In Ben Lerner’s coming-of-age novel The Topeka School, alternating narrators weave a complex tapestry of teenager Adam Gordan’s journey as he learns to be a man in Topeka, Kansas in the late 90s. Adam (a gifted debater preparing for a high school debate championship), his psychologist parents Jane and Jonathan, and his classmate Darren Eberheart (social outcast and patient of Jonathan Gordan) each provide part of a collective history that explores – as Lerner described to The New Yorker - “a violent identity crisis among white men”.
As burdensome (and let’s be honest, tiresome) as fragile masculinity can be to deal with, it’s not unimportant. The sinister impact of harmful masculinity is most obvious in Darren Eberheart’s storyline. From the very beginning of the novel, we are informed that Darren is both troubled and in trouble with the law. Throughout the novel, readers are shown the impact Darren’s unthinking peers have upon him as he weaves his way to eventually committing a horrendous act of violence against Mandy Owen, a girl who once rejected his advances the summer before freshman year. Despite Darren’s malignant mental blind spots, his sections brim with poetry – emotion, nuance, his ever-dismissed yearnings to be accepted. This poetry offers us a heartbreaking glimpse of an alternative world in which Darren is not warped by rage.
Lerner teases out such angers and anxieties simmering in the hearts of young white men in this book, a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. In competitive debating, Adam learns to use his mastery of language as a weapon (though he doesn’t necessarily learn how to control it); Jane, in publishing a best-selling book for a lay audience that gets her on Oprah, experiences verbal harassment and bigotry; and Jonathan’s professional work involves engaging with “the lost boys of privilege” – “intelligent middle-class white kids from stable homes who were fine until they weren’t”, whose mental suffering seemed unrelated to their life circumstances.
On RNZ, Melanie O’Loughlin of Unity Books Auckland (crowned 2020 International Bookstore of the Year at the London Book Fair) described the book as giving readers “this bird’s eye view of masculinity in the American Midwest.” It’s true that The Topeka School illuminates a troubled landscape, showing us the issues that have been festering in plain sight. And though Lerner’s insightful, diagnostic dissection is set in the nineties, his probing prose picks at us too on this side of the millennium.Support Villainesse