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The Topeka School

A Novel

Ben Lerner

Picador

The Topeka School Download image

ISBN10: 1250758009
ISBN13: 9781250758002

Trade Paperback

304 Pages

$17.00

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Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction
Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize
Winner of the Hefner Heitz Kansas Book Award
National
Book Critic Circle Award Finalist
A Kansas Notable Book
Shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize

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.

Reviews

Praise for The Topeka School

The Topeka School rocks an American amplitude, ranging freely from parenthood to childhood, from toxic masculinity to the niceties of cunnilingus . . . Lerner’s own arsenal has always included a composer’s feel for orchestration, a ventriloquist’s vocal range and a fine ethnographic attunement . . . I could say more—about trauma, sex, paradox, magic—but only at the cost of further reducing this irreducible novel, which seeks instead to spread its readers beyond their borders with its fertile intelligence and its even more abundant heart. I’m probably too much a citizen of my time to predict it will 'change lives,' but I’m confident in calling it a high-water mark in recent American fiction.”—Garth Risk Hallberg, The New York Times Book Review

"The best book yet by the most talented writer of his generation . . . [Lerner] treats the self like an archive of social data from which it is possible to construct a larger story about our times . . . Jane, in particular, is an astonishing creation; it is hard to think of another character in recent fiction who shows up so vividly on the page . . . a particle accelerator of a novel."—Giles Harvey, The New York Times Magazine

“An extraordinarily brilliant novel that’s also accessible to anyone yearning for illumination in our disputatious era . . . Through the wizardry of Lerner’s prose, this battle of adolescent elocution becomes an emblem for the fiery state of American culture . . . Among the myriad miracles of The Topeka School is that it accomplishes so much, captures so much and questions so much about America in fewer than 300 pages. Here is that all-too-rare masterpiece: a svelte big novel. I’m as awed by Lerner’s artistry as I am by his insight, which seems downright forensic in its ability to trace the pathologies consuming us.”—Ron Charles, The Washington Post

"The Topeka School is a kind of 21st-century The Sound and the Fury—a kaleidoscopic portrait that masterfully connects one family and its traumas to wider cultural dysfunction . . . Lerner's novel offers a compelling exploration of how we got here, and where we might go."Star Tribune

“Ben Lerner’s novel 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 . . . 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.”—Nikki Shaner-Bradford, The Paris Review (Staff Pick)

"[The Topeka School] is thoroughly, intimidatingly brilliant and absolutely contemporary . . . It's funny, and at times, painfully acute . . . [Lerner] is a supremely gifted prose stylist, at once theoretical and conversational; he never bores or blathers, and is always limpid. Rather than inviting the reader to look at him or his life, he invites the reader to look through him."—Christine Smallwood, Harper's

"This third novel from Lerner (Leaving the Atocha Station, 10:04) arrives laden with the kind of hype that can sink a story from the get-go (‘the future of the novel is here’). And then the book itself—page by page, sentence by sentence—surmounts it . . . The onset of a coming, nameless dread is palpable—as is the sublime pleasure of Lerner’s prodigious mastery of plot, style, and form.”—Corey Seymour, Vogue

"With acute social insight into the crisis of toxic masculinity and deep psychological penetration into one Midwestern family, [The Topeka School] is the rare novel of ideas that never skimps on depth of feeling."—Adrienne Westenfeld, Esquire

“Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School is the best novel of the Donald Trump era thus far . . . 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.”—Ryan Lackey, Slant

“Ben Lerner is a masterful writer who destabilizes the very notion of what a novel can achieve by making it new at every turn. The Topeka School is not only a fiction for our times, but for the ages: insightful, humane, politically astute, and true.”—Hilton Als, author of White Girls

"In Ben Lerner’s riveting third novel, Midwestern America in the late nineties becomes a powerful allegory of our troubled present. The Topeka School deftly explores how language not only reflects but is at the very center of our country’s most insidious crises. In prose both richly textured and many-voiced, we track the inner lives of one white family’s interconnected strengths and silences . . . This is Lerner’s most essential and provocative creation yet."—Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen: An American Lyric

"The Topeka School is what happens when one of the most discerning, ambitious, innovative, and timely writers of our day writes his most discerning, ambitious, innovative and timely novel to date. It’s a complete pleasure to read Lerner experimenting with other minds and times, to watch his already profound talent blooming into new subjects, landscapes, and capacities. This book is a prehistory of a deeply disturbing national moment, but it’s written with the kind of intelligence, insight, and searching that makes one feel well-accompanied and, in the final hour, deeply inspired."—Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts

"The Topeka School is 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."—Sally Rooney, author of Normal People

"Ben Lerner has redefined what it means for a writer to inhabit an American present by showing how a family reckons with its past. Here the personal and political are masterfully interwoven. The Topeka School is brave, furious, and, finally, a work of love."—Ocean Vuong, author of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

"With fierce intelligence and crisp prose, Lerner looks to the past to address our present, examining the way we learn to speak and how our failures to communicate individually and as a collective are central to some of our country's most difficult and pressing divides, whether they be politics, gender, race, class, or culture. We are fortunate to have this terrific poet to push the boundaries of the novel and show us its possibilities."—Hefner Heitz Kansas Book Award judge Andrew Malan Milward

“[An] essayistic and engrossing novel . . . Few writers are so deeply engaged as Lerner in how our interior selves are shaped by memory and consequence . . . Increasingly powerful and heartbreaking as the story moves on. Autofiction at its smartest and most effective: self-interested, self-interrogating, but never self-involved.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads

BOOK EXCERPTS

Read an Excerpt

Darren pictured shattering the mirror with his metal chair. From TV he knew there might be people behind it in the dark, that they could see him. He believed he felt the pressure of their gazes on his face. In slow motion, a rain of glass, the...

About the author

Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner was born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1979. He has received fellowships from the Fulbright, Guggenheim, and MacArthur Foundations, and is the author of the internationally acclaimed novels Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, and an essay, The Hatred of Poetry. His poetry collections include The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and Mean Free Path. Lerner is a professor of English at Brooklyn College.

© Matt Lerner

Ben Lerner

Read an Article by the Author at the Guardian

The Poetry Foundation