Ben Lerner’s third novel, The Topeka School, published earlier this month, is a dizzying collage of the various life stages that shape a person, from the confusing mess of adolescence to the confusing mess of middle age. The book also contains lengthy passages detailing the intricacies of high school debate—both the dazzling skill and the useless blather—and there are sections on teenage love and isolation, mother-son relationships, infidelity. But because it’s a Ben Lerner book, it’s also, mostly, about himself.
“A lot of this book is about how you work with the materials of the past (including, maybe particularly, the most embarrassing stuff), both personally and politically,” Ben Lerner explains over email. “So it felt important and inevitable that I’d work with some of the materials of mine, to shape them into a work of art that hopefully has resonance beyond the personal.”
This is how all three of Lerner’s novels work. They start inward, almost incessantly aware of their function as a book, only to slowly widen the scope to reveal whatever universality Lerner is interested in fleshing out. In The Topeka School, many of the characters are erudite and talkative, a stand-in for some of the more toxic aspects of masculinity. “I think therapeutic listening in the book is actually one example of a counter-model to the masculine posturing characteristic of a lot of the talk in the book,” says Lerner. “And the book itself wants to be an instance of listening, something other than the rhetoric it tries to depict and understand.” It’s an extremely precise tightrope Lerner walks, and he does so deftly.
As a novel, The Topeka School glides from the intensely personal to the universal with ease. The moves are compact and direct; not a moment goes to waste. It’s all done with the efficiency of a debater who knows just how good they are. We corresponded with Lerner over email to talk about the novel, how language gets weaponized, and pushing back against the "great American novel" myth.
GQ: I’m curious about the initial structure of the novel. You bite off quite a bit here, weaving between time periods, narrative perspectives, and story arcs. Was the idea always to include these various webs and untangle them as you eventually do in the novel? Or did it begin with a specific storyline and begin to reveal itself from there?
Ben Lerner: I wrote an essay for Harper’s in 2011 that was about my experiences in high school debate in Kansas—and my sense of growing up between two worlds: the lefty household of my psychologist parents and the very red state in which I was raised. It was also about the violent identity crises of young white men in Kansas and the collapse of what passes for our public discourse. In a way that essay was a roadmap for this novel, but I certainly didn’t know it at the time.
But I think the novel started to feel writable when I saw a way to organize it around these different theaters of extreme speech: the pressurized speech of therapy, the weird cultic rituals of fast high school debate, the white appropriation of freestyling, the bankruptcy of political rhetoric—but also the possibilities of learning to listen and speak again. That said, the real answer is: I don’t know; trying to remember the origin of a book is a little like trying to articulate the origin of a dream.
The book deals heavily with how words work. It’s a technical text in a lot of ways, providing information on psychiatry, the semantics of debating, etc. I also noticed there’s a lot of repetition with specific words and more general phrasings, stories, and anecdotes. I’m wondering if you could speak a bit on the philosophy of language in this novel, and what you were trying to accomplish in your specific presentation of how we use words.
I think novels are good at showing how each of us is made up of an array of contradictory discourses—language we’ve learned from our family, from the mass media, from the arts, from our schooling, etc. And this is a book about Adam trying to figure out where his voice comes from and where it’s going—what voices he wants to honor in his own (aspects of his parents’ voices, say, or his kind of grandparent of affinity, Klaus) and what voices he wants to edit out, what patterns he wants to break (his right-wing troll of a debate coach, for instance, or the various languages of misogyny).
So while I know what you mean about it being technical, I think the book’s focus on language is actually very emotional and hopefully political—because it’s about how we relate to the past and imagine the future on an individual and, at least potentially, a collective level.
I did feel like “the spread” in high school debate is a metaphor (however necessarily inexact) for the overload of the present.
The book also heavily plays with the introduction or rise of a certain kind of radical right-wing ideology that’s more apparent now than ever. Was this something you were initially working with, or did the meteoric rise of this rhetoric prompt its inclusion?
It’s written from the disaster of the present and there is no question that the election of Trump clarified the rise—which is also a return—of a kind of fascist rhetoric. And I wanted to think—from a very personal perspective (meaning I wanted to examine my own misuses of language, too)—about how language can be evacuated or weaponized or otherwise used against the possibilities of love and collective life. I did feel like “the spread” in high school debate—the way debaters just try to make as many arguments as they can so that their opponents can’t respond to them all, a tactic which involves speaking so fast people often start to pass out and have to gasp for breath—is a metaphor (however necessarily inexact) for the overload of the present.
Trump—like many politicians—speaks incredibly slowly, inarticulately, a jumble of racist signalling, but he also “spreads” his opponents in the sense that he’s learned that while one big scandal might sink a presidency, having a thousand scandals a day incapacitates people. Who can possibly keep up with all the outrages? So the book’s concerns precede Trump—Trump represents continuity with the worst in America, not just something new—but yeah, the reversion to unreason that is upon us saturates the book.
How comfortable are you with readers placing authorial intention onto your work? We know you did debates growing up. We also know you grew up in Kansas. Leaving the Atocha Station is pretty well known as a story from your life, and the character in Topeka has the same name. This Adam Gordon almost goes to Spain. Are you wary of an audience projecting you onto this novel?
Much of the novel is autobiographical for sure, as is openly acknowledged. And I think of the three books as a trilogy about someone who certainly resembles me (though there is plenty of fiction thrown in).
I’ve always loved books like Rosmarie Waldrop’s The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter or Sybil Bedford’s A Legacy that are at once drawn from life and depart from it in crucial ways (make different characters into one character or vice versa, imagine periods that precede the narrator’s birth, and so on). I also think that—while using your biography leaves you open to charges of self-obsession—it’s a way of refusing the “great American novel” myth, the myth that (a white guy) could write for everyone, access every perspective, allow the particulars of his situation to go unmarked.
I’ve had my life profoundly changed for the better because of therapy. You tout its effectiveness, but seemingly every child who gets swept up into this world in your novel comes out with bad experiences. I can’t help but think that the characters who encounter psychological methods in the novel have more mixed opinions. As someone who’s been surrounded by this world his entire life, why did you decide to tackle this particular theme now?
I’m not sure everybody has bad experiences with psychologists in this book, although certainly psychotherapy and psychiatry don’t offer magic solutions that can somehow solve larger political and social problems. But I feel like Jonathan’s (Adam’s dad’s) attempts to help young men are genuine, that the kind of listening Jane models is informed by therapy, even that Adam’s experiences with biofeedback (which probably doesn’t count as part of “psychiatry”) offer him a counter-model to masculine violence.
I think I’ve probably been influenced as a writer by having therapist parents—because therapists understand silence as powerful (something poets also are attuned to), and think a lot about patterning (which is how works of art are formed).
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Originally Appeared on GQ