The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

download.jpegThere’s definitely a lot going on here that I didn’t get on a first read, but the first read was actually satisfying just based on what was readily available–and that is a very difficult tightrope to walk. There is an obsession with language and words, with argument, in a way that perhaps I react to more than most readers because I feel many of the same things myself. But it’s also gendered, distinctly male (and self-consciously so).

Adam Gordon, our hero, actually tells this story from 2019, New York, but mostly considering the events of the late 90s in Topeka (cameo by Bob Dole), when he was a high school debate champion. Sprinkled in between, sections from each of his parents; ultimately no reducible explanation for the points of view other than a novel, with an author.

Another angle that interests me: the viewpoints of psychologists (some of them Freudian), who have occasion to say the things most characters wouldn’t about people’s thoughts and motivations, but it never feels like a device. Maybe that is Lerner’s birthright because it is his autobiography (psychologist mother)–or maybe it’s mostly skill. Either way, it’s a very cerebral book that maintains narrative interest and left me wanting to read it again and discover more.

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