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”.
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.”
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.
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."