The Topeka School: A Novel
by Ben Lerner.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.
Hardcover, 304 pages, $27.
Reviewed by Jon K. Lauck
Ben Lerner has written an intense new novel that will mark our cultural moment for some time, even in these strange days, but in ways that, at times, skirt reality and perpetuate hoary stereotypes. It’s all here: the crisis of young men, the extended consequences of a therapeutic culture, political strife, regional frictions, the workplace complexities faced by female professionals, abuse, the red/blue binary, the health of public discourse, and, fittingly, a bit of overwrought social criticism. While miscues mar the book, it remains a necessary read if not simply for its spotlighting of our present dilemmas, but for its partial but revealing misapprehension of our time.
Lerner grew up in Topeka and that is where—along with New York—all of the action in the novel takes place. Lerner’s main character, Adam Gordon, is the son of two psychiatrists who work at the unnamed Foundation. The latter is a reference to the real world Menninger Foundation, which was founded in Topeka in 1919 to serve as a sanitarium, clinic, and psychiatric institute and which became world-renowned, a sort of Mayo Clinic for the mentally broken.
Karl Menninger, the founder of the facility, believed in treating patients humanely and giving beleaguered people a community in which to adjust and find support. Karl was born in 1893 in Kansas, the son of a country doctor, and was educated in the Midwest: Washburn University in Topeka, Indiana University, and the University of Wisconsin. After attending Harvard Medical School, Menninger joined his brother and father, the latter of which was impressed with the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota: “You boys are going to be doctors and we are going to have a clinic like that in Topeka.” It became “the Vienna in the Wheatfields.” Menninger sought to give patients hope and a purpose through a bit of Midwestern pragmatism and agrarian grounding: “It should be a help for any people to be getting three square meals a day and to know that there is opportunity ahead—things to be done, land to be turned, things to build.” Menninger focused on what worked and was not afraid to abandon the goofier aspects of Freudianism. Menninger kept his famous clinic in Kansas and stayed true to his roots and his state instead of decamping to the coasts (he was also an active member of the Kansas State Historical Society).
The Menninger family and its story is not mentioned in Lerner’s book, which is heavily autobiographical, but its history is plainly the basis for the Foundation. The Foundation draws in two young psychiatrists from New York, Jonathan and Jane Gordon, for post-doctoral fellowships during the 1970s. Although they had planned to leave after they completed their study, they fall for the open space of Kansas, have a son Adam (read Lerner), and decide to stay. Jane becomes a researcher and popular writer (making it to “Oprah” and the rest of the national media circuit) while Jonathan dabbles in film and focuses on the day-to-day treatment of young men, or his “lost boys.” The stand-in for Menninger in the novel is Thomas Attison, or Dr. Tom, the old founder of the Foundation, who forges a bond with Jonathan and looks out for him when it comes to bureaucratic standing and social advancement. Dr. Tom is a fatherly figure and warmly welcomes the young Jewish hippie protester/analyst from New York into his clinic in central Kansas.
Jonathan also bonds with Klaus, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived the Nazis, unlike his family, which perished at Auschwitz. Klaus came to the Foundation during the 1950s, joining many other European and Jewish analysts who had fled to the United States. Klaus was a six-foot-three-inch graceful Berliner who wore linen suits and had worked with Jung in Zurich. It is through Klaus that the struggles of the boys in Lerner’s book are best understood. Klaus, who survived the Holocaust by hiding in a chicken coop, struggles to sympathize with the American boys entangled in the problems of prosperity. Klaus “could not take these kids—with their refrigerators full of food, their air-conditioning and television, their freedom from stigma or state violence—seriously; what could be more obvious than that they did not know what suffering was, that if they suffered from anything it was precisely this lack of suffering.”
Jonathan is more forgiving of the boys than old-world Klaus, who knew real pain and torment, but he sees the same thing. Jonathan treats young people for obvious problems relating to trauma and the usual cases of schizophrenia, of course. But he also notices, over time, more and more young men whose “suffering wasn’t clearly related to their circumstances, or whose circumstances were most notable for their normality—intelligent middle-class white kids from stable homes who were fine until they weren’t: the lost boys of privilege.” Klaus’s views also become more complex and closer to Jonathan’s. He sees that the boys are “emptied out, isolate, mass men without a mass, although they’re not men, obviously, but boys, perpetual boys, Peter Pans, man-children, since America is adolescence without end” and they are “undergoing a profound archaic regression.”
The focus on regression yields the novel’s most crucial theme. Instead of continuing to grow and develop and enjoy civilization’s advances, humanity keeps sliding backwards, becoming more narcissistic and violent and dulled by modern life. The sense of loss can be found in scenes where Jonathan Gordon observes Duccio’s Madonna and Child at the Met and feels an overwhelming sense of loss, a disconnection with tradition, an obliteration of ritual and meaning. This loss can be felt when Jonathan observes the sculptures and the contempt for modernity they communicate. It comes in the form of airline travel, for which people used to dress in jackets and be served meals with silverware, but now they show up in sweats, eat pretzels shoulder-to-shoulder, and snore loudly, mouths agape.
Lerner also spotlights regression in the form of high school debate, his description of which certifies his unique literary genius. The innards of high school debate are laid open: the preparation that yields stacks of plastic tubs full of evidence; the “flowing” of debates on yellow legal pads; nerds in ill-fitting suits in empty Midwestern high schools scurrying to science classrooms with all their plastic tubs; pimply anxiety channeled into high school rivalries (in Lerner’s case Topeka High School v. Lawrence High School v. Shawnee Mission High School, etc.). During the late 1980s I swear I repeatedly encountered the same debate judge that Lerner describes on page 19: “he sat with his arms crossed, glasses resting atop his bald head, begrudgingly making notes on a legal pad.” Since Lerner’s book is set mostly in 1996 during presidential election season, even Bob Dole makes an appearance at a debate tournament in his hometown of Russell, Kansas to present the awards.
The problem, Lerner explains, is that high school debate is no longer the preparation for democracy that it once was. Instead of training young people to read and analyze evidence and use it to argue about major policy problems in the public square, the exercise has become absurd. Too many debaters have become obsessed with “the spread,” or the idea that one should present as many arguments as possible in as short a period of time as possible so as to trip up your opponent and cause them to “drop” an argument during their speech and consequently lose the debate round. The result is a “glossolalic ritual” in which true communication fails.
The direct personification of regression in The Topeka School and what carries the novel along is the character Darren Eberheart. Darren’s father died in a car crash and he drops out of high school and becomes a misfit who is overseen by Gordon at the Foundation. What is happening with Darren is undefined. Parents in the community pressure their children to include him in their activities, but it proves awkward. It is not clear from the novel whether Darren is gay, but after a drunk freshman girl named Mandy shows interest in him at a party and he demurs, she insults him with a slur. Darren responds by throwing a cue ball at her head and putting her in the hospital (at least that seems to be what happened, but it remains murky given the amorphousness of some parts of Lerner’s novel, which are meant to convey Darren’s mystifying imagination). Much of the novel explores Darren’s dreams, fantasies, and square-peg clumsiness.
Adam’s mother Jane Gordon—based on the prominent psychotherapist Harriet Lerner (that is, Ben Lerner’s mother)—provides a gendered angle to the novel. Jane’s successful book on family dynamics is a best-seller. Some angry men begin calling the Gordon house to cuss out Jane for wrecking their family and end up exposing the “ugly fragility of masculinity,” in Lerner’s stock phrase. Throughout the book it is hinted that Jane was abused by her father when growing up in New York, but the focus is mostly on Jane recovering her hazy memories and Jane’s mother’s timid reaction and not on the actual abuse, so the story remains opaque, which is apparently Lerner’s intention. Jane befriends, at least for a while, a Berkeley-trained psychiatrist named Sima, who was dismissed by her Iranian-born father because he did not take girls seriously and instead focused on making his son into a doctor. They share stories about their damaged fathers. Jane becomes frustrated with her deteriorating relationship with Sima, her husband’s interest in Sima, and, more generally, the “toxic masculinity swirling around” and the “Marlboro Man culture around us” and its effect on the boys of Topeka, including her own.
Jane’s worries about the culture of Kansas makes the setting of the story a meaningful part of the book. The distinctiveness of the Midwest and its cultural norms certainly figure in Lerner’s literary imagination. When Adam, a boy of cerebral parents, displays incompetence when it comes to operating a boat, he is contrasted to his friends who “exhibited a basic Midwestern mechanical competence” and “could change their oil or clean a gun, whereas he couldn’t even drive stick.” In his practice at the Foundation, Jonathan focused on “finding a way to get people, especially reticent Midwestern boys and men, to talk.” When Jane Gordon encounters women who liked her book, they squeeze each others’ hands: “we weren’t going to embrace each other, that wasn’t going to happen in the American Midwest, but just shaking hands, which seemed very masculine, very businessy, felt insufficient. So we took each other’s hand and applied a certain pressure …” Kansas itself is also alive in the book in the form of references to the real towns of Stull and Clinton Lake and, in Topeka itself, locations such as Huntoon Avenue and West Ridge Mall and St. Francis Hospital, all of which demonstrates Lerner’s attentiveness to place.
Lerner is a powerful intellectual force—he was a national champion in debate himself and is now a distinguished professor of English in New York who has won all the awards—and he is even the poetry editor at Harper’s to boot. His literary prowess is undeniable. But his novel is a chore. It is complex, involving many strands of thought and plots and sub-plots—you might say that Lerner is spreading the reader. Also, basic information is often absent. What precisely did Darren do to get arrested? What did Jane’s father do? What did Adam do to win back his girlfriend? Was there a tornado in the story like on the cover? Did Darren imagine this? We just don’t know, and not knowing does not itself help the plot. The italicized ramblings of Darren deepen the confusion. As auto-fiction, much of this novel reflects a form of Lerner-as-Adam reality, but we are never sure what parts. Still, the brilliance and analytical flair is there to enjoy, outweighing the added work for the reader. The problems with the novel lie elsewhere.
First, the treatment of Kansas is often petty and predictable. At one point, Lerner writes that the Foundation’s location was, “depending on your temperament, backward or bucolic.” It seems to be mostly the former given Lerner’s trafficking in lazy clichés about the region. All the houses around a pleasant lake are mocked as too generic and for having paintings on the wall of dogs flushing game and for featuring “framed family photographs on the mantel: teenagers in sweaters posing on a leaf-strewn lawn.” McMansions, malls, consumption, ridicule of the Topeka zoo, Hypermart (Walmart presumably)—all have their stock roles in the novel, and form a direct channel to the old and moribund “revolt from the village” school of criticism.
This being Topeka, the absurdist Fred Phelps stands in for anti-gay attitudes, but this was one kooky family nobody liked (as Lerner concedes). And Phelps was not even a Kansan—he was from Mississippi. Jane admitted that when she moved to Kansas she “was afraid Topekans would all be members of the John Birch Society or something.” Jonathan Gordon’s brother thought Kansans were fascists. Out at the Foundation, “there was no big city into which you could flee by carriage or dissolve your workday, your contradictions”—one was trapped in Topeka. The smart liberal kids were obviously expected to move East to college and later write books and thus a young clever boy in Kansas imagines “looking back on the present from a vaguely imagined East Coast city where his experiences in Topeka could be recounted only with great irony.”
This skepticism of Kansas is linked to the heavy-handed progressive politics of the novel (in a dreary repetition of Thomas Frank’s takedown of Kansas). By the end, the usual clichés have accumulated, all the boxes have been checked: attacks on ICE, the long passages criticizing imperialism, boring Midwestern towns, menacing corporations, Zuccotti Park references, kids-in-cages, and the rest.
The politics of the novel is personified in the anti-hero, Peter Evanson, the evil foil to more righteous debaters (and a reference to the real-life Kansan David Kensinger, a Republican political consultant). Evanson is a Topeka High grad who went to Harvard (the real person went to Williams) after winning a national championship in extemporaneous debate. He is brought in to coach Adam as he prepares for the national debate tournament in Minneapolis (the real person won two national championships in extemporaneous speaking, a challenging debate category). Adam questions whether Evanson is in Kansas because “he couldn’t cut it ‘Back East.’” Evanson is portrayed as vaguely anti-Semitic and racist and a cutthroat manipulator of language like Rush Limbaugh who will work with the Koch brothers to perpetuate conservatism in Kansas. Lerner zings Evanson for his “capacity to move between relative sophistication (a brisk refutation, say, of the political philosophy of John Rawls) and the plainspoken rhetoric of individual liberty, personal responsibility, etc.—Republican talking points.” Jane despises Evanson’s wolf-like presence, and when he tells Adam to appeal to his regional Kansas roots and not just to the liberal debate judges from New York and San Francisco, she interprets Evanson as saying “the Jews.”
Evanson and conservatives are blamed for the rise of the spread and the demise of high school debate and, hence, public discourse. The spread and the resulting incoherence, Lerner argues, generates a vacuum where deep public discourse used to guide public policy. But none of this was caused by conservatives, who actually intervened to attempt to save high school debate from its postmodern absurdist turn toward speed-reading. And it is not the fault of the Midwest, where more coherent and traditional policy debate survives. The coasts, particularly California, are the source of this mischief. To witness the speech problem see the documentaries Resolved (2007), Debate Team (2009), Fast Talk (2011), and Figures of Speech (2016). The famed South Dakota debate coach Donus Roberts created the Public Forum style of debate a few years after Lerner graduated from Topeka High in order to slow down debaters and bring rationality to high school speech events. Yet somehow Lerner pins the blame for the erosion of high school debate on right-wingers and “petro-dollars.”
While the anti-regionalist and progressive tics are annoying and the history of debate is off, the core point of the novel—if I may “group” Lerner’s arguments, as the debaters say—is about masculinity. He thinks that the boys in his story have devolved into a meaningless Hobbesian world of martial arts, meth, fisticuffs, weight-lifting, creatine, gangsta rapping, violent video games and movies, and so on, and that this is the fault of Kansas, or what he deems the “Topeka School,” which represents Red America. But this framing of our social circumstances is deeply flawed, even within the four corners of Lerner’s novel.
The protagonist of The Topeka School is Adam, who is a product of New Yorkers steeped in the latest psychotherapies and committed to the usual liberal causes. Adam’s best friend Jason, who is the Stanford-bound product of Berkeley-trained psychiatrists who also came to work at the Foundation, is the one who enjoys humiliating the troubled Darren. They are the products of supposedly enlightened coastal therapists. If Adam and Jason embrace a corrupted form of masculinity and struggle to find meaning, it’s not the fault of Kansas—but that is what Lerner communicates to the broader world via his novel and his public appearances.
What Lerner seems to be pining for in his criticism of social excess (in the form of the debate spread and jumbo boxes of cereal), and rightfully so, is an older American order, where the virtues of thrift and moderation and classical (small “r”) republicanism prevailed, the kind of attributes that once defined the agrarian and small-town bourgeois Midwest. Lerner places blame for the weakening of that world in the wrong place. All his great learning doesn’t prevent him from making an egregious misdiagnosis. He needs to read the Nebraskan Christopher Lasch, who made the transition from sixties-era socialist to defender of the old virtues. Lasch thought the erosion of the republican traditions of places like Kansas, the fraying of historical consciousness, the undermining of Christian principles, and the rise of the therapeutic culture represented by the parents of Adam and Jason were to blame. The latter founded Prozac Nation and triggered our age of anxiety and overmedicated children (Jason’s father was particularly obsessed with prescribing psychotropic drugs).
It was not Kansas that sparked a crisis of meaning by flooding the intellectual sphere with postmodern French theory or the “depressing Germans” and “experimental poets” that Adam imbibed at his East Coast college. Kansas was a land of New England idealists, reformers, republicans, agrarians, abolitionists, and Christians, as the great historian Carl Becker once explained. They represented the world of republicanism and Puritan personal responsibility, which Lerner dismisses as a “talking point.” They represented profound “regimes of meaning,” the loss of which explains the ennui that Lerner finds mysterious.
The strains in Lerner’s thinking and the improvisational nature of the world he has built in The Topeka School are revealed via the improbable Bob Dole, who floats through the novel. In his takedown of the Republican political consultant Evanson we see Lerner’s failure of vision. Evanson, he writes, “was on the wrong side of history that ended with Dole.” But this is absurd—Dole was precisely on the right side of history. Dole was in Italy fighting the Nazis who massacred Klaus’s family. He barely survived a German machine gun nest and finally, after a brutal hospitalization, returned to Russell, Kansas and entered public life. He represented a pragmatic, grounded Midwestern politics for decades in the Senate, and he was certainly never guilty of abusing the spread. He once gave a major policy speech in Los Angeles criticizing Hollywood’s excessively violent movies because of their perverse effect on notions of masculinity. This was a case of Kansas resisting the forces that were corrupting American masculinity. Lerner also dismisses Dole as a product of an era of “contentless optimism.” But his generation had just won a world war against evil empires and was, with great purpose, pursuing prosperity while staring down another empire, a grand enterprise full of content and meaning.
As perceptive a mind as Lerner’s should have been able to see that all his youthful angst was not Bob Dole’s fault. But it’s not an uncommon form of intellectual malpractice. Blaming Kansas is another facet of an underlying ingratitude, marking Lerner’s inability to see his home as anything more than a literary/political foil or a retrograde backdrop to his current wokeness. Kensinger, told of the book’s depictions, rightly summons Burke: “You began ill, because you began by despising everything that belonged to you.”
Jon Lauck is the President of the Midwestern History Association and the Associate Editor of Middle West Review. He is author of The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History(University of Iowa Press, 2013).