Ben Lerner’s Topeka School Failure

LITERARY CRITICISM BY G.D. DESS

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner Credit: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Holden Caulfield would not have liked Adam Gordon. That was my thought about half-way through Ben Lerner’s latest novel, The Topeka School. Adam Gordon is the principal narrator of The Topeka School, and Holden Caulfield, in case you’ve forgotten, is J.D. Salinger’s protagonist in The Catcher in the Rye. Adam and Holden share a lot of similarities: they are both teenage boys, still in high school. They come from privileged, white, bourgeois families. Adam, a star student and champion debater, is on the cusp of graduation and plans on attending an Ivy League school in the east; Holden, who lives in New York City, has just been thrown out of a fancy east-coast prep school for failing all his courses except English. “I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot,” he tells us. In both novels, these sensitive boys struggle to overcome their feelings of angst and alienation as they try to find a place for themselves in the world. But here’s the thing: Holden’s voice echoes in your mind long after you put down the novel, whereas Adam’s voice becomes inaudible the minute you turn the last page.

The reasons for this are varied and somewhat elusive, but one explanation may revolve around the idea of an “anxious object,” a term introduced by the critic Harold Rosenberg to describe a kind of modern art that induced anxiety in the viewer because he/she found it difficult to decide if they were in the presence of genuine art or not. In Lerner’s work, we don’t know whether to take Adam Gordon, or, for that matter, any of Lerner’s neurasthenic narrators, seriously; or, if we should dismiss them as posers, pseudo-intellectuals who, in the texts they create, share their consciousness, and present their highfalutin ramblings as evidence they are sensitive and introspective young men seeking to find, and eventually live, some sort of authentic life — if such a life is even possible in the post-modern carnival in which we are all trapped. This uncertainty, and lack of any kind of emotional affect, far from providing the kind of tension, indeterminacy, and honesty sought after by late-modernist authors, produces instead a feeling of fraudulence. And this feeling haunts Lerner’s fiction like a specter.

Lerner wants us to take The Topeka School as an important work of literature. In an extended interview with the author Sally Rooney, he goes to great lengths to explain what the book is about. As he infelicitously puts it, The Topeka School is concerned with the way a voice is a technology formed across generations.There is no way to know what this means, but he goes on to say:

The book is about—not in some political, theoretical, fully explanatory way—the bankruptcy of what passes for political speech, and the way that when a language reaches a kind of death, when it’s emptied out sufficiently, that creates the conditions for a fascistic return to a vocabulary of racist unreason.

A mouthful of graduate school doublespeak if there ever was one. Thus, it is difficult to figure out what Lerner means here, if he means anything other than something trite or tautological—or, more likely, nothing all. At most, one can surmise that, according to Lerner, The Topeka School is supposed to be about language and speech.

A demonstration of the power of speech occurs in the opening paragraphs of the novel. Adam and his girlfriend Amber are in a boat on a lake at nightfall, and while Adam is talking, Amber manages to strip off all her clothes and swim away, unobserved by Adam. Only when he stops talking does he notice she is gone. He wonders: “When did she dive or step off the boat and how could she have made no splash and what if she was drowned?” While we might feel we are being set up for a magical realism interlude in this eminently realistic novel, and are ready to have Lerner tell us that Amber was carried away—not by butterflies—but by the bats circling the lake at this hour, that is not the case. Unbelievably, Amber did swim home. Adam was so mesmerized by his own speech that he didn’t notice his girlfriend stripping off her clothes and slipping into the lake. Fantastic when you think about it. A teenage boy, whose hormones are presumably raging, on a lake at dusk with girlfriend, and he doesn’t notice when she strips off her clothes. Hmm…

What could Adam have been talking about that rendered him oblivious to Amber’s actions? Certainly not his and Amber’s relationship. She would probably have stayed in the boat and participated in that conversation. The intricacies of Adam’s debating techniques? That would be enough to make anyone jump overboard. My guess is Adam was talking about himself, perhaps his intention of going to an east-coast Ivy League school after graduation. That, too, would be sufficiently boring to want to run, or swim away from. Nevertheless, that Amber could get over the gunwale without rocking the craft and altering another passenger is a questionable feat on a cabinless boat not more than a maximum of twenty-five feet in length, which is the limit permitted on the 240-acre Lake Sherwood. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I don’t believe there is any way, no matter how self-involved and narcissistic you are, that you would not have observed your girlfriend abandoning ship—especially with no clothes on.

This failed opening gambit turns out to be nothing more than a didactic ploy to bring us to a parallel case so Lerner can make a point. The degree of obliviousness Adam exhibits on the water is a comedic stereotype of a pompous, middleage patriarch pontificating to his family at the dinner table (think Archie Bunker if you like), expecting his captive audience to sit and listen and not interrupt. And lo and behold, we meet such a fellow. When Adam finds Amber at home safe and sound, she tells him a story about her step-father who “used to give these like endless speeches at dinner.” Amber recounts how she escaped her step-father’s overbearing soliloquizing by sliding down her chair under the table, stealthily slipping out of sight and going into the kitchen, just as she slipped out of the boat, leaving the Adam the blowhard to continue his diatribe. You would think that having been exposed to this type of behavior at home, she would avoid someone like Adam like the plague. But there is no accounting for taste.

It takes Adam twenty years to realize the analogy between her slipping from the chair and from the boat.” That time frame covers the length of the novel; however, it is not clear that Adam has drawn any lesson from it. At the end of the novel he is still as self-absorbed as he was on the boat, and doesn’t seem to realize he has become the same insufferable, dominating bore as Amber’s stepfather, prattling on about politics, “the spread” and his children—all to no effect.

ben lerner 2 headshot(Is Ben Lerner the next J.D. Salinger?)

Holden Caulfield, on the other hand, effectively offers us, and himself, observational lessons without the didacticisms. Salinger presents Holden as a restless, dissatisfied, alienated, depressed young boy, but a boy who lives intensely. Holden sees through people. He detests hypocrisy, and has the ability to sniff out “phonies” with the accuracy of a bomb-sniffing German Shepard. Here is Holden, early in the novel, observing the behavior of a friend:

You take a very handsome guy, or a guy that thinks he’s a real hot-shot, and they’re always asking you to do them a big favor. Just because theyre crazy about themselves, they think youre crazy about them, too, and that you’re just dying to do them a favor. It’s sort of funny, in a way.

Holden’s observation that because someone is “crazy” about themselves they think youre “crazy” about them, too, immediately demonstrates his psychological acumen. That he can discern a thirst for power from benign narcissism shows insight beyond his years. His ironical comment “sort of funny, in a way,shows his perspicacity and infuses the insight with a sadness and melancholy that is carried through the entire novel. Salinger’s use of the second person pronoun, with its admonition ‘you take’ draws us in, tells us what to think, implicates us in the narrative. It’s impossible to resist. Holden is only seventeen but his speaking voice is that of a prodigy, yet still innocent somehow, and this dynamic tension is what makes Holden a great character. Adam Gordon may be master of “the spread” (more on this later) and the national debating champion, but he never expresses a lived reality the way Holden does.

Lerner’s Adam is determined to become a success, to achieve the American dream. He capitalizes on his hard work, particularly his debating. Eventually Adam will flip his debating skills into poetic skills like a real estate developer who lives in a house while refurbishing it, and, as soon as he is done, sells it at a profit, moves out and buys another house. Adam is an entrepreneur of the self, an ambitious, calculating boy for whom debate and poetry are a means to an end, the recreation of a successful bourgeois life.

Holden disdains ambition and thinks those who pursue it are phony. In school, he flunked his “oral expression” class a form of spontaneous speechifying, in which, similar to Adam’s debate “spreads”, students can call out “digression” when someone doesn’t stay on argument. Holden failed because he liked the digressions. Getting to the point meant nothing to him because as far as he was concerned, there is no point to anything. Holden can’t conceive of becoming a lawyer, like his father, because he can’t imagine being able to separate doing good for the sake of doing good from self-interest, in which case you were a phony. The job he sees himself best cut out for is in his misapprehension of a line of Robert Burn’s poem Comin thro’ the Rye by a helper, the person who would catch the children if they started to go over a cliff while coming through the rye: “I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.” Toward the end of the novel, Holden considers abandoning speech altogether. He imagines moving out west, pretending to be a deaf-mute so he wouldn’t “have to have any goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody.He’d work at a gas station and build a cabin and try to live out his life in tranquility. But he is not naïve; he realizes the Edenic life he conjures up for himself presents  problems. Finding respite from the materialist world in which we live may not be possible:

That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write ‘Fuck you’ right under your nose.

Attempts are made to shake Holden from his nihilism. One of Holden’s teachers tells him: “Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.” Holden rejects this, “Game my ass,” he says. Holden’s rejection of conformity, middle-class life, and his refusal to play the game, signifies the rebel, the outsider, the true poet. Adam, on the other hand, knows and respects the rules. He strikes a balance in his social world between the white “fake-ass gangstas of Topeka” with whom he hangs, and his parent’s “household values of intellect and expression.” He plays at being a bad boy by participating in “freestyling” verbal performances with his homies, which serve as a cover for his nerdy debate skills and his poetry. He likes to critique the late-capitalist system in which he finds himself, but Lerner’s Adam doesn’t fool us. He’s doing everything he needs to do to ensure that he can participate in the money grab that his career path and his credentials will entitle him to.

The genesis of The Topeka School (billed as a “prequel to Lerner’s two previously published novels) came from his essay “Contest of Words: High School Debate and the Demise of Public Speech” which appeared in Harper’s (2012). The novel often paraphrases lines from the essay, sometimes almost verbatim. The thesis of both the essay and the novel is, as noted earlier,the bankruptcy of what passes for political speechwhich Lerner tells us is a very real crisis: the standardization of landscape and culture, a national separation of value and policy, an impoverished political discourse.” And yet, one of the (many) frustrations in The Topeka School is the lack of a cogent demonstration of the bankruptcy of speech. Among the boring surfeit of details Lerner provides about debating, he offers an explanation of “the spread” (“to make more arguments and marshal more evidence than the other team can respond to within the allotted time”). He then gives us an example of the spread in our everyday lives (the same one he uses in his essay):

…corporate persons deployed a version of the spread all the time…the spoken warnings at the end of the increasingly common television commercials for prescription drugs, when risk information was disclosed…the list of rules and caveats read rapid-fire at the end of promotions on the radio…the “fine print” one received from financial institutions and health-insurance companies…

What Lerner provides, however, is not impoverished discourse at all. In the above cases, the voiceovers aired during ads for prescription drugs are not from the creators of the ads. The information they provide is mandated and written by the FDA; it is provided as fair balance to alert the audience to the tradeoffs in benefits and risks. Similarly, in the “fine print” at the bottom of financial ads, it is the Bureau of Consumer Protection and the FTC that dictate the risks be made known. These warnings are similar to the outsized graphic warnings found on cigarette packs pointing out the dangers of smoking. To misunderstand the structure of these communications, to characterize and name them as instances of the spread, and then to posit them as the proof that there is a separation of value and policy in America—or, worse, hold them up as examples of impoverished speech is logically dubious, and, quite frankly, embarrassing, coming as they do from a champion debater who should know better.

***

From the beginning of what is now being referred to as a trilogy (Leaving the Atocha Station, 10:04, The Topeka School), the narrators, Ben/Adam, have followed the rules of the game. At the conclusion of The Topeka School we find Adam, no longer a nerd in Kansas, but a hipster in Brooklyn, New York. He is living the dream. He went to college, lived overseas, published books, won awards, gained recognition from the literary establishment, earned money, wed a woman, fathered two children. We accompany him, his wife and daughter, who is five years old, to a demonstration against ICE. Their goal is to enrich their daughter Luna’s cultural capital, to allow her to experience “a little upbeat teach-in.” However, Adam has to spirit Luna away from the demonstration because Luna finds the experience too intense. Meanwhile, his wife, Natalia, who stays at the protest, texts Adam that some of the kids are giving speeches: “Wish Luna was here.Natalia regrets their daughter is missing the experience which will deprive her the memory of her “first demonstration” her initial step on the path toward becoming, like her parents, a social justice warrior. Had Adam allowed Luna to stay, in years to come we can almost hear them repeating to her,Remember Luna, you took part in the anti-ICE demonstration when you were only five.” The first step in inculcating an ideological outlook that will later appear to her as a “natural” worldview. Thus, is the familial bourgeois social order reproduced.

We never learn what happens to Holden. Certainly, his trajectory into adult life will remain fraught with difficulty. At the conclusion of The Catcher in the Rye, he is in a mental hospital where his psychoanalyst questions him about his willingness to “apply” himself when he gets out. “It’s such a stupid question,” Holden says. He continues to reject incorporation into the system.” He is appalled that his brother, a successful writer, moved to Hollywood, where he has become a “prostitute” working for the dream machine, making money by making movies.

Salinger early-on recognized the calamity of the ever encroaching corporatocracy and the soul crushing repressive economic system it represented, and has only worsened under late capitalism. Holden was in the front-line of fictional characters leading the resistance against the alienation and conformity that was insidiously infiltrating every facet of American life. Lerner, in all his efforts to create a case against the “collapse of language” and critique the world in which we live, does nothing but reencode the patriarchy and propound the conservative values of work, education, ambition, and family. Lerner gives us the illusory American Dream, the Shining City on the Hill.

The Catcher in the Rye and The Topeka School are separated by well over half a century, but I can’t help but feel that should Holden Caulfield appear among us today, and if Holden and Adam were to meet, Holden would find Adam Gordon to be one of the phonies he despised.

*******

GD Dess is the author of the novels His Vision of Her and Harold Hardscrabble. His essays and literary criticism appear regularly in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Currently, he is putting the finishing touches on his latest novel, Better, and working on a novella, A True Story You’ll Never Believe Is True.

We recently featured his short story,  “The Bayside Blonde.”

4 thoughts on “Ben Lerner’s Topeka School Failure

  1. Is it possible the book was meant to be satirical and your reaction to it was just what the author sought? Holden saw through it all and told you so. If you infer from his narrative that Adam Gordon is a pompous ass, haven’t you arrived at the same place Holden took you to? You just didn’t have Holden to guide you this time.

  2. Great essay. Captures the eerie discomfort I was in while reading the book (was more a fan of Lerner’s earlier work). To Nick Gallup: I don’t think Dess would say that there weren’t satirical elements in Lerner’s novel. I think he’d say that Adam (and perhaps Lerner) both, for the most part, completely unwittingly and UNironically buy into corporatocracy, again, not in a satirical way. This is summed up, I think with expertise, in the line: “Lerner, in all his efforts to create a case against the “collapse of language” and critique the world in which we live, does nothing but re–encode the patriarchy and propound the conservative values of work, education, ambition, and family.”

    Anyway, will be sharing the essay. I know MANY, many readers who agree with you.

  3. Alan: I haven’t read the novel, and, after Dess dissed it so much, I doubt that I will. It was an excellent book review, though, one I think Holden Cauldfield could have written. I suspect Dess, as so many of us are, is a big Holden fan. There’s an irony for you. Holden is probably better remembered than Salinger. Satirists have to be careful. I remember the Washington Post did a survey on Art Buchwald once and learned that a third of his readers thought he was telling the truth. Thanks for the overview. Nick.

    1. Nick: Yes, you’re exactly right. I know people who mistake The Onion headlines for the real thing… Alas. Happy reading (though good choice sparing yourself the Lerner…)

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