Now, there’s more to fret about than ever before. Any good US liberal must worry about why yet another stale, pale male is attempting to write yet another great American novel. So Lerner gamely undercuts himself, opening the book with an arresting scene in which the teenage Adam is sitting in a rowing boat with his girlfriend, monologuing away in the portentous manner beloved of teenage boys everywhere. Halfway through his speech he realises his girlfriend has disappeared. To escape this oppressive barrage of male speech she has simply slipped out of her clothes and swum across the lake back to her parents’ house.
This is a fascinating, sometimes messy book. It’s exciting to connect all the material Lerner lays out, and frustrating when he sometimes does so himself (“Later Adam would perceive the fearful symmetry between the ideological compartmentalisation of high-school debate and what passed for the national political discourse”), as if he doubts the reader is up to the task. But given that the novel ends with the deployment of a human microphone (the low-tech protest tool where people around the speaker repeat what the speaker says) – something that makes the indistinct clear – perhaps Lerner considers the present situation so dire that an occasional lack of subtlety is worthwhile to ensure the book’s message is heard.
Amber slips away from Adam’s relentless speech instead of interrupting, challenging or even just sitting there and thinking of something else; she’s a dancer, and she imagines herself ‘as a liquid flowing down the chair’. Here, underneath Amber’s disappearance, is an idea that will keep turning up in The Topeka School: a tugging sense of the uselessness of language, and of the eloquence of action. Dance defeats words. (I think of the many times I’ve sat at the ballet, moved by something I can’t explain, that isn’t explainable in words; or of the crinkle of the eyes that shows the woman in the burqa at the bus stop has returned my smile; or the head of my 14-month-old nephew swivelling to find me when I come into a room talking, expressing far more than the hello he can’t yet say.) There are many things in The Topeka School that are more eloquent than words: a look, a smell of sandalwood and rain, a pool ball thrown hard in a girl’s face, an unfaithful husband’s hand finding his wife’s, cunnilingus, the burnt frame edge of a Renaissance Madonna and Child, chalk hearts on government pavements, a small boy sitting on the top of the slide and thumping his booted feet against the metal, silence. It is so common for language to be outwitted in the novel, and yet for the undoing to occur in beautiful sentences.
One might reasonably ask at this point: and so what? Which Brooklyn novelist with glasses isn’t obsessed with the instability of language? But Lerner isn’t just offering a weary postmodern jeu d’esprit, shruggingly embracing the meaninglessness of it all. For the apprehension of nonsense, of unreason disguised as reason, is as central to the book’s political diagnosis as it is to its artistic purpose: unreason linked to violence, bad words to bad deeds. Again, the debating competition provides a rich metaphor. Adam may be a skilful orator but his argumentation is functionally meaningless, made purely in order to gain mastery over an opponent. Jane may “entertain fantasies of his fluency eventually being harnessed for important social work”, but at the moment he is merely disputing into the void, “a boy mimicking the language of politics and policy”. (Jane is notably disturbed when, in defending the “spread”, a debater argues that “speaking at the far edge of intelligibility was actually about inclusivity”.) The real problem is that, in the contemporary United States, “there are no grown-ups”. Jonathan’s mentor, a German-Jewish émigré named Klaus, diagnoses the country’s condition thus: “America is adolescence without end”. He says this during the 1970s, but you can see where we’re heading.
As such language suggests, The Topeka School is a ‘pre-history of the present’. But it’s a long way from the 1990s to Trump, and I’m not convinced the route runs through the claustrophobic therapy sessions of (mostly) middle-class graduates and their kids, even if they are in crossover country. Ironically, Lerner’s depiction of public speech tips into a populism Trump might recognise — one that has shadowy elites deceiving the common man through cunning abuse of language.
In this frequently virtuosic novel, we glimpse the seam between the human-constructed world and the abyss beyond. No less than rules invoked by a uniformed goon, however, Topeka is an artefact. It is about America in 2019 but, brimming with self-awareness, it is also of it.
Yet the book manages the kind of moral empathy that a novel requires, despite being awfully “literary”. Everyone is found wanting and nobody is judged. Or we are left in the morass of making our own judgements. Although I found the ending wanting, this is a serious book for serious times. In an early review of an early American book, it was written that America is “adolescent”. This word chimes across this novel and is quoted, and leaves you wondering what it will be like when it becomes senescent.
Language’s potential as both a tool and a weapon is one of the novel’s central concerns. Competitive debating depends on a strategy called “the spread”, in which many arguments are presented rapid fire, in a way that makes them difficult to respond to. Since the “rule among serious debaters” is that a “dropped argument”, no matter its quality or its content, is conceded, the more arguments you can advance, the more are likely to be dropped by your competitors. This means that a contest designed to test the ability of participants to use language, to persuade and to share a point of view, often descends into what looks from the outside like meaningless verbiage. “To an anthropologist or ghost wandering the halls of Russell High School,” Lerner writes, “interscholastic debate would appear less competitive speech than glossolalic ritual.”
I think Lerner would resist the idea of the Great American Novel – indeed the very word “great” has been indelibly tarnished by its association with Trump. During a protest against the caging of immigrant children at the end of the novel, Adam Gordon admits that he didn’t know “what the agents of the state were capable of, now that America was great again”. But this is a great novel, one summoned by the desperate times in which it was written.
Lerner has indeed grown up and he has created a work of extraordinary intelligence and subtlety, of lasting importance. The Topeka School is the sound of “a public learning slowly how to speak again, in the middle of the spread”.
The writer Lerner reminds me of most is Edouard Louis, who is French, a generation younger than Lerner, and grew up gay and undernourished in a bleak post-industrial village in the north of France. The inarticulacy of the mumbling gangster is held up, in his memoir The End of Eddy (2018), as the only masculine ideal – talk being what women do.
The women in Lerner’s book are saved from their resentments by their capacity to talk, and to listen. And it is that poor woman’s Freud, Oprah Winfrey, who emerges, half-ironically, as the totem of Lerner’s morality. Adam’s mother admires how she makes “a diverse group of people feel heard” and works, “like a good therapist, to overcome polarisation without shaming”. She refuses to ignore the gap between the latte-sippers and the white men in baseball caps, but talks right into it and listens back. Lerner is listening, too, and has written a fine, exacting novel about what he has heard.
What can’t he do? Like Sally Rooney, another champion debater turned novelist, he’s fearsomely articulate, but when it comes to description, “a rain of glass” is the best he manages. (That said, his prose is always clean and cliché-free.) This novel is not as funny as the underrated Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer, another cleverly constructed novel about family and masculinity that I loved just slightly more than Lerner’s, even though it is messier. But that’s quibbling. I expect to be recommending both books for the rest of my life.
Those who were delighted by Lerner’s earlier novels – I am one of them – may find The Topeka School less consistently pleasurable: its many settings and voices make readers work harder, preventing them from becoming fully absorbed in a scene or character. But some of the novel’s most breathtaking moments come in its rapid movements through time and place, often within a single sentence: a mother sensing her son beside her at several different ages at once; a middle-aged man embarking on an affair in 1991 and feeling that he ‘couldn’t wait to tell Frank Selkie’, the best friend of his teenage years, ‘who’d died in 1988’.
The Topeka School is a Bildungsroman, therefore, a portrait of the poet as a young man — albeit one couched in an idiom that is distinctively Lerner’s. So alongside an exploration of fraught family dynamics (for which the setting in the Foundation provides a rich psychotherapeutic framework), there are set pieces that allow the author to explore what he recently described in an interview with the New Yorker as “literature’s ability or inability to capture . . . barely perceptible sensations that can be difficult to verbalise”.
Above all, it is fascinated with the possibilities and plasticity of language: talking therapy, policy debate and rapping all ferociously scrutinised. What stops it from being dry is Lerner’s wit, his eye for period detail (whether it’s Bob Dole or Eminem) and his poet’s ear for sounds (the distant whistle of a Union Pacific train or the beeps and hisses of a dial-up modem). Lerner never shies away from emotional or intellectual complications. If anything, he feeds on them.
An ambitious and original novel narrated alternately by Adam Gordon, a student at Topeka High School in the 1990s, although time shifts throughout, and his parents Jonathan and Jane. It's like no other American family saga I've ever read, and you needn't take my word for its brilliance as here's Sally Rooney: "A novel of exhilarating intellectual inquiry, penetrating social insight and deep psychological sensitivity... To the extent that we can speak of a future at present, I think the future of the novel is here."