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The Topeka School
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The Topeka School

By Ben Lerner
304 Pages
Paperback
August 2020

 

A NEW YORK TIMES, TIME, GQ, Vulture, and WASHINGTON POST TOP 10 BOOK of the YEAR
ONE OF BARACK OBAMA'S FAVOURITE BOOKS OF THE YEAR

From the award-winning author of 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station, a tender and expansive family drama set in the American Midwest at the turn of the century, hailed by Maggie Nelson as Ben Lerner's "most discerning, ambitious, innovative, and timely novel to date."


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.

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...A high-water mark in recent American fiction."
―Garth Risk Hallberg, The New York Times Book Review

“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.”
―Ron Charles, The Washington Post

"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

"Fiercely intelligent."
―Joumana Khatib, The New York Times Book Review

"Ben Lerner is moving from strength to strength, and The Topeka School displays a unique mind and sensibility on the prowl."
--Dwight Garner, The New York Times 2019 Critics' Picks

“A triumph of ventriloquism . . . [Lerner] has written a perfectly w teighted, hugely intelligent, entirely entertaining novelhat does more than simply mine his childhood or explore what it is to be an author; he has taken on American masculinity, group identity and marginalization, political messaging and generational exchange, and has done so not didactically but generously and with admirable sensitivity.”
--The Times Literary Supplement (UK)

"Because Lerner draws so freely from his own life, he is often grouped together with other writers of autofiction, like Karl Ove Knausgaard and Sheila Heti, which does his work a slight disservice. It ignores his real lineage, the great literature of passivity, failure and refusal: Melville’s Bartleby, the novels of Robert Walser and László Krasznahorkai."
―Parul Seghal, The New York Times

"Lerner is a dazzlingly intelligent writer, and for anyone looking to understand contemporary America this tale of toxic masculinity, resentful outcasts, rigged high-school debates and political disaster is a good place to start."
--The Times (UK)

 

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