The Topeka School

How much information is too much? It’s a question we can’t help but ask in regard to Ben Lerner’s third novel The Topeka School. Lerner is an autofictionalist, which is to say he blurs the lines of genre in his work. His first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, revolved around a young American poet, not unlike the author in that moment, on a residency in Madrid, where Lerner spent a year on a Fulbright. His follow-up, 10:04, is narrated by a writer living, as Lerner now does, in Brooklyn and in the midst of a second book. These are not merely autobiographical fictions in the sense of functioning as romans à clef. Rather, they are experimental on the most compelling terms: investigations not only of consciousness and character but also of the DNA of narrative, what the author has called “the texture of et cetera itself.”

It’s not that Lerner is uninterested in story; The Topeka School unfolds, for the most part, in 1997 and traces the coming-of-age of a high school forensics champion named Adam Gordon — the same character who centered Leaving the Atocha Station. The narrative is straight-forward enough, or it appears to be, but Lerner’s concerns have less to do with arc or drama than with the dynamics of memory and time. The relation between The Topeka School and Leaving the Atocha Station offers a case in point; it’s no coincidence that the earlier book takes place later in the life of the character, nor that both take on, among other issues, the imperfections, the limitations, of language, and the distance it provokes. “The feeling of a fiction collapsing inside you,” Lerner writes in The Topeka School. “A fiction you’d forgotten was there. Frame, crossbeams, slats, braces, joins.”

On the one hand, Lerner is addressing narrative as construction, something we erect after the fact to create an order experience does not possess. That’s what all writers do, whether or not they acknowledge it; storytelling is a retrospective act. On the other, he’s revealing his intent to complicate chronology, to remind us of all the ways we can come unstuck in time. “One of the planes circling JFK was waiting to land in 1961 … And one of the circling planes was waiting its turn in the winter of 1991,” Adam’s father Jonathan reflects while sitting on an aircraft, illustrating how memories leave us in suspension as they conflate past and present and even future, all overlapping in the slipstream of the amorphous now.

For Lerner, this is both a literary and an ontological problem, a matter of how to tell a story and also how to live a life. He resolves the first of these issues by opening the book to a variety of voices, although most (Adam among them) are not first person: another distancing device. These characters include both Jonathan and Adam’s mother Jane, who are psychologists, and a Caliban-like classmate named Darren Eberheart, who becomes the catalyst for the novel’s denouement.

Lerner tips this off from the opening pages: “Long before the freshman called him the customary names,” he imagines Darren thinking, “before he’d taken it from the corner pocket, felt its weight, the cool and smoothness of its resin, before he’d hurled it into the crowded darkness — the cue ball was hanging in the air, rotating slowly. Like the moon, it had been there all his life.” Still, if this is in part a framing strategy — it takes nearly the entire novel to work back to this image — Lerner complicates that by engaging all the chronologies that co-exist at once.

“It was time to take their positions around the imperceptibly rotating cue ball, satellite of ice,” he observes toward the end of the book, writing as narrator (or author) weighing options, speaking directly about the mechanics of the narrative he has set in motion, which is both open-ended and yet also closed. “This is 1909,” he continues, echoing Jonathan on the plane; “this is 1983; this is early spring of 1997 seen from 2019, from my daughters’ floor, dim glow of the laptop, ‘Clair de lune’ playing in a separate window, as Bone Thugs-N-Harmony plays in the basement.” The point is less to preserve or stop time than it is to reveal. Memory comes with limits also; it is inevitable because it can’t be touched or changed. So what do we do about the weight of it, like a ghost or afterimage haunting us?

One answer, I suppose, resides in narrative, although how can that be anything but conditional? It’s a tension woven into Lerner’s project, which blurs the line between memory and fiction — not as a matter of abstraction but as a survival mechanism. Some of the book’s most vivid sections involve Adam’s interactions with Jane, who is modeled on Lerner’s mother Harriet. (Her bestselling book The Dance of Anger reframed the issue of women’s anger when it was published in 1985.) “I bet you won’t put this in your novel,” she tells her son before recalling an anecdote in which, as a boy, he wrapped his penis in chewing gum.

The scene belies her certainty that he won’t write it while also reinforcing the idea that what we’re reading is not unfiltered memory so much as memory shaped. Lerner makes the point explicit during a dinner in which eighteen-year-old Adam begins to pontificate, leading Jane to reflect on her “bully of a son as a vulnerable young man passing through a complicated social and hormonal stage.” The transference here, the ventriloquism, is remarkable, not least because we remain aware of Lerner’s presence just beyond the edges of the page. This is not only character creation but also projection, a son imagining himself through his mother’s eyes. That the novel will continue until that son — or the narrator evoking him — has also become a parent only complicates the interplay of time and memory.

What Lerner is projecting is a kind of doubling: between genres, yes, but more essentially between what we might call the inner and the outer life. The Topeka School is deeply autobiographical but also deeply imagined, a construction that reveals its frames and crossbeams, its slats and braces and joins. It is a book of tellings and retellings, in which perspectives enlarge or contradict one another, highlighting patterns that, by turns, illuminate and efface memory. “Why couldn’t we just go one fucking night without blurring the distinctions, crossing the wires,” Jane wonders. The answer: Because this is what we do. How much can we ever truly know, then? We remain suspended, porous to one another, immersed in echoes that are “walking toward us fast and slow, in the present and the past.”