The Topeka School: A Novel

by Ben Lerner

Hardcover, 2019

Call number




Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2019), Edition: 1st, 304 pages


Fiction. Literature. HTML: Named one of the most anticipated fall books by: Entertainment Weekly, Esquire, Vogue, Vulture, The Observer, Kirkus, Lit Hub, The Millions, The Week, Oprah Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, Nylon, Pacific Standard, Publishers Weekly, Slate, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Guardian From the award-winning author of 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station, a tender and expansive family drama set in the American Midwest at the turn of the century: a tale of adolescence, transgression, and the conditions that have given rise to the trolls and tyrants of the New Right. Adam Gordon is a senior at Topeka High School, class of '97. His mother, Jane, is a famous feminist author; his father, Jonathan, is an expert at getting "lost boys" to open up. They both work at a psychiatric clinic that has attracted staff and patients from around the world. Adam is a renowned debater, expected to win a national championship before he heads to college. He is one of the cool kids, ready to fight or, better, freestyle about fighting if it keeps his peers from thinking of him as weak. Adam is also one of the seniors who bring the loner Darren Eberheart�??who is, unbeknownst to Adam, his father's patient�??into the social scene, to disastrous effect. Deftly shifting perspectives and time periods, The Topeka School is the story of a family, its struggles and its strengths: Jane's reckoning with the legacy of an abusive father, Jonathan's marital transgressions, the challenge of raising a good son in a culture of toxic masculinity. It is also a riveting prehistory of the present: the collapse of public speech, the trolls and tyrants of the New Right, and the ongoing crisis of identity among white men. Cover photograph from The Wichita Eagle. © 1990 McClatchy. All rights reserved. Used under license. Kansas.… (more)

Media reviews

... the center doesn’t quite hold... Deflating what would conventionally be a point of convergence is all too fitting for The Topeka School’s historical scope, however. It should be a comfort that no one’s life is completely determined by any one moment, if for no other reason than because
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nothing is actually a climax in the scope of history.
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... brilliant ... The importance of speech in the novel lets Lerner comment on the state of politics, from glancing references to some people’s inability to decode irrational arguments to more direct critiques ... 'How do you keep other voices from becoming yours?' is a key question of our time,
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or, for that matter, any era. The Topeka School provides no clear answers, but it memorably demonstrates how hard it can be to recognize insidious utterances for what they are.
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The messy relationship between masculinity and language drives this seeking, eloquent story by poet-novelist Lerner ... The ekphrastic style and autofictional tendencies echo Lerner’s earlier works, and his focus on language games and their discontents fits nicely within the 1990s setting. But
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the fear at the core of this tale—that language, no matter how thoroughly mastered or artfully presented, simply isn’t enough—feels new and urgent.
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The Topeka School weaves a masterful narrative of the impact that mental illness, misogyny, homophobia, politics, and religion have on children who want to be men ... though The Topeka School is heavily steeped in mid-90’s American liberalism and home phone lines, Lerner plots history with a
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contemporary eye to reconcile where we were then with where we stand now. It’s rare to find a book that is simultaneously searing in its social critique and so lush in its prose that it verges on poetry.
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...[an] essayistic and engrossing novel ... The book sensitively gathers up the evidence of abuse, violation, and cruelty in Adam’s life.Though the conflicts are often modest...Lerner convincingly argues they're worth intense scrutiny ... Few writers are so deeply engaged as Lerner in how our
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interior selves are shaped by memory and consequence ...increasingly powerful and heartbreaking ... Autofiction at its smartest and most effective: self-interested, self-interrogating, but never self-involved.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member tangledthread
This is a thought provoking coming of age novel that is semi-autobiographical for the author. Adam Gordon was born and raised in Topeka, KS. His parents were east coast transplants who came to Topeka in the late 1970's to finish their post graduate studies in mental health at a local premier mental
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health facility where they stayed. It is 1997, Adam is a senior at Topeka High School and is a standout on the school's debate team. His cohort includes children of other medical professionals living in upper middle class neighborhoods with one exception. Darren is the son of a nurse who cared for Adam when he had a concussion at age 8. He has mental health issues and has been in the care of Adam's father who specializes in "lost boys". Though Darren has dropped out of school, the seniors perversely ensnare him to participate in their senior escapades with the expected negative results.

The story is told in multiple voices with Adam's being dominant. There are chapters in the voices of each of his parents, Jane and Jonathon, and Darren. Much of Adam's narrative centers around his skill and understanding of debate and forensics. He describes a technique known as "the spread" where extremely rapid speech is used to cover as many arguments possible with the intent that one's opponent will be penalized for failing to respond to all arguments raised. Adam associates the rise in this form of debate with a similar rise in rhetoric over logical reasoning in media broadcasting. Adam excels in this technique, but it is not his preferred event and it nags at his conscience as an underhanded means of competitive speaking.

There are a lot of threads to the novel. The toxic environment for boys in developing a masculine image in adolescence is one. The backlash from that Jane has to deal with once she becomes a successful author on womens' mental health issues, both from within her close circle and the public. There is foreshadowing of the rise of ultra-conservatism in Kansas that we see today. The title "The Topeka School" could be several things: it could be the social schooling of the seniors (especially the boys) in what it means to be a man as they are about to enter the outside world. It could also be referring to the sometimes unorthodox practices of the mental health facility where Adam's parents are employed. And it could be that foreshadowing referred to earlier, spurred by the corrosion of high school debate judged by senators and other politicians that bleeds into public policy forums.

I finished this book more than a week ago and continue to ruminate on the various threads presented by the author. His writing is prosaic and in some ways reminds me of Julian Barnes' writing.
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LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
Adam Gordon is a high school senior on the debating team, soon to be national champion at extemporizing, but equally adept at policy debate wherein the favoured modernist technique is the spread. The spread is a presentation of so many “facts”, so much “evidence”, so many “arguments”,
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so incredibly quickly that those not versed in this technique might easily confuse what they are hearing for nonsense or the glossolalia of rapture. Yet the spread can render one’s opponent impotent, unable to even enumerate all of the rapidly heard arguments that have been presented let alone respond to them. And the spread is spreading. You can hear it in the surfeit of “information” channels submerging not just thoughtful debate but thought itself. You can see it in the massed rows of cereal boxes in a superstore rendering choice impossible. You can feel it in the fear of disconnection. But once you are spread, there’s almost nothing you can do about it.

There is something intensifying in a Ben Lerner novel. Images, motifs, phrases, sentences come round again, and again. Each time they take on a different aspect, they complicate themselves and those images or phrases around them. Soon the effect begins to intensify. Everything becomes both more meaningful and less certain. You begin to feel like a space within a highly orchestrated symphony. So much going on around you and you feel like if you could be completely still you might just hear it all at once. It’s a futile hope but inevitable. The effect is sublime. Or maybe you’re just suffering from the spread.

This is a stunning novel of art, politics, the poetry of language, and the increasingly unlikely prospect for actual communication. Each chapter, presented from one of the three main characters’ perspectives, becomes a kind of set piece as motifs and themes re-emerge and complicate. Past and present and future (from some points of view) are always already in play. It could be intimidating but Lerner makes it easeful. This is a novel you will read quickly but be exhausted by, your breath quite literally taken away.

Astonishingly good and thus highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Lemeritus
Held together more by dream logic than plot, this book will disappoint those looking for a clear denouement - it is not about destination so much as about the personal journeys we take to reach this place or that in our lives. It may require patience but it is well worth the effort.
LibraryThing member alexrichman
Takes the dizzying, hypnotic writing of his first two and injects a fair bit more plot, taking Lerner from very good to great. Thoughtful, heart-warming and, frequently, very stressful. Two big thumbs up.
LibraryThing member brianinbuffalo
About a third of the way into the book, a character grumbles to another, “Get to the point.” Ironically, it was right about this spot that I was silently muttering the same directive to Lerner. Maybe it’s a fault of my own, but a book needs to “come together” within the first hundred or
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so pages or the author almost always loses me. Still, I reminded myself of the many rave reviews and trudged on. I finally gave up midway through "The Topeka School." Some reviewers have already touched on my main problem. I simply couldn’t get into the disjointed, “tangled web” that Lerner was spinning using multiple voices. True, a few of the characters were intriguing – including the son and his mother. But I just couldn’t get into the book.
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LibraryThing member EBT1002
This is one of the most complex and layered novels I've read in a while. Character-driven and told from multiple points of view, its center set is Topeka, Kansas, original home of the Menninger Clinic, the Fred Phelpses, and of course Brown v. Board of Education. The latter plays no role in this
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story but its presence is felt as Lerner explores layers of identity, especially as they play out in a teenage boy and his parents. There are ironic riffs that repeat throughout the narrative, often parenthetically and almost always humorously, as Jonathan, Jane, and Adam tell us about Adam's serious concussion at age 8, his developing sense of justice in relation to developmentally disabled classmate Darren, and the path his life takes as a competitive debater in high school. Darren has a voice, too, and his is fascinating. Jonathan's was, for me, the least compelling - and least sympathetic - voice. Jane and Adam are central and both are elegantly developed.

I can't do this novel justice. There were moments of irritation with the author's overkill of a thematic element but many more moments of appreciation for his subtlety, for his creative drawing of connections between cultural elements. His grasp of psychological theory is evident but not overwrought (close, that one). And his timing is exquisite. A very satisfying read.
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LibraryThing member kcshankd
A roman a' clef from my home town. The writing was fine, the novel was mundane, and the attempted links to our present condition fell flat for me.

I had to read it, based upon the title, but didn't get much from the effort.
LibraryThing member Beth.Clarke
"The types placed their arms fraternally around his shoulders as in a football huddle, and passed him the invisible mic or conch or talking stick" (Lerner 197). Nice subtle reference to LORD OF THE FLIES.

Although the writing in this novel was compelling, I found it easy to lose focus and just skip
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parts of the book. I mostly listened to the audio, so that may account for my focus, but the novel seemed like a series of short stories linked together by family members. It was good, but not as astonishing for me as it has been for other readers. I probably went in with too high of expectations.

Lerner does move his characters through themes of masculinity and psychology while telling the tale through multiple points of view. He is clearly a talented author, but I would have enjoyed more attention to plot.
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LibraryThing member joyhclark
I get the hype behind this book - it's ambitious and well-written. It's a very autobiographical exploration of toxic masculinity, interspersed with themes of language, family, and some good shots at the current administration. It just felt disjointed to me. Had I known as I was reading that the
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book was largely autobiographical, I think I would have felt differently, but as a work of fiction, it doesn't meld well. It also jumped in and out of stream-of-consciousness randomly, adding to the disjointed feeling. I can understand the importance of this book and its contribution to literature, it just wasn't my cup of tea. It could have been the obvious psychoanalytic bent around all of the psychologists that bugged me. Still, it was very well-written, and I can't take that away from the author.

Thank you to the publisher for providing me with an ARC through NetGalley.
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LibraryThing member Susan.Macura
This is the story of a family in Topeka, Kansas - dad Jonathan, mom Jane and son Adam. Adam is heavily involved in his school debate activities - a topic I learned way too much about through this book. The father had an affair, the mother dealt with childhood abuse issues and the family as a unit
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endured other problems. I kept reading the book thinking all the while that it would get better, but it did not. While the writing was beautiful, the story itself was boring. I regret not closing the book after the first chapter and moving on.
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LibraryThing member ML923
I had not read any of Ben Lerner’s previous works, but I had grown up in Kansas City and had spent much time at my grandparents’ farm near Topeka. I had also read quite a few positive early reviews of this novel, which seems to be getting a lot of great buzz. So, I really, really wanted to like
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this book, and I began reading with high hopes. Unfortunately, I was very disappointed.

I found this to be an unexciting narrative about Adam, a very talented member of his high school debate team; his father, a psychologist; and his mother, a famous feminist author. Also woven in and around these main characters is insight into a young man named Darren, a loner who committed an act of violence. The story is told from the main characters’ alternating points of view and from different time periods, thus making the plot (what there is of it) quite confusing and disjointed. This was rather a laborious read for me, and I found it very hard to get through some pretty dense writing. I also could not really connect with any of the characters, although recognizing various geographic references sprinkled throughout the story brought back many pleasant memories for me.

While I found this a difficult read and the writing generally heavy and opaque, I nonetheless admired many of the passages and descriptions this novel contains. Lerner’s being a poet often shines though into his writing style, and some of his sentences I read and re-read because they were so beautifully constructed. All in all, though, this book just did not work for me.

Thanks to the publisher and to NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.
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LibraryThing member JosephKing6602
Good prose writing; but the book just didn’t hang together for me. Igave up on it.
LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
This book was highly reviewed and on many 2019 top 10 lists. It is Lerner's 3rd novel. As with most of the books I read, I try to know very little about the details of a book before I read it. I would define this book as the type of "literary fiction" that book reviewers love but the general
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reading public doesn't always share their opinion. The writing and prose are excellent. Lerner is a poet and it shows in his writing. The story goes through many time frames and centers around Topeka in 1997. Adam is the 18 year old son of psychologists Jane and Jonathan. Jane is also a renown feminist author. Adam is a highly rated debater and this theme runs throughout the book. Jane and Jonathan work for the "the Foundation" which is psychological institute. Lerner spends way too much time displaying his technical skills which results in not adding a lot to the story for me. A 4th character(Darren) is the exact opposite of Adam but is a peer age wise. His troubling story is always in the background of the book. The book touches on a lot if issues and it move well between the 4 narrators. I found it interesting that many reviewers referenced Lerner's 1st 2 books that have Adam as a character and that Lerner shares a similar background to Adam. I find that any book that requires as much back story as this one ends up being problematic. I am glad I read it and thought it merited 3 stars but I expect more from a top ten book.
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LibraryThing member novelcommentary
Ben Lerner most recent novel, The Topeka School, is a well written portrait of a family: a bright, but quick tempered son, Adam, who in high school becomes a nationally recognized debater, a psychologist mother whose books bring her fame, and father, also a psychologist at the Foundation, who
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specializes in lost boys. All three share narrative chapters. Not exactly sequential, their narratives often span time or even retell stories from different perspectives. We are also given brief italic passages between chapters of Darren's story, a classmate of Adam with limited faculties, who lashes out in a moment of frustration.
The novel is also about language. Adam has it and can use it in competition and also at keg parties where vocal insults are used like weapons. His metaphor of " the spread " - "the act of making arguments and jamming in facts at such an unintelligibly fast pace that an opponent can’t possibly respond to them all effectively" (The Atlantic) brings the reader to a sense of what is controlling the national dialogue.
Lerner writes well about the late 1990's, and describes life in the Midwest with knowing insights and clever observations. He peppers the story line with essays about art, relationships, masculinity and psychology. At times for me the story itself, a bildungsroman for the most part, gets too sidetracked by the reflections, but I definitely found the novel to be engrossing and worthwhile. Lerner manages to provide insights into our current state of affairs by exploring his own upbringing. Another example of auto fiction that works well, relying on the author to blend his recollections with intellectual reflection.

what could be more obvious than the fact that they did not know what suffering was, that if they suffered from anything it was precisely this lack of suffering, a kind of neuropathy that came from too much ease, too much sugar, a kind of existential gout?

The intimacy between us was quick and intense; there was something giddy about it; we were like kids at summer camp or freshmen at college who glom on to a new friend with an excitement tinged with desperation.

Reynolds peeling off his sweatshirt in the cold to reveal a six-pack, lats that made his torso appear hooded like a cobra.

I accepted the gum like a Communion wafer, some sign of absolution, new resolve.
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LibraryThing member sturlington
Here is a story of a family of three in Topeka, Kansas, and of the son, Adam, negotiating the trials of young adulthood. Yay, I finished it. I was a bit disappointed that, although it is featured prominently on the cover, there is no tornado in the book. I jest. This was just ... not my thing. I
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liked the writing, generally, but I just couldn't access the story. The best chapter for me was Jane's first chapter ("The Men"), and nothing else in the book quite recaptured that, which is to say that it felt disjointed and its parts untethered to one another, and it did not at all explain toxic masculinity to me, as advertised.
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LibraryThing member berthirsch
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

A nerdy, yet hip enough, high school student spends his last years at home succeeding in competitive debates, desiring the captain of his team a girl, has a love for poetry which he transforms into half assed rap songs and is the son of two boomer generation
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psychologists, his mother becoming a bestselling author on feminine issues and his father a laid back therapist with a special knack at engaging hard to reach adolescent boys who says “I was successful at the Foundation because I lacked ambition.”. They are part of a small community of intellects and therapists who work at the Foundation which appears to be a fictional stand-in for the Memminger Clinic. The foundation is populated with interesting, eclectic and charismatic characters, each one with an interesting back story.

We follow Adam and his parents as they deal with his anxiety attacks triggered by both a head injury and migraines. Adam competes at a high level and is on a fast track to Brown University. He struggles with breaking free from the safe cocoon his parents and small community have provided.

At the end of each chapter lives Darren a boy who is treated poorly by his peers and who ends up a patient at the Foundation His story serves as a counterpoint and cautionary tale, representing the underside of high achieving middle class academia and strivers. Additionally, Trump’s presidency and the madness it confronts citizens with, is another background story which results in commentary on the current sociopolitical context of the United States. Dr. Klaus, an older Foundation staff member, a mentor to Adam’s father describes the insular world of the families who work there: “the sign of imperial decline, this vacuum at the heart of privilege…a kind of neuropathy that came from too much ease, too much sugar, a kind of existential gout.”

In one longer passage Adam, commenting on his debating coach, a conservative striver with a trace of anti-Semitism:
“Evanson, even if he had the right words, was on the wrong side of history that ended with Dole…the baby boomers were more liberal than their parents, and Adam’s generation, however schizophrenic, was said to be more liberal still. He’d heard more than one person claim that all those ‘white kids wanting to be black’ was evidence that the old racial fault lines were passing away. Eminem would soon be the bestselling rapper of all time. The electorate, Adam had read in the Economist, would grow increasingly diverse and the Republicans would die off as a national party even if something remained the matter with Kansas, Evanson might have a career writing reactionary speeches, or become another Rush Limbaugh talking into the air, addressing truckers on No Doz, but meanwhile there would be a black/female president; Adam wanted to believe it was the end of the age of angry white men proclaiming the end of civilization.”

In the concluding chapter, Adam, now living in NYC, married with two children, attends an anti-ICE demonstration with his wife and daughter, becomes aware that the police were getting more agitated and aggressive with the protestors: “there was little chance of arrest, we’d assumed, given the babies and young children, given that nobody was trying to further penetrate the offices, but I sensed that even as seasoned protestor as [my wife] Natalia wasn’t sure what the rules were, what the agents of the state were capable of, now that America was great again.”

In the end, this is an American novel documenting the family dynamics, ambitions, jealousies, missteps and political backdrops of present-day America. Reminiscent of Franzen’s Corrections and Freedom, Ben Lerner has created a milieu in which these issues are explored with intelligence, insight, humor and despair.
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LibraryThing member icolford
By now we know that a novel by Ben Lerner will never be simple or go about telling its story in an obvious way. His prose is deeply entrenched in his characters’ states of mind. His observations about human behaviour and motivation are subtle, intricate and often startling. He writes with a
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degree of personal honesty and moral clarity that is refreshing and beguiling, even when he describes unpleasant, difficult, humiliating or traumatic events. He can be funny and profoundly intellectual at the same time. His approach is never straightforward. The building blocks of his fiction rarely line up in expected ways. His novels demand much of the reader, but the rewards are substantial. Such is The Topeka School, which marks the return of Adam Gordon, widely recognized by critics as Lerner’s fictional alter-ego, whom we first met in Leaving the Atocha Station. The novel is set in Topeka, Kansas during a fluid time period that encompasses Adam’s early formative years and extends briefly into his young adulthood. A high-school senior (class of 1997), Adam is also a champion debater who is prepping for a national competition that he is expected to win, and he feels the weight of those expectations. Adam’s mother, Jane, is a bestselling feminist author whose liberal views, particularly her opinion that toxic masculinity is to blame for much of what is wrong with American society, have been met with outrage in less progressive circles. Jonathan, Adam’s father, is a psychologist whose special talent is getting troubled young men to recognize and admit to their fears. The Gordon family is well off, privileged, and aware of their privilege. But Jane and Jonathan’s marriage is strained, and Adam endures migraines resulting from a concussion suffered when he was much younger. The novel is narrated by Adam, Jane and Jonathan in discrete sections in which each describes private, family and professional dynamics from an intimate personal perspective. Lerner’s narrative does not play by conventional rules. There are numerous abrupt shifts in time, space and perspective. The text is peppered with meta-fictional authorial interjections—the novel even refers to itself as a novel—and lengthy expository passages on topics like debate strategy and psychological theory. A recurring and crucial presence in the story is Darren Eberheart—a contemporary of Adam and a patient of Jonathan: an emotionally troubled and socially awkward young man who is bullied and mocked by his peers: a butt of jokes treated with cruel disdain by the teenagers whose fellowship and esteem he craves but will never obtain. The story of Adam’s youth pivots on an act of violence perpetrated by Darren on the eve of high school graduation, when, at a party, Darren is driven to extreme behaviour by frustration and rage. The Topeka School is a complex, bracingly alive, highly self-conscious, sometimes bewildering, occasionally exasperating novel that makes no apologies for its eccentricities. It is wise and elegant, difficult, sometimes preachy, and thoroughly engrossing. It is also smart and observant: a novel that has much to say about the turbulent era in which it was written.
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LibraryThing member brookiexlicious
When I first read about this book in BookPage magazine, I was immediately intrigued by the plot and requested it right away from the library. To my complete disappointment, this book did not deliver at all on my high expectations, and it almost became a “do not finish”.
The reviews promise a
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tale of a Kansas family in 1997-son Adam, who is on the debate team, his father who is a psychologist working mainly with troubled teens, and his mother is a famous feminist author. Adam’s friendship with a troubled classmate culminate in a tragic event at the end of his senior year. All of these descriptions are accurate, but I really struggled with the delivery. Each chapter is from the viewpoint of each character, which is fine, but I struggled to get through Adam’s and his father’s chapters. I consider myself a smart woman, but I had trouble understanding the high brow language and overloaded references to psychology studies, debate topics and their politics, elocution, and obscure filmmakers and their work. Many sentences ran on for longer than was necessary, and more than once I found myself rereading what I had just read to try and make sense of it all. The only respite came in the form of chapters from Darren and Jane; their prose was much easier to follow. ⁣
I was also disappointed with the character development of Darren. A troubling incident is reflected on throughout the novel, and when it arrived I felt the delivery and the ensuing impact fall well below promised expectation. I wanted to know more about this character and the aftermath, and they were only reduced to a passing reference in another character’s flash forward. ⁣
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LibraryThing member jphamilton
I have finally finished The Topeka School, which was my least satisfying book in some time. Adam Gordon (“arguably … the best extemporaneous speaker in the history of debate”), is one of the key characters of the book, and the “excitement” toward the end of the book has to do with the
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debate competition that he’s involved in. Allow me my, “I just didn’t get this book” form of book review. Praise for this novel was very high, as it made many lists of the best books of the year (including the New York Times 10 Best), winner of the LA Times Book Prize, and the book displays glowing blurbs from: Ron Charles, Rachel Kushner, Sally Rooney, Ocean Vuong, and many other major players. Yet, there I was, standing on a wintry street looking in the window at all the pretty treats of praise in their candy store jars, but experiencing none of that sweetness. There was some fine writing, some clever juxtaposition of phrases, brilliant reflections of earlier times, and interesting characters, but as for me … I was fine with continuing my walk down the sidewalk to another store.

I read many interesting things about techniques and the rules of debate, but they all quickly faded in my mind, as I couldn’t maintain much interest. I did learn of the concept of attempting to “spread” an opponent, by speaking so insanely quick and mentioning so many points, that one’s opponent would be penalized by the debate judges for not having enough time to counter all of them.

There are other characters and happenings, but not that stayed long in my sphere of interest. There are mentions of the Topeka’s Reverend Fred Phelps of the Westboro Church and their disgusting and despicable protests with their GOD HATES FAGS sign at military funerals. After looking him up online, it felt good that he left this planet in 2014, and his influence has faded.

There were parts that took the reader back to a past where toxic masculinity held an even stronger grip on our society than it does now. Adam’s mother, Dr. Jane Gordon, had written a socially progressive book (for that time) about how men and women related to each other, and that drew all kinds of abuse, especially after her appearance on Oprah. This was long before caller ID, and abusive and anonymous callers felt “braver.”

“Hello,” the voice would typically drop into a whisper or hiss; then—almost without fail—I’d hear the word ‘cunt.’ Sometimes they just wanted to let me know that I was a cunt who ruined their marriage, or that cunts like me were the problem with women today, a bunch of feminazi cunts, or that I should shut my cunt mouth (stop writing); they’d deliver their message and hang up.”

Dr. Jane would respond by simply continuing to say, “I’m sorry, can you speak up?” until they got embarrassed and seemed to fear that someone in their own household would hear them continuing their cunt diatribe, and they would just hang up.

At one point Adam summed things up, “The problem for him in high school was that debate made you a nerd and poetry made you a pussy.” One time while taking a long walk, Adam notices that in certain sections all he sees is Burger King, Sonic, Wendy’s and later after the fast-food joints, he comes to where there’s a grouping of interconnected masonry buildings on a main street, where every business had only one location, they were chainless. This may not have registered with the average reader, but when you’ve run a fearlessly independent business for a few decades like I have, that sort of observation strikes you and is appreciated.

There were many reflections of earlier times, like when people dressed up when flying, funny tales of dad taking acid and tripping on a museum visit, and when several people could answer the home phone at a time … and even continue to listen in. There was also Adam’s many thoughts about an attractive classmate named Sima. He thinks of the “fall of her hair across her pillow, slight part of her lips, the curve where her shoulder met her breast.” Another time, as a teenager, he doesn’t quite know how to think about having seen some of his mother’s pubic hair peeking out of her swimsuit. Growing up is never easy.

Just to provoke more thoughts about the book’s happenings, the book is often pointed to as another example of autofiction, since it mirrors Lerner’s life at times. I most liked the observations from other times and reminded me again of the horrible effects of winner-take-all capitalism and all that toxic masculinity. Overall, I’d still have been better off to have looked at the treats in another storefront.
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LibraryThing member Dairyqueen84
Ugh! Why do I keep doing this to myself? I read and I'm not really enjoying a book but then something tells me to keep reading. For the life of me, I can't remember what told me to keep reading because, what a dud. The stream of consciousness storytelling was not my cup of tea. The ending was so
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LibraryThing member paroof
Despite what the description says this is not about book about the difficulties of raising a child - or not much anyway. This book is about language - words - how the language we use shapes us, defines us, changes our perspectives. It's beautiful, and confusing, and enlightening. It could have only
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been written by a poet.

I understand that this book is not for everyone. It's not a linear story - it's not much a traditional story at all. It's more of an exploration, and as long as you're comfortable with that you will enjoy this book very much.
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LibraryThing member jonbrammer
Ben Lerner writes what he knows. The author blurb in the back syncs almost perfectly with the plot, making The Topeka School . . . autofiction? Having come of age during the same time period, a lot of the period details, the general ennui, of the 90s registers very strongly with me. I had a hard
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time buying into the Adam character, who is Lerner's protagonist- he is well adjusted, smart, a gifted debater. Darren is his counterpart, a scapegoat with an unidentified learning disability? who commits a pivotal act of violence.

A lot of this feels like the reflections of a relatively privileged person, who focuses on the relatively insignificant moments of drama to carry the story forward. The Topeka School would feel trite if Lerner didn't have a larger point to make about how language and access to information interferes with meaning. The central metaphor is through the spread, the debating technique that involves talking so quickly and stating so many arguments in such a short period of time that it is impossible to respond to all of them. Lerner's characters are smart, successful white people with an illusory feeling of comprehension, as exemplified through Jane, Adam's successful therapist / author mother who can't come to grips with her own trauma.
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LibraryThing member Griffin_Reads
It has some really good thoughts on many cultural woes, specifically on toxic masculinity. It also has moments of really good descriptions throughout. While I can see quite a bit fo character development, the use of multiple perspectives and timelines detracts from the story as a whole, and makes
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it difficult to follow because of how disjointed it is. Great book for the commentary, not for plot.
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LibraryThing member doehlberg63
This is on my DNF (did not finish) list. I can't. It literally gives me a headache. The writing trend may be to jump back and forth and sideways, but when you have this many characters, forget about it. I do have a little psychology background, so the explanations regarding deviancy or unwanted
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behaviors were highly interesting. However, this story focuses on chasing so many butterflies, going back and forth in time to describe the characters and the events that shaped them, with no clue where the story is going or why so much mundane is necessary. Each night I read the story, I would TRY to stop at a point where I would not lose what I had learned. But there was so much I did not understand. There was a ton of historical background you needed to appreciate this story (I guess), and I don't think the average reader will have it. I don't usually consider myself an average reader until I have to read a highly historical book. I also think references to Palin and Trump were just an excuse to throw a current political viewpoint in the book. It didn't have any other meaning to me, otherwise. Good grief! I wanted to relate to the characters, but the passages had so many terms and vocabulary that did not aid to building to whatever tied it all together. At the half mark, I made the call to take my life back and stop reading. I refuse to read a book that I have to rewrite in my mind to make it make sense. And the reviews are so mixed. Either people totally agree like I do, or totally think it is wonderful. Lots of times, readers will have a taste of a style from other books by that author. Even so, I could have read nearly all those reviews and still gotten frustrated with reading this book. I appreciate Goodreads giving me the opportunity to read it, but this genre, whatever it may be, is DEFINITELY not my style. All I could get out of it was adults and their offspring have problems that are often passed on from one generation to the next. If that theme could have been built and all the other extraneous ideas removed, chances are great I would have finished this book. That is one great storyline lost in the middle of the ramble.
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LibraryThing member snash
The insights in this book, particularly about the male experience, the images invoked by the language, and the elucidation of how the past is ever present were excellent. As a novel, however, it seemed to lose a common thread or a point.


Pulitzer Prize (Finalist — Fiction — 2020)
LA Times Book Prize (Finalist — 2019)
National Book Critics Circle Award (Finalist — Fiction — 2019)
PEN/Faulkner Award (Longlist — 2020)
Orwell Prize (Longlist — Fiction — 2020)




0374277788 / 9780374277789
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