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Debating at the End of History: Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School

The novel succeeds, in part, by rejecting uncomplicated constructions of blame or causality.

The Topeka School

Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School is the best novel of the Donald Trump era thus far—in no small part because it isn’t much interested in Trump. Rather, it investigates the weird and twisty relationships between Trump’s political context and the state of American language. The work of exposure and explanation—what Trump has done, how one might explain him as a political phenomenon, whose fault this all is—has been done, and is still being done. Lerner is after something else: in his own words, a “genealogy” of language and its malformations. He circles certain ideas and concepts—history, trauma, the fragmentation of identity—like a bird around a favorite lake. It’s argument by gesture. Look at these things. Don’t they go together, somehow?

The Topeka School bears a familial resemblance to Lerner’s first two novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04. An accomplished poet who published three critically successful collections before moving to prose, Lerner has always been a superb stylist. Atocha Station, published in 2011, is filled with sentences that manage to be at once conversational and virtuosic. And some lines in The Topeka School are as fine as any he’s written: “An intense but contentless optimism about the future was the only protection against the recent past, in which all the regimes of value had collapsed, irradiated or gassed.”

Other Lerner mainstays include the fragmentation of identity, time, and space. In Atocha Station, this interest manifests in protagonist Adam Gordon—who reappears in The Topeka School and stands in complete relation to Lerner himself—and his tendency to view himself in the third person and project many possible Adams in many possible futures. In 10:04, published in 2014, Lerner’s narrator eats a baby octopus and experiences a decentering that resembles the cephalopod’s distal nervous system. The Topeka School continues this project of redefining identity as a collection of many versions of oneself scattered throughout time.

What’s changed is Lerner’s scope. Atocha Station is cramped in the best possible sense. Caught in Adam’s head, the reader feels both claustrophobic and adrift in the same way that Adam feels claustrophobic and adrift in Madrid and the Spanish language. But The Topeka School jumps between characters, whose voices and thoughts often bleed together. Eight of the novel’s 15 sections concern Adam and his parents, Jonathan and Jane (both psychologists, like Lerner’s own parents), in 1990s Topeka. Between these longer sections are short chapters about Adam’s schoolmate, Darren Eberhard, whose story helps the novel cohere.

Adam is a nationally ranked debater, and the novel spends a great deal of time talking about the ways debate has stretched language in pursuit of maximum competitive advantage. Extemporaneous debate, Adam explains, was designed to encourage well-read and creative debaters who could “speak confidently on a range of topics.” But speaking “confidently” is possible without being either well-read or creative, and so debate preparation became less about the absorption of politics and history and more about projecting the appearance of absorption. The most common tactic is to speak at a blistering pace, to mention so many points and cite so many sources that one’s opponent cannot respond to them all. This shock-and-awe strategy is called the “spread,” a key to The Topeka School.

The spread leaves the debate’s audience in an unpleasant position. “It’s not that the audience really learns anything about these people or events,” Adam explains, “it’s about how naturally these foreign signifiers roll off the teenager’s tongue.” Debate, in other words, is deeply ironic. For the audience, a debater’s grotesque speed and incomprehensible allusions imply something hidden: agile thinking and erudition. But the debaters know that there’s nothing hidden, that their speech reveals and signifies nothing. It’s a cruel joke that the audience isn’t privy to—a little like serving pretentious wine dilletantes two-dollar bottles disguised as expensive vintages and making them give tasting notes.

Aside from the spread, Lerner includes other examples of harangued and hollowed-out language: psychoanalytic jargon, homophobic slurs, radio-commercial babble. Nearly every main character suffers language failure. When Adam’s mother recovers repressed memories of her father’s abuse, she finds her speech “breaking down, fragmenting under the emotional pressure.” This jumble, she thinks, resembles the poetry Adam admires—or, significantly, “what Palin or Trump sound like, delivering nonsense as if it made sense.” This is a sobering observation: The line is thin between art and blather, between language stretched into poetic ambiguity and language stretched into meaninglessness.

The Topeka School lashes together these blown-out languages and a national failure to listen and speak in good faith. “Even before the twenty-four-hour news cycle,” Lerner writes, “twitter storms, algorithmic trading, spreadsheets, the DDoS attack, Americans were getting ‘spread’ in their daily lives.” As goes debate, so goes America. This relationship is what the novel calls “a fearful symmetry between the ideological compartmentalization of high school debate and what passed for the national political discourse.”

The center of this “fearful symmetry” is the titular Topeka School, a way of thinking and a rhetorical mode that masquerades as populist, extemporaneous, and values-driven but which is actually elitist, highly orchestrated, and beholden only to power and capital. The Topeka School’s spiritual headmaster is Brian Evanson, Adam’s bespoke debate coach, who, as a master of plausible deniability and “choreographed spontaneity,” is the archetype of the new conservative. In the future, Lerner’s novel foretells, Evanson will become “a key architect of the most right-wing governorship Kansas has ever known, overseeing radical cuts to social services and education, ending all funding for the arts, privatizing Medicaid, implementing one of the most disastrous tax cuts in America’s history, an important model for the Trump administration.” It’s a resume that looks very much like former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s. Adam, on the other hand, is metafictionally destined to “attempt this genealogy of [Evanson’s] speech, its theaters and extremes.”

Lerner also puts in Evanson’s mouth the “end of history” thesis made notorious by Francis Fukuyama, which claims that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the great drama of civilization has concluded; the combination of democracy and free-market capitalism has won. (The irony is that the free market might very well end history, but in an ecological, not a political, sense.) The Topeka School has very little patience for this facile narrative, its notion of history as something overcome, improved upon, and left behind.

Not only has history failed to end, it has proven reluctant to move in straight lines toward progress, toward anything. In Lerner’s terms, history is “obstinate.” One of the novel’s consistent allusions is to Hermann Hesse’s short story “A Man by the Name of Ziegler,” which traces Ziegler’s traumatic realization that history is not, in fact, moving slowly, but stubbornly toward a better future. This is true for both global and personal history. It’s impossible to escape the past, which haunts and lingers in the traumas—physical, emotional, and linguistic—scattered throughout the novel. These traumas blend into one another; watching one of Adam’s debate opponents attempt the spread in a logorrheic mania, Jane notices how physically unpleasant, how literally painful, the spread is: “The breathing, the gasping for air—I’d heard hyperventilating patients make similar sounds…While the young man seemed to have a sort of swagger, my primary experience was of a body in duress.”

Another character in duress is Adam’s schoolmate, Darren Eberhard. Despite becoming, by novel’s end, an archetype of reactionary white masculinity, a gun-toting picketer with the Westboro Baptist Church, he remains a complex and often sympathetic character: isolated, earnest, disabled, and especially sensitive to language (the slurs others call him rattle around his chapters like echoes). In one sense, he’s a case study in radicalization, how a white man comes around to affirm and reiterate the speech of Fred Phelps or Donald Trump. But what saves Darren from stereotype and the novel from simplicity is that Lerner is more interested in the circumstances of his development than in either absolving or condemning him. The Topeka School doesn’t set out to “humanize” Darren, though it does. Rather, the novel is about a school of thought, a way of growing up. Darren, like Adam, graduates from that school, which produces Westboro picketers, far-right politicos, and famous novelists alike.

The Topeka School succeeds, in part, by rejecting uncomplicated constructions of blame or causality. But preferring complication means that it must gather together loads of material, and showing how well most of that material fits together is a long, slow job. Simply put, there’s a lot going on. Lerner runs the danger of parody, of self-incrimination; it would be easy for the novel to stop exploring hollow language and information overload, and instead begin exemplifying it. The Topeka School, in other words, risks spreading its reader. But reading it doesn’t feel like reading Gravity’s Rainbow or another maximalist novel actually designed to spread the reader. And there’s an appropriate ambiguity about a novel—which is, after all, a pile of language—that wonders about the ongoing ability of language to do good work.

There are times when The Topeka School, at least for a moment, suggests that an exhausted language might herald something better. Jane considers this possibility during talk therapy with her friend, Sima: “This language has reached its limit, and a new one will be built, Sima and I will build it.” Of course, this is exactly the sort of progressive thinking that Hesse’s Ziegler story deflates. And the novel seems to side with Ziegler: Jane and Sima never build that new language. They don’t even remain friends. Likewise, overwhelmed in a Hypermart, Adam sees brands and their interchangeable products as “an abstract stuff out of which they’d have to make new languages.” Unlike Jane’s utopian vision of a collaborative language, Adam’s version is more sinister, a cardboard language structured by mass consumption. Even Adam’s syntax lends a sense of coercion or obligation: “they’d have to make new languages.”

The Topeka School’s very end suggests that a future lies not in the wholesale construction of new languages, but instead in smaller moments of speech. Adam, singing at an ICE protest with his wife and daughters, reflects: “It embarrassed me, it always had, but I forced myself to participate, to be part of a tiny public speaking, a public learning slowly how to speak again, in the middle of the spread.” There’s room to hope that this isn’t, in fact, the end of history, and that things spread out might be called back in again. Maybe the most remarkable thing about The Topeka School is the way it models this possibility by gathering together the apparently distant and unrelated—psychotherapy, high school debate, Kansan politics, concussions, the drama of a marriage—into a story that feels sincere and generous.

Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School is available on October 1 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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