Review: The Topeka School

I love when a book unexpectedly captivates me. I had already been looking forward to reading The Topeka School – it seemed to appear on every best book round up in 2019 and even Barack Obama said it was brilliant – but I wasn’t ready for how completely compelling I would find it. On the surface it’s a straightforward story about a small family who live in Topeka, Kansas. The year is 1997 and the family consists of parents Jonathan and Jane, and their teenage son, Adam. Jonathan and Jane are both employed at The Foundation, a prestigious local psychiatric institution and Adam is a high school senior with a talent for debate and poetry. Disaster strikes when Adam makes an effort to include the local loner, Darren, in his social circle, not knowing that Darren is one of his father’s patients.

One of the things I loved most about this book was how clever Lerner was with his use of metaphors. Choosing to rely heavily on metaphor to make a point can be a tricky balance for an author to strike. You want your meaning to be obvious without the metaphor becoming heavy handed. Lerner executes this tightrope walk flawlessly. I loved the extended metaphor of American high school debate competitions as a commentary on everything that is wrong with modern American politics. Although this part of the novel is set in the late 1990s, the reader can’t help but see a vivid picture of the current political climate in ‘the spread’ of unintelligible and incoherent information, the focus on point-scoring over constructive discussion, the judges rewarding style over substance.

Similarly towards the end of the novel, when Lerner uses a young boy’s unwillingness to share a slide with Adam’s daughters and the boy’s father’s choice to enable his rudeness as a symbol for male entitlement and society’s implicit support of it, he exhibits deft self-awareness. He tacitly acknowledges that this episode is emblematic of something wider by drawing attention to how impressionable Adam’s daughters are, telling the reader that they are “watching intently to see how this would all unfold, preparing…to internalise whatever life lesson”. The reader’s consciousness of the metaphor makes the whole episode even more agonising than it would have been if we were just to take it at face value. The reader is compelled to read on, having a sickening feeling they know how this will end while hoping against hope that they are wrong. This novel is fiercely political but Lerner’s expert use of metaphor means that his points are made subtly but with brutal effectiveness.

I shouldn’t be surprised by Lerner’s expert use of the metaphor because this book is deeply concerned with speech, language and how we use it. Whether it is debate competitions or rap battles, poetry or psychobabble, Lerner is fascinated by different modes of speech and the cultural capital and power his characters are able to access through expertly moving from register to register. However, Lerner makes it clear that the power conferred by mastery of speech has its’ limits:“The stupid mistake psychologists make, a very Foundation mistake; we thought that if we had a language for our feelings we might transcend them.” Accomplished use of flashy language alone is not enough for the characters to overcome the deeper issues that lurk beneath the surface of this novel.

A key text that Lerner is in dialogue with is Hermann Hesse’s short story, A Man Named Ziegler. This text is referenced multiple times throughout The Topeka School and it tells the story of the the eponymous Ziegler who, after consuming a mysterious pill, acquires the ability to understand animal speech and realises that they are full of contempt for humans. He then loses his own sense of what it means to be human and descends into madness. The spectre of being unable to articulate your thoughts and becoming unintelligible haunts the novel and the characters in it live in fear of losing what little power they have to manage the chaos that lurks at the edges of their lives.

The danger of communication breakdown is alluded to throughout the novel but comes across nowhere more clearly than in the plight of the young, disaffected men that Jonathan finds himself treating at The Foundation. Jonathan is considered by his colleagues to be a specialist in dealing with these types of patients because he understands that “when a boy like Jacob shows up in your cramped but light-filled office, you should not under any circumstances ask him to account for his behaviour… Jacob would be the last person capable of such an account; if he had the language he wouldn’t express himself with symptoms.” The character Darren acts as a narrative stand in for all of Jonathan’s patients. Darren is a social outcast and it is implied that he has a cognitive disability that prevents him from keeping up with other young people his age. Adam and his friends from school adopt him as a sort of ironic mascot, finding it amusing to bring him to parties, get him drunk and use him for entertainment. Darren does not fully comprehend the complex social dialogue going on around him and he is unable to express his own feelings of inadequacy and frustrated masculinity. Because Darren is unable to access power and credibility through speech, he asserts himself through acts of violence. This inarticulate chaos lurking beneath the surface of the novel highlights the fragility of the kind of liberal civility that Jonathan, Jane and Adam represent. Their efforts to express themselves clearly through debate, poetry, writing and psychoanalysis seem oddly impermanent in the face of the unpredictable strength of those who have been left voiceless.

What I think is also brilliant about The Topeka School is the way that it shifts around in time, space and perspective, seemingly at random. I’ve seen a lot of reviews complaining about this aspect of the novel, saying that it makes it unreadable or difficult to follow but I couldn’t disagree more. I think it makes the universality of the themes of the novel – language and modes of expression, masculinity and identity, power and who does and doesn’t have it – all the more apparent. It doesn’t seem to matter where and when the events of the novel are taking place or who our narrator is, the same issues continue to bubble to the surface and Lerner’s points are made all the more emphatically. While this format may put some off, I urge you to push beyond any initial confusion and surrender yourself to this novel. I promise that it will be worth it.

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