The Topeka School

The Topeka School

eBook - 2019
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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.
Publisher: New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019
Edition: First edition
ISBN: 9780374721183
0374721181
Branch Call Number: EBOOK OVERDRIVE
Characteristics: 1 online resource (282 pages)
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Opinion

From Library Staff

A family drama centered on the self-interrogations of a teenaged boy in 1990s Kansas as he examines the messy violence, betrayal, and mental illness in his upper-middle-class upbringing.


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e
eappelbaum
Oct 21, 2020

SPOILER ALERT

This book helps me understand my students. (I taught college mathematics since the 50’s.) When I started, most of my students were attentive and respectful. They still are, but less and less commonly.

The book is fascinating, doubly so for people near Kansas City. It helps me understand the toxic masculinity that led to Donald Trump’s success. I was disappointed in the ending. Adam is an adult at a park with his family. They encounter a bully who will not yield the slide, claiming it is not for girls. Adam confronts the boy’s father, who refuses to intervene. Adam knocks the cell phone out of the man’s hand.

Has Adam learned nothing from his Jewish heritage? Proverbs 15:1 -- “A soft word turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” In such a situation, one should not confront a stranger, who might be packing a gun. You could resort to humor to distract the offenders. Another strategy is to call the police and tell the bullies you are doing so. Maybe take pictures? Or else quietly leave. Maybe the depressing encounter is realistic: Adam was an aggressive child; such children often become aggressive adults.

m
megaculpa
Aug 23, 2020

The Topeka School made most top ten novel lists for 2019. The New York critics loved it, but Lerner inhabits that milieu, so take their praise with a large grain of salt. He also writes poetry, teaches creative writhing and has received a number of arts grants. So many red flags!

Surprise: It's a literary novel, comprised of long monologues, shifting time and space, streams of consciousness and flights of fancy. In other words, a mess. There might be a plot buried somewhere, but I couldn't locate it. Bonus: It's semi-autobiographical. The characters are a smugly precocious teenager, his creepy psychologist parents and a local schizoid kid. Charming company for 280 pages. Recommended for masochistic readers.

b
betsymarzoni
Aug 22, 2020

Not a simple or quick read, this follows an adolescent boy in his senior year of high school, living a privileged life with his professional psychologically trained parents. The mix of over-involvement and downright ignorance on behalf of the parental community is interesting, The sense of entitlement is all too familiar.

m
marjeanic
Aug 11, 2020

So, although reading The Topeka School was a bit of a chore, not what I needed in the current environment, I think Ben Lerner has given me greater appreciation of how the rhetoric of politicians blitzes us in an effort to brainwash us to their point of view. It gives me a little better understanding of the many ways in which we are bombarded with disinformation, misinformation and malinformation.
The harrowing details of this autobiographical “fiction” make me glad I am a senior citizen. The youth in this book are positively scary. And, I am sure they are or were considered pretty “normal”. I wanted to know more about Darren’s path. Did he go to jail or juvie detention for the cue ball incident? What was his sad but predictable evolution into a right wing, gun toting nut?
The daunting onslaught of psycho-babble throughout was wearing, though not surprising given that the author is the progeny of two of the 90s stars of the Menninger Clinic. Ben/Adam seems to have weathered his upbringing fairly well and as the book ends, even expresses some hope that common sense voices still may be heard.

d
DebitDad
Jun 02, 2020

The book jacket describes the book as "deftly shifting perspectives and time periods". I guess it was too deftly done for me to follow. This style seems to be popular, and generally I cope very well. But I was too far into this book before the relationships among the characters was clear enough for me to appreciate the overall story. I enjoyed reading each section; they were all interesting, well written and I was sorry when each ended, usually "unfulfilled" at that point. As short stories, they were good, but I wish the narratives had shifted less "deftly".

m
msdelrios
May 03, 2020

Apr/May 2020

c
candiswester
Mar 26, 2020

Joan

r
readonandon
Mar 14, 2020

Barack Obama recommendation

w
WoodneathKristie
Feb 22, 2020

As a former policy debater and extemporaneous speaker who was competing on the high school and college circuits in the same period as the setting of this story, I was riveted by Lerner's descriptions of his competition. This is the only depiction of academic debate I have experienced that accurately captured the perversity and the magnificence of the activity. Against the backdrop of the larger story- the coming-of-age tales of Boomer parents juxtaposed against the rootless midwestern rage of their son and his peers- the world of competitive debate suddenly becomes a metaphor for the duality of American political discourse: the Boomers, in an effort to consummate the American Dream, emancipated political rhetoric from the actual realm of public discourse, commoditized it, repackaged it as "educational discourse", and fed it back to their children. These children, ensconced in the simulation, created their own complex, amoral, and subtly shifting game that created the appearance of deep discussion and political involvement, when it was really no more than an artful mix of obfuscation and strategy.

l
ladiablesse
Feb 13, 2020

This one escaped me. Just don’t get NYT raves or other foamy praise. After 100+ pages and finally clueing into Lerner’s relationship to Harriet Lerner—of “The Dance of Anger” fame in the ‘80s—I felt no desire to stay with uninvolving characters in a flat, awkward narrative.
I agree with other readers about this book’s style; for a poet, Lerner’s language came across as less than fluent: choppy and inert. Much has been made of this book’s examination of toxic masculinity, and of its general topicality. None of this landed with me.

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