Ben Lerner, the celebrated young poet and novelist in town for the Chicago Humanities Fest late last month, is said to have once apologized to an audience of poets for having even written a novel. Since then, Lerner—a 2015 MacArthur fellow for his poetry and fiction—has become something of a cult hero for the literary inclined, myself included. His three novels Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), 10:04 (2014), and now The Topeka School (2019), all written in the genre of “autofiction” (i.e., the self-conscious fictionalization of events and people from a writer’s real, lived experience), stand out even among works by other recent practitioners of the genre such as Teju Cole, Rachel Cusk, and Karl Ove Knausgaard. They’re even funny.
As a steady rain fell outside the floor-to-ceiling windows of a lecture hall at the Chicago Architecture Center on Saturday, October 26, Lerner seemed at ease with his interlocutor, poet Srikanth Reddy of the U. of C. Department of English and Creative Writing (Lerner, age 40, is Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College). The Topeka School, the novel that brings him here, is Lerner’s most traditional novel to date. Both Leaving the Atocha Station and its follow-up, 10:04, are metafictional enterprises in which the novels themselves and the very processes of their construction are used as material. In The Topeka School, Lerner moves beyond this, returning to the protagonist of his first novel, “Adam Gordon,” as a high school debate champion but, crucially, taking on the voices of his psychologist parents as well.
Lerner told his audience that once he’d decided to write the book as both the precursor of and the conclusion to his novel trilogy (Reddy: “Like Star Wars?” Lerner: “That’s right”), he struggled to find the right voice. Only after becoming a father himself did he realize that the solution was to write from an adult perspective, reaching back to imagine himself in the shoes of his mother and father; and to analyze his teens from the present. In fact, Lerner said he’d found that “I had more access to the vantage, the first-person perspective, of the parents than I did to a black-box version of my own adolescent consciousness.”
The gap between his hypereducated psychologist parents and ordinary Topekans—not to mention Adam’s violence-prone peers and aggressive debate team coach and competitors—became a focal point of the book. Even among the analysts, boundaries are built and lines between them collapse as friends and coworkers and bosses become doctor and patient, often to disastrous effect. The Foundation (based on the real-life Menninger Foundation, where Lerner’s parents both worked) is meant to be a place where communication provides the potential to heal, and yet it’s as often used to shut down conversation rather than respond to it. In one scene, Jane, the character based on Lerner’s mother (Harriet Lerner, well-known author of The Dance of Anger and other works), describes how speaking up at meetings might result in her next therapy session focusing on how her “outbursts” reflect her “phallic strivings.”
“I’ve talked to people about the book and they’ve been like, ‘Wow, this book is really down on therapy,'” Lerner said. “And other people said, ‘This book’s a real celebration of therapy.’ I think that’s probably right; it’s both things.”
Lerner’s skill in finding the connections between disparate points of view is one of his greatest strengths. The dysfunctional family dynamic of the Foundation staff connects to the dynamic of the Gordon family. Lerner’s attempt to find the right voice to write The Topeka School becomes another major theme as Adam Gordon, his proxy, searches for his own voice.
Lerner says his books can’t be spoiled by spoilers (“In the end, he turns into a wizard,” he joked to the crowd), and The Topeka School concludes with a return to the terrible present, with Adam, his wife, and two daughters taking part in a protest against ICE. As a high-schooler, Lerner told us at his talk, he was comforted by the idea of “the end of history,” as he understood it then, the notion that we’d gotten past what still haunts us today—things like targeted attacks against minorities, and scaremongering demagogues urging their followers to hatred and violence. In some ways, Lerner noted, the entire book is an effort to understand how he—and we—got here. “To try to think through in what ways did I buy into that naivete, and how is it still in me? How do I still have to unlearn it?”
The Chicago Humanities Festival continues through Tuesday, November 12. See website for more info; chicagohumanities.org.