Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

The Topeka SchoolThe Topeka School by Ben Lerner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nicely encapsulated summary is the author's UK agent's description :
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, the ongoing crisis of identity among white men.
The Topeka School is another "autofiction" from Ben Lerner with many aspects of memoir as he writes about growing up in Topeka, excelling in writing poetry and debating, the son of psychologists (renowned feminist Harriet Lerner who wrote The Dance of Anger is his mom). He explores language and how it affects our lives, personally and politically - you never forget he's a poet, but the language of psychology is never far from the conversation either.
One of the psychiatrists at the institute where his parents worked, Klaus would respond by delivering his signature quotation from Niels Bohr, the quotation he always quoted when he seemed to contradict himself, a saying his conversation was inexorably working toward, one he loved so much he'd stop and stand still, smiling, to deliver it: "The opposite of a truth," Klaus quoted, "is a falsehood; but the opposite of a profound truth"--pause for emphasis, sound of sprinklers, insects, push mowers, felt absence of city noise, Kenny Rogers from a passing car--"may be another profound truth." It either is or is not August (Klaus removes his anachronistic glasses, round lenses, wipes his face, replaces them, resumes walking); if I assert it's August when it isn't--simply false; but if I say that life is pain, that is true, profoundly so; so, too, that life is joy; the more profound the statement, the more reversible the deep truths are sedimented in syntax, the terms can be reversed, just as there is no principle of noncontradiction, no law of excluded middle, governing the unconscious."
I love the insertion of "Kenny Rogers from a passing car."
Deceptive signers on the TV news announcing crises in gibberish instead of sign language. The constant presence of the Phelpses, a right-wing family marching with placards. His mother circumvents similar crank callers by pretending not to hear them and having them repeat their jibes, a technique she uses with her son on the phone hysterical with grief over a "dear John" letter. Repetition in speech figures significantly, as do tornadoes. The sad violence perpetrated by a mentally challenged classmate. The father's challenges treating "lost boys" while fighting his own battles with infidelity. Adam's wily conservative debate coach.
But where are the editors? Or what was the point in the repetitions? Is this a message for the discerning reader of this dense and intelligent book?
"He passes no inn or public house, no one throws him a penny from a hay cart that he might stop for bread or beer" describes Darren's long, sad odyssey home from the lake after being abandoned by his peers on p.153. Our hero walking across Central Park at night: "He passes no inn or public house, no one throws him a penny from a hay cart that he might stop for bread or beer." p. 181
My instant crush on Donna Selkie, the curve where her shoulder became her breast." p. 161 (his father speaking as a young man) mind was picturing Sima half-awake beside Eric: fall of her hair across her pillow, slight part of her lips, curve where her shoulder met her breast." p. 171 (his father speaking again as an adult)
"The problem for him in high school was that debate made you a nerd and poetry made you a pussy..." p. 127
And it is a funny book. The scene of the percolating teen antagonists in the big box store while their mothers make social conversation was priceless.
Political and social upheavals occur alongside the protagonist's own traumas. He touches back and forth with references to his present life as a politically active father of two daughters, married to a professor, living and writing in Brooklyn.
I did not want the tale to end. Lerner's fiction has always had a strong attraction and this book is no different although perhaps his second novel, 10:04, remains my favorite.

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