It’s easy to see why Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School (McLelland and Steward, 2019) was among Barack Obama’s favourite reads in 2019. At once a coming-of-age bildungsroman and a subdued political drama, this novel is as much about the nature of language and reason in American culture as it is about the power of memory and family ties.
The plot of this novel revolves around Adam Gordon, a high-school debate team champion living in Topeka, Kansas, and his mother, a famous feminist psychology writer, and father, a practicing Freudian therapist. Dipping into their shared pasts, this book looks at how trauma, both physical and emotional, ties people together, even as it blurs the boundaries between them. It carefully examines the political nature of being a person – especially a man – in a world where, more and more, quantity, not quality, seems to dominate our emotional and political lives.
Lerner, already an award winner for books such as 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station, writes with masterful prose; clean, terse, sharp sentences without waste or fat. The plot, however, often feels contrived. Consistent reference to Freudian analysis and highly academic language, while it feels organic, can make the novel feel dry and inaccessible.
Although this novel was much-lauded – it won the Hefner Keitz Kanas Book Award, was shortlisted for the Rathbrones Folio Prize, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was listed as a Top 10 Book Pick of the Year in the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Vulture and GQ – I honestly would have a hard time handing this over to someone and saying, “you have to read this.”
I, a very well-informed person who cares deeply about politics, was bored throughout much of the novel. If it can’t hold my attention, then it’s probably not going to do much for someone who isn’t as interested in the subject as I am. Moreover, as a female-bodied reader, I found the book alienating. I could neither relate to the masculinity-related identity issues of the main characters, and, as it is around these issues that the drama of the story mainly focuses, I didn’t find it particularly compelling. This is a novel designed, largely, for a very niche (male, upper-middle class, well-educated and politically-minded) reader. Although it is beautifully written, it’s probably not for everyone. I found myself struggling to finish it, but I’m also clearly not the target audience for this book.
As an audio production, the book is very well done, no doubt in part because of the serious praise it received in its print incarnation. Several professional narrators work throughout this book, which makes it very easy to separate the characters. Clean, well-pronounced and well-enunciated voicing makes this a pleasant listen.
The Topeka School is available now on Audible or at a bookstore near you.
[2 out of 5 earbuds]