REVIEW: ‘Topeka School’ casts an unsettling if incomplete reflection of the American landscape

In this day and age, it’s not uncommon to see people become increasingly trapped within a prison of language and rhetoric, of lies and manipulation. It’s a country where 24-hour news cycles are dedicated to dissecting the President’s wildly confusing and almost random rallies. It’s a country where working class voters are taken advantage of by populist posers who use the word “ain’t” to appear relatable. It’s a world where the determination of the privileged to preserve their power has come to influence the very way in which language is used. In The Topeka School, Ben Lerner examines the bitter rage of the privileged in a country that seems to be becoming weary of the power they were born into. Through shifting perspectives and the use of Topeka as a larger metaphor for the growing crisis, the novel masterfully displays how the manipulation of language has been used to maintain the power of white men. Unfortunately, Lerner falls short when attempting to pinpoint exactly the reason why white men crave power. 

The story delves into the lives of two psychotherapists and their son Adam who is a speech-and-debate whiz. His father, Jonathan, is a faculty member at a place called The Foundation, where he specifically studies privileged white males who seem to have inexplicably lost themselves to anger and existentialism, aptly naming them the “Lost Boys.” Jonathan seeks the answer as to why these boys are stuck in a perpetual adolescence, seeking attention and power in a way that is crudely childish. On the other hand, his mother Jane has gained national fame and success through a vaguely explained book concerning romantic relationships that is implied to have a feminist emphasis. In this Freudian backdrop, Adam grows into his adolescence, but his parents find him becoming surprisingly detached and angry in a way they had not anticipated. As eloquent as Adam might be, he’s still a white male growing up in the Midwest, a place where Lerner asserts that performing masculinity earns power. It’s a role that Adam feels increasingly drawn to fit in with, no matter the teachings of his parents.

At school, Adam carefully walks the tightrope between the highbrow intellectualism he is born into and the Midwestern blue-collar culture he is being raised in. He finds himself entranced with the decidedly elite children of the faculty at The Foundation, but is troubled with the violent animosity they have towards the working class children. Both groups seem to have pressured relationship with each other, one that might release barbaric anger at any moment. The atmosphere of this hostile environment is one that encapsulates the current social and political atmosphere. 

Lerner uses this Midwestern high school drama to reflect the larger divide between elite Americans and the working class, mirroring the divisive climate of today. Interestingly enough, Lerner creates this animosity not by emphasizing their apparent differences, but by emphasizing their similarities. No matter their economic positions, both parties contain inordinately angry white males who are in a bitter battle for superiority. By creating a war where the same side is pitted against each other, Lerner reveals how both groups contain a hostility that has roots grown from the same seed. By boiling down a greater American issue and compartmentalizing it to the confines of a few characters, Lerner expertly presents the American world as he sees it: full of anger and a thirst for undeserved power from a group that can’t cope with feeling inferior. Nevertheless, Lerner’s clever extended metaphor is a background to connect to the greater issue of the abuse of language. 

From chapter to chapter, a distant third person narrator chooses between multiple characters to focus in on, disallowing the reader to get too close to any one character. Through changing perspectives, Lerner creates an atmosphere where Adam’s continuous character changes have the opportunity to be criticized by those closest to them. In this way, the reader is unable to ignore the frightening changes in Adam’s character and pass it off for normal teenage behavior. Instead, Lerner intends for the story to be continuously framed through the eyes of those closest to Adam, allowing Lerner to perpetually remind the reader of just how normal this behavior can seem and just how abnormal it really is.  

By boiling down a greater American issue and compartmentalizing it to the confines of a few characters, Lerner expertly presents the American world as he sees it: full of anger and a thirst for undeserved power from a group that can’t cope with feeling inferior.

However, the most compelling insights are delivered through Jane. Throughout the book, she looks upon her son with a growing amount of dread, as she notices the way in which he responds to her with a voice soaked in venom. He is not the boy she raised to be careful with words. He is not the boy who paid attention to the impact his words had on others. Instead, Adam’s language begins to have double-sided aim and focus steadily on manipulation. He no longer speaks because he loves language, but because he loves what language can bring him: power. Jane’s bewilderment at how a son raised on emotional maturity and love can still grow into one that hungers for superiority gives Lerner the opportunity to display a female’s perspective on an inherently white American male rage. His use of Jane’s perspective smoothly brings the novel into focus, as she is the character who truly sees the immorality of Adam’s development. 

While Lerner skillfully demonstrates his views on the connection white men’s compulsion to be in control and the deliberate abuse of language, his attempts to explain why white men carry this animosity within them is half-hearted at best. In “The Topeka School”, students are often seen appropriating African-American culture, using African American vernacular English and making vague gang references. However, Lerner barely delves into race beyond this component, causing some of his arguments to fall short. He offers the explanation that these men and boys “are libidinally driven to mass surrender without anything to surrender to,” meaning that they are given power and respect from a young age but have nothing clear to direct it towards. As a result, they come to feel restless and angry at a world that afforded them privilege but no clear purpose.

Even though it certainly is an attractive argument, it’s one that ignores how pointed and targeted the anger of white men is. Unlike Lerner portrays in the novel, white men aren’t just angry in general, they’re angry at the Other, whether that Other be people of color and/or foreigners. The explanation also neglects to offer any reason as to why the anger and privilege of white men causes them to appropriate other cultures, as Lerner portrays repeatedly in the novel, creating a disconnect in the novel. 

 At its core, The Topeka School is an origin story about the manipulation of language as we see it today. Through the story of one community’s economic and social divides, Lerner beautifully explains the contribution of the diminishing status of being white American male with the growing culture of manipulative rhetoric. Still, Lerner’s fatal flaw is his inability to cohesively weave the issue of race within the story, causing his central ideas to clumsily falter. 

Ashita Wagh is a pop culture critic for Oswego East’s High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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