A NEW YORK TIMES, TIME, GQ, Vulture, and WASHINGTON POST TOP 10 BOOK of the YEAR
ONE OF BARACK OBAMA'S FAVORITE BOOKS OF THE YEAR
ALSO NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY: Esquire, NPR, Vogue, Amazon, Kirkus, The Times (UK), Buzzfeed, Vanity Fair, The Telegraph (UK), Financial Times (UK), Lit Hub, The Times Literary Supplement (UK), The New York Post, Daily Mail (UK), The Atlantic, Publishers Weekly, The Guardian (UK), Electric Literature, SPY.com, and the New York Public Library
From the award-winning author of 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station, a tender and expansive family drama set in the American Midwest at the turn of the century: a tale of adolescence, transgression, and the conditions that have given rise to the trolls and tyrants of the New Right
Adam Gordon is a senior at Topeka High School, class of ’97. His mother, Jane, is a famous feminist author; his father, Jonathan, is an expert at getting “lost boys” to open up. They both work at a psychiatric clinic that has attracted staff and patients from around the world. Adam is a renowned debater, expected to win a national championship before he heads to college. He is one of the cool kids, ready to fight or, better, freestyle about fighting if it keeps his peers from thinking of him as weak. Adam is also one of the seniors who bring the loner Darren Eberheart—who is, unbeknownst to Adam, his father’s patient—into the social scene, to disastrous effect.
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, and the ongoing crisis of identity among white men.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Ben Lerner’s new novel offers a sort of fictional pre-history of our toxic political present. Shifting between perspectives and time periods, the book follows Jane, an ambitious author; her husband, Jonathan, a psychotherapist; and their son, Adam, a champion debater. The book covers so much—language, psychotherapy, angry white men, pre-politics Donald Trump, the “end of history”—and, in a way, this so-muchness is the point. Lerner wants to know what happens when a culture’s attention is spread too thin. Virtuosic and funny, The Topeka School offers keen psychological insight into what the hell has happened to America.
Lerner made a huge impact on contemporary fiction with his two previous drawn-from-life novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04. With his latest, he leaves behind his typically erudite first-person protagonists in favor of a Kansas boyhood in the 1990s. For the time being, high school senior Adam Gordon can only dream of "a vaguely imagined East Coast city where his experiences in Topeka could be recounted only with great irony." But he is a brilliant member of the debate club and the son of two psychotherapists, Jonathan and Jane, who are tied to the Foundation, an experimental treatment facility where Adam is himself a patient of the eccentric (and possibly psychic) Dr. Kenneth Erwood. Readers delve deeper in the Foundation in evocative chapters narrated by Adam's parents, who tell the story of their courtship, Jonathan's extramarital affair with Jane's best friend Sima, and adventures in academia. Also haunting the novel is the figure of Darren, a teenage outsider whose inclusion in Adam's clique ends in a disastrous act of violence. Lerner's greatest strength lies in interstitial period details in the zeitgeist: Bob Dole, Reverend Fred Phelps, and Tupac Shakur. Loosely plotted but riveting, this novel expertly locates the thread of the anxious present in the memory-stippled past.