The Topeka School rocks an American amplitude, ranging freely from parenthood to childhood, from toxic masculinity to the niceties of cunnilingus . . . Lerner’s own arsenal has always included a composer’s feel for orchestration, a ventriloquist’s vocal range and a fine ethnographic attunement . . . I could say more about trauma, sex, paradox, magic but only at the cost of further reducing this irreducible novel, which seeks instead to spread its readers beyond their borders with its fertile intelligence and its even more abundant heart...A high-water mark in recent American fiction."
Garth Risk Hallberg, The New York Times Book Review
“An extraordinarily brilliant novel that’s also accessible to anyone yearning for illumination in our disputatious era . . . Through the wizardry of Lerner’s prose, this battle of adolescent elocution becomes an emblem for the fiery state of American culture . . . Among the myriad miracles of The Topeka School is that it accomplishes so much, captures so much and questions so much about America in fewer than 300 pages.”
Ron Charles, The Washington Post
"[The Topeka School] is thoroughly, intimidatingly brilliant and absolutely contemporary . . . It's funny, and at times, painfully acute . . . [Lerner] is a supremely gifted prose stylist, at once theoretical and conversational; he never bores or blathers, and is always limpid. Rather than inviting the reader to look at him or his life, he invites the reader to look through him."
Christine Smallwood, Harper's
"The best book yet by the most talented writer of his generation . . . [Lerner] treats the self like an archive of social data from which it is possible to construct a larger story about our times . . . Jane, in particular, is an astonishing creation; it is hard to think of another character in recent fiction who shows up so vividly on the page . . . a particle accelerator of a novel."
Giles Harvey, The New York Times Magazine
Joumana Khatib, The New York Times Book Review
"Ben Lerner is moving from strength to strength, and The Topeka School displays a unique mind and sensibility on the prowl."
Dwight Garner, The New York Times 2019 Critics' Picks
“A triumph of ventriloquism . . . [Lerner] has written a perfectly weighted, hugely intelligent, entirely entertaining novel that does more than simply mine his childhood or explore what it is to be an author; he has taken on American masculinity, group identity and marginalization, political messaging and generational exchange, and has done so not didactically but generously and with admirable sensitivity.”
The Times Literary Supplement (UK)
"Because Lerner draws so freely from his own life, he is often grouped together with other writers of autofiction, like Karl Ove Knausgaard and Sheila Heti, which does his work a slight disservice. It ignores his real lineage, the great literature of passivity, failure and refusal: Melville’s Bartleby, the novels of Robert Walser and László Krasznahorkai."
Parul Seghal, The New York Times
"Lerner is a dazzlingly intelligent writer, and for anyone looking to understand contemporary America this tale of toxic masculinity, resentful outcasts, rigged high-school debates and political disaster is a good place to start."
The Times (UK)
"[Lerner is] one of the most acclaimed writers in the English-speaking world . . . [The Topeka School] is not just a bildungsroman . . . but a polyphonic portrait of an entire community . . . Lerner can get away with writing so many books that are autofictional because a spirit speaks through himbecause his language takes on a life of its own."
Becca Rothfeld, The Wall Street Journal
"I dunno if Ben Lerner was reading a lot of Faulkner when he wrote The Topeka School or if he naturally shares some of that writer’s fixations (clan, memory, language) and modes (doom-filled, funny, allusive), but either way: damn."
Vulture (#1 Book of the Year)
"Absorbing . . . Despite the book's specificity in place and timeKansas in the late 1990sit is really America that is lying on the therapist's couch."
"With acute social insight into the crisis of toxic masculinity and deep psychological penetration into one Midwestern family, [The Topeka School] is the rare novel of ideas that never skimps on depth of feeling."
Adrienne Westenfeld, Esquire
"In Lerner's work, an anticapitalist rhetoric indebted to critical theory is wedded to a lyricism that finds an eerie beauty in what it negates, like a black light . . . [The Topeka School] proves that Lerner, without sacrificing the idiosyncratic charms of his earlier books, can do more things with the novel form."
Evan Kindley, The Nation
“Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School is the best novel of the Donald Trump era thus far . . . Maybe the most remarkable thing about The Topeka School is the way it models this possibility by gathering together the apparently distant and unrelatedpsychotherapy, high school debate, Kansan politics, concussions, the drama of a marriageinto a story that feels sincere and generous.”
Ryan Lackey, Slant
“Autofiction master Lerner (10:04) returns with his most expansive novel to date . . . Narration from the present-day and interludes hinting at a terrible tragedy add intrigue to this study of polarization and toxic masculinity.”
"This third novel from Lerner (Leaving the Atocha Station, 10:04) arrives laden with the kind of hype that can sink a story from the get-go (“the future of the novel is here”). And then the book itselfpage by page, sentence by sentencesurmounts it . . . The onset of a coming, nameless dread is palpableas is the sublime pleasure of Lerner’s prodigious mastery of plot, style, and form.
Corey Seymour, Vogue
“Awe-inspiring . . . Lerner has hit on something deep, and true, in the portrait of “debate” in this book . . . The beautiful recollections of childhood in The Topeka School allow for a Portrait of the Artist–type origin story.”
Mark Greif, Bookforum
“Provocative and illuminating, this is a story for your head and your heart to enjoy.”
SPY.com (12 Best Books of the Year)
“[An] essayistic and engrossing novel . . . Few writers are so deeply engaged as Lerner in how our interior selves are shaped by memory and consequence . . . Increasingly powerful and heartbreaking as the story moves on. Autofiction at its smartest and most effective: self-interested, self-interrogating, but never self-involved.”
Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
“Ben Lerner’s forthcoming novel The Topeka School weaves a masterful narrative of the impact that mental illness, misogyny, homophobia, politics, and religion have on children who want to be men . . . It’s rare to find a book that is simultaneously searing in its social critique and so lush in its prose that it verges on poetry.”
Nikki Shaner-Bradford, The Paris Review (Staff Pick)
"Ben Lerner is arguably the hottest novelist writing in America today, in complete control of his ideas and his prose, and ambitious with both."
The Telegraph (UK)
"The Topeka School is a kind of 21st-century The Sound and the Furya kaleidoscopic portrait that masterfully connects one family and its traumas to wider cultural dysfunction . . . Lerner's novel offers a compelling exploration of how we got here, an d where we might go."
"The Topeka School is a novel of exhilarating intellectual inquiry, penetrating social insight, and deep psychological sensitivity. To the extent that we can speak of a future at present, I think the future of the novel is here."
Sally Rooney, author of Normal People
"Ben Lerner has redefined what it means for a writer to inhabit an American present by showing how a family reckons with its past. Here the personal and political are masterfully interwoven. The Topeka School is brave, furious, and, finally, a work of love."
Ocean Vuong, author of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
“Ben Lerner is a masterful writer who destabilizes the very notion of what a novel can achieve by making it new at every turn. The Topeka School is not only a fiction for our times, but for the ages: insightful, humane, politically astute, and true.”
Hilton Als, author of White Girls
"In Ben Lerner’s riveting third novel, Midwestern America in the late nineties becomes a powerful allegory of our troubled present. The Topeka School deftly explores how language not only reflects but is at the very center of our country’s most insidious crises. In prose both richly textured and many-voiced, we track the inner lives of one white family’s interconnected strengths and silences . . . This is Lerner’s most essential and provocative creation yet."
Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen: An American Lyric
"The Topeka School is what happens when one of the most discerning, ambitious, innovative, and timely writers of our day writes his most discerning, ambitious, innovative and timely novel to date. It’s a complete pleasure to read Lerner experimenting with other minds and times, to watch his already profound talent blooming into new subjects, landscapes, and capacities. This book is a prehistory of a deeply disturbing national moment, but it’s written with the kind of intelligence, insight, and searching that makes one feel well-accompanied and, in the final hour, deeply inspired."
Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts
"Ben Lerner is a brilliant novelist, unafraid to make of the novel something truly new . . . He is one of my favorite living writers."
Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers
Praise for 10:04
"Reading Ben Lerner gives me the tingle at the base of my spine that happens whenever I encounter a writer of true originality. He is a courageous, immensely intelligent artist who panders to no one and yet is a delight to read." Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Marriage Plot
"Just how many singular reading experiences can one novelist serve up? . . . 10:04 is a mind–blowing book … Strange and spectacular." Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s Fresh Air
“This is a book that belongs to the future.” Giles Harvey, The New York Review of Books
“[Lerner’s] concerns wrap around the modern moment with terrifying rightness . . . 10:04 describes what it feels like to be alive.” John Freeman, The Boston Globe
“Mr. Lerner is among the most interesting young American novelists at present . . . We come to relish seeing the world through [the narrator’s] eyes.” Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Ingenious . . . This brain-tickling book imbues real experiences with a feeling of artistic possibility, leaving the observable world ‘a little changed, a little charged.’” Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
Straddling a fine line between fiction and memoir, this book reintroduces Adam Gordon, the narrator of Lerner's acclaimed debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. Adam's youth in Topeka, KS, is unveiled in alternating chapters told by his parents, Jonathan and Jane, practicing psychologists who reveal more about their own emotional lives than their son's. We do learn that Adam is a top-notch debater who excels at the art of employing words to obfuscate more often than to explicate, perhaps a perfect metaphor for a novel set on the campus of The Foundation, an institution dedicated to the efficacy of talk therapy. And these characters do talk, seeking explanations for traumas large and small. Parental abuse, infidelity, rampant sexism, and the complexity of aging and memory are all subject to Lerner's scrutiny. Threaded throughout the Gordon family's story is the ominous tale of Adam's schoolmate and Jonathan's patient, Darren Eberheart, whose precarious hold on reality might by shattered by the bullying of his peers. VERDICT Readers seeking the wry humor for which MacArthur fellow Lerner is noted will find it in short supply here. This exploration of the angst-filled road to manhood is recommended for fans of Jonathan Franzen. [See Prepub Alert, 3/25/19.]—Sally Bissell, formerly with Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Fort Myers, FL
In which the author scrupulously investigates his upper-middle-class upbringing to confront its messy interior of violence, betrayal, and mental illness.
Adam, the center and occasional narrator of Lerner's (The Hatred of Poetry, 2016, etc.) essayistic and engrossing novel, enjoyed a privileged adolescence in the Kansas capital during the 1990s: He competed nationally in debate, had plenty of friends, and was close to his parents, two psychologists at an illustrious foundation. (Lerner is again in autofiction mode; he, too, competed in high school debate, and his parents are psychologists who've worked at Topeka's Menninger Clinic.) But all is not well: Fred Phelps' homophobic Westboro Baptist Church recurs in the narrative, a childhood concussion has left Adam with migraines, and his parents' marriage is strained. Lerner alternates sections written from the perspectives of Adam, his mother, and his father with interludes about Darren, a mentally troubled teen who committed an act of violence at a party that Adam feels complicit in. How much? Hard to say, but the book sensitively gathers up the evidence of abuse, violation, and cruelty in Adam's life. Though the conflicts are often modest, like Adam's mom's fending off Phelps-ian trolls angry at her bestselling book, Lerner convincingly argues they're worth intense scrutiny. As a debate competitor, Adam had to confront a "spread"—an opponent's laying out a fearsome number of arguments, each requiring rebuttals—and Lerner is doing much the same with his adolescence. How do childhood microaggressions build into a singular violent act? Were the rhetorical debates between the Phelpses and the foundation a rehearsal for contemporary Trumpian politics? Few writers are so deeply engaged as Lerner in how our interior selves are shaped by memory and consequence, and if he finds no clear conclusion to his explorations, it makes the "Darren Eberheart situation" increasingly powerful and heartbreaking as the story moves on.
Autofiction at its smartest and most effective: self-interested, self-interrogating, but never self-involved.