels a twinge of guilt for eating an octopus; it almost made me a vegan.
The hero of Lerner’s new novel, The Topeka School, is a teenager named Adam Gordon, which makes it, I guess, a portrait of the artist as a still-younger man. Yet in its concerns and structure, the novel is a departure, or maybe it’s a crisis of faith. It’s recognizably Lerner’s work, but its aims are different. His previous books depicted an engagement with a broadly liberal politics, mostly as a window into psychology or social taxonomy. In Topeka, the author aims for real insight into the current political moment. And Lerner attempts this via plot, never of much interest to him up to now. Yes, this is the story of our old friend Adam Gordon, but Lerner wants us to understand it’s also the story of the country in which we live.
It’s the 1990s. We’re in Topeka, Kansas, where Adam Gordon is busy with girls, hip-hop, and his high school debate team. Beset with bad temper and migraines, he is in treatment at the Foundation. The Topeka school of the title is a psychiatric institution where his parents work. His father, Jonathan, runs the film and video department, but is also a clinician, specializing in the treatment of adolescent boys. His mother, Jane, is an academic who ultimately writes what sounds like a pop psychology book.
I cannot answer why adolescence is of such interest to so many contemporary writers of literary fiction (Susan Choi, Claire Messud). But Adam, mercifully, doesn’t really feel or sound like a teen. Readers will recognize Lerner’s often pleasantly gnarled sentences and the teasing slippage between first and third person:
Where were the parents? Most were sleeping. Some were watching Friends or Frasier, some were watching SportsCenter. Some were doing desk work or wiping down the kitchen islands.… Some were drinking gin and tonics in Taipei and some were writing this in Brooklyn while their daughters slept beside them and some were coming back on trains in dreams and some were at Rolling Hills in twilight states, mechanical beds.
It’s a mercy the novel is told in shifting perspectives; just when Adam feels truly tiresome, as teens tend to, things move on to his parents.
Jonathan is given to the sort of self-analysis we expect in a Lerner antihero. He narrates, reflecting on his lack of professional ambition, recalling a bad acid trip he once took or the time he lost his virginity in a bordello in Taiwan. He’s flawed but fundamentally decent, if you consider how sincerely he tries to be a good father to Adam.
Jane, too, narrates her chapters (sometimes in asides addressed directly to her son; there are moments the text almost feels like a transcript). Authorial and character voice are essentially the same here, which would be a liability were Lerner not such a skilled writer. Jane, like her husband, is deeply preoccupied with Adam—his adolescent mood swings, his struggles with anxiety, a difficult emotional spot when he’s an undergraduate in New York. But she’s more than just a selfless mom. We see Jane grapple with the realization that, as a child, she experienced some never-specified abuse at the hands of her father. We see her come into great professional success as a writer outside the world of the Foundation, and what that costs her in her personal life.
This is rich material: a family saga. But these points of view are punctuated by shorter narrations from Darren, a classmate of Adam’s. Indeed, it’s Darren who opens the novel. He’s being interrogated by the police, and the writer intends that the question of what, precisely, the boy has done should propel the reader along (a strategy not dissimilar to the one Liane Moriarty deploys in Big Little Lies). Lerner is banking on the reader being interested in who Darren is, and figuring out just what he’s done. That said, the author himself doesn’t seem wholly engaged by this plotline, which I will spoil for you shortly.
Early in The Topeka School, in a chapter focused on Adam, the author steps out of the third-person narration to address his readers: “Now I am going to show you a picture and I’d like you to make up a story about it.” He describes a newspaper photograph of some high school debate winners with presidential candidate Bob Dole. “The senator, who often refers to himself in the third person, whose campaign is advised by Paul Manafort, will be the only former presidential candidate to attend the Republican convention in 2016.” It’s not an especially graceful name-check. Indeed, it’s a statement of intent.
Lerner’s fiction has always carried political critique—of capital, war, climate change, technology; think of the hurricane that serves as a backdrop to 10:04 or the 2004 Madrid bombings at the center of the largely plotless Atocha. In this book, though, politics become something closer to the subject. Klaus, an analyst who lost his family in the Holocaust, sees the teenage patients he treats at the Foundation as “boys, perpetual boys, Peter Pans, man-children.” Lerner’s subject is both a literal adolescent and the proposition put forth here—the crisis of American masculinity. “Their country has fought and lost its last real war,” in Klaus’s view, “in a word, they are overfed; in a word, they are starving.… Boys will be boys … and the violence will recur periodically—like cicadas.” We are, I am sorry to tell you, talking about Donald Trump.
That’s where Darren, our fourth narrative point of view, comes into the novel. Darren is an outcast, a boy damaged in some unspecified way. He’s less a character than a symbol, the “emptied out” American man Klaus warns us about. Violence does occur: At a party, he heaves a billiard ball at a girl’s face. What sets him off? Again, I am sorry to report that it’s the epithet “faggot.”
The moment is violent, but more of a whimper than a bang. In the novel’s abrupt coda, Adam, now grown, returns to Topeka to read his poetry. There’s Darren, MAGA-capped, in the crowd of Westboro Baptist Church protesters who are there to greet him. “What is happening in this moment?” Lerner writes, with both candor and a sense of evasiveness. “What are the characters thinking and feeling? Tell me what led up to this scene.” I’m not sure even Lerner knows, and his coy tactic of addressing the reader merely underscores that.
Only about 30 of The Topeka School’s 300 pages are devoted to Darren. Though he’s the plot’s animating force, he is an uninteresting character, a mystery you don’t really care to solve. I am not sure whether this means he is unknowable or just that the author couldn’t figure him out. This makes him an outlier among Lerner’s characters, who seem to make sense of themselves so naturally. In 10:04, for example, Ben welcomes a stranger into his home, an activist participating in the Zuccotti Park protests. The man is there to shower, but stays for dinner. It’s a brief but incisive scene:
He talked to me about his travels, how more than anything else … his experiences in what he called the movement had helped him chill out, as he put it, about men. I thought he was embarking on a story of sexual awakening, but he meant something more general: instead of assuming that every male stranger past puberty was a physical and psychosocial threat, he was now open to the possibility of their decency.
Darren, by contrast, never feels alive, exactly. This storyline about Darren is the foundation of The Topeka School, and it is not sound. I cringed when I saw Darren revealed in his red baseball cap.
There’s a far subtler scene at the conclusion of The Topeka School, in which Adam confronts another father on the playground over the man’s child’s behavior. “I’ve been asking for your help in making the playground a safe space for my daughters; I recognize that my reaction to your son is not just about your son; it’s about pussy grabbing; it’s about my fears regarding the world into which I’ve brought them.” The other father declines to intervene. Then Lerner gives us this, parenthetically: “I helped create her, Ivanka, my daughter, Ivanka, she’s six feet tall, she’s got the best body, she made a lot of money. Because when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
I can’t even tell if I think this is well done or not. I cannot answer why Lerner would bother with Trump at all. It is maybe a bid for significance, an attempt to show that autofiction, too, can manage social critique. And surely some readers will feel that The Topeka School does that successfully. It’s admittedly a very small matter, but: I am saddened by this book’s concerns more than by the book itself. Do we now need to add literary fiction to the long list of things Donald Trump has ruined?
Does it affect your reading to understand that Lerner is the son of Steve Lerner, a psychologist and filmmaker, and the pop psychologist Harriet Lerner, who was for years on the staff of the Menninger Clinic, in Topeka, Kansas? I think it’s neither here nor there. Worrying over the facts behind autofiction is akin to caring about provenance; where were these coffee beans grown, and how were they harvested?
The surprise of The Topeka School is not that its events mirror the contours of the author’s life. It’s how the author uses his life as a point of interrogation, not of the self (a perfectly valid aim) but of society. The book does feel like an advancement, a way forward for contemporary writers interested, as Lerner is, in blurring this distinction between fiction and fact. It is possible, Lerner wants us to know, to do this in pursuit of what we might call (forgive me) the great American novel, the robust book that’s full of ideas. The writer Sheila Heti showed how this might look, in her most recent novel, Motherhood, a book about her ambivalence about having children that is also somehow a book about the intergenerational trauma of the Holocaust.
Lerner is a masterful writer, but the politics of the moment are so baffling and strange that I wonder if any novelist could truly grapple with them. The Topeka School is spellbinding, if ultimately disappointing. In its best moments, it made me think of Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, another beautiful but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to braid together intimate observation and political critique. In its worst moments, I thought of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a mostly unreadable 2005 novel that attempted to understand 2001’s terror attacks. Luiselli’s project feels like a good-faith exercise; Foer’s like a craven bid for gravitas. The Topeka School sits somewhere between those extremes.
Lerner is a writer of such psychological acuity that I genuinely can’t believe he’s chosen to depict Trumpism as, essentially, mental disorder. If you could excise Darren’s storyline from this novel—and the fact that one could do that, quite easily, is particularly damning—this would be one of the year’s finest books. It probably still is. Of all novelists now working in this country, Ben Lerner is surely among the few graceful, thoughtful, and humane enough that he might actually have something illuminating to say about the current state of the nation. We will just have to wait a little longer for that book.