Sons and Haters

The Topeka School BY Ben Lerner. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 304 pages. $27.

The cover of The Topeka School

At the midpoint of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love occurs one of the really extraordinary hidden scenes in English literature. Ursula and Gudrun are the young protagonists, figuring out their ambitions, their loves, and their futures. They are walking to a neighborhood water-party, with their father and mother in front of them, when suddenly they burst out in mockery. “‘Look at the young couple in front,’ said Gudrun calmly. . . . The two girls stood in the road and laughed till the tears ran down their faces, as they caught sight again of the shy, unworldly couple of their parents going on ahead.”

The moment is uncanny because anyone who has read Lawrence’s earlier novel The Rainbow will recall hundreds of rhapsodic pages detailing these parents’ early passion, violence, and love. Nothing now enlightens the daughters. The intertextual effect is of the mutual blindness of successive generations, uniquely revealed to us by a multi-novel sequence.

Ben Lerner has accomplished something comparably awe-inspiring with The Topeka School, though in reverse. In two previous masterworks of “autofiction,” Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, Lerner kept the parents offstage while insisting on their centrality both thematically and extratextually (“this book was written in conversation with Harriet Lerner,” say the acknowledgments to 10:04). In the new novel, mother and father finally take over the life story, speaking chapters alternately with the narrator-author in their own (ventriloquized) voices. The theme might be said to be “repetition across the generations”; the puzzle, whether individual progress is possible in a world whose hopes have declined from revolution to the “white noise at the end of history.”

Jonathan and Jane Gordon are emigrants from “the city” and from the ’60s. Jonathan is “a thirty-three-year-old psychologist from New York who once smoked a cigarette with Bob Dylan on Clinton Street,” “increasingly active in the antiwar movement,” his brother a Weatherman. Jane is an escapee from working-class Jewish Brooklyn who has become a psychologist, a feminist, and a writer. “We planned to complete our two-year fellowships” in Topeka “and return to New York,” says Jonathan in the first of the several sections he narrates, “but we met Eric and Sima, Berkeley transplants, and we liked Topeka’s lack of exclusivity, the unobstructed sky. . . . Jane found it easier to write in what she experienced as the quiet.”

So they create an intellectual enclave. “Folk singers and community organizers and sexperts and writers and feminist scholars stayed in their big Victorian house when they passed through the Midwest.” They believe they have made conservative Kansas an inexpensive, harmless source of charm. Their son, Adam, absorbs their advanced opinions, “was probably Ivy-bound,” and by his final year of high school is desperate to “get to the vaguely imagined East Coast city from which [his] experiences in Topeka would be recounted with great irony.”

The true utopian locale in Topeka is Jonathan and Jane’s workplace, “the Foundation,” modeled on the Menninger Clinic where both of Lerner’s real parents made their careers. Rather than another familiar fragment of the ’60s, it is a venture in mid-twentieth-century social hope—fruit of midwestern optimism and a lifeboat to European analysts who survived the Nazi extermination. The Foundation exists to heal the lives of mental patients through “milieu therapy”:

Milieu therapy was based on the notion that patients and staff should mix, collaborate on treatment; we all ate in the cafeteria together, for example, though at different tables (small exhibitions of patients’ paintings—sunsets, still lifes, winter scenes—were displayed on the walls); younger staff and patients might play basketball together at the gym, both groups almost comically careful not to foul; the senior staff might get their hair cut at the barbershop really intended for inpatients, in order to demonstrate how seriously they took this notion of integration.

Jonathan is a humanist, a gentle soul and a believer “in the liberation of repressed drives and the reorganization of social forces.” His own sublimation of the destructive passions seems effortless. Yet he retains a sneaking suspicion that the animals in the zoo and the ancient Greek and Roman statues in the Met would mock his pretensions to civilization and progress, could they ever speak. As he works with inpatients at the Foundation, he begins to sense a cost to the extinction of the passions. He discovers a growing category of disaffected young male subjects, “patients 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.”

Jane is a writer, a fighter, and a star. Her refashionings of family systems and classic psychodynamic theory for feminist purposes, turned into popular works, become best sellers. Her sections of narration brim with certainty and drive. Her passion has a noble cause to fight for, worth winning. Her work transforms women’s lives. They tell her so, on the street, in the supermarket, in letters. Jane goes on Oprah. She is “the Brain,” a pejorative turned into a superlative.

But she is also recovering the memory of her sexual abuse by her father, even as he declines toward death—she has moved him to an assisted-living facility in Topeka. And she must increasingly confront the rising bigotry of the Westboro Baptist Church and their GOD HATES FAGS signs, their homophobic, anti-abortion, antifeminist protests. They add her as a target. In counterpoint to her success, her righteous “reorganization of social forces,” is the battering tide of male hatred, the telephoned and whispered voices of “the Men”:

They would often start off very politely, in a normal voice, “May I speak to Dr. Jane Gordon, please?” But then when I said, “This is she” . . . the voice would typically drop into a whisper or a hiss; then—almost without fail—I’d hear the word “cunt.” Sometimes they just wanted to let me know that I was a cunt who ruined their marriage, or that cunts like me were the problem with women today, a bunch of feminazi cunts, or that I should shut my cunt mouth (stop writing). . . . But there were also threats of varying levels of specificity: that I was a cunt who should watch out, who was going to get what was coming to her, who might get shot while walking on the Foundation campus.

Adam is a child of their hearts and minds. He is also a son of Topeka, where he will grow up partly out of their reach. As he matures, he begins to act out the wider rage of masculine entitlement and moral uncertainty. Jonathan and Jane aren’t really alarmed; they simply want him to learn the artful self-management and peaceful techniques that they know. “The intensity, they said, was out of control, how quick he was to rage, even if he was relatively quick to cool. He needed ‘strategies.’”

But Adam is already making use of strategies. He is adopting the forms of aggression available to the petty bourgeoisie. One is high school debate. Lerner has hit on something deep, and true, in the portrait of “debate” in this book, as what it has long seemed to be—the knightly combat or martial arts of children of the professional-managerial class, where they can practice the linguistic violence they’ll use as adults against real targets in politics, the law, and administration. Another, treated lightly, is weightlifting: One of the few comic episodes in this book is a hostile encounter between the champion debater and an evil wrestler from a rival school at the Hypermart, where they are both shopping for nutritional supplements to bulk up, under the humiliating eyes of their moms, who bond over Jane’s success: “‘Oh, you’re Dr. Gordon,’ the wrestler’s mother said. ‘You were on Oprah!’” The most equivocal strategy may be the appropriation of hip-hop, though it also nurtures Adam’s gift for language: “In many ways this was the most shameful of all the poses, the clearest manifestation of a crisis in white masculinity and its representational regimes, a small group of privileged crackers often arrhythmically recycling the genre’s dominant and to them totally inapplicable clichés.”

The most eloquent explanation of the male malaise in The Topeka School comes from Klaus, Jonathan’s mentor and surrogate father, an aged analyst who survived while his parents and three sisters were murdered at Auschwitz:

On the one hand, 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 the fact that they did not know what suffering was, that if they suffered from anything it was precisely this lack of suffering, a kind of neuropathy that came from too much ease, too much sugar. . . . And then, on the other hand, Klaus took them very seriously indeed . . . they are libidinally driven to mass surrender without anything to surrender to; they don’t even believe in money or in science, or those beliefs are insufficient; their country has fought and lost its last real war; in a word, they are overfed; in a word, they are starving.

Jane briefly worries that she has simply let her son fall too much into the wrong hands. “Maybe we should have raised him among the liberal cosmopolitans of San Francisco and New York. Maybe I’d offered my boy up to the wrong tutelage, the Brain had offered him to the Men, thinking he would somehow know better. And now he was a graduate of the Topeka School.”

The parents have nothing, really, to worry about. In this temporary immigrant tale, Adam is destined to return to the mother country. He is indeed headed to the Ivy League and back East. The beautiful recollections of childhood in The Topeka School allow for a Portrait of the Artist–type origin story in which Adam’s eventual triumph as a poet, and as the writer of this novel, occurs by the neutralization of the voices of debate and white rap with his mother’s feminism. In a subtle climax to the novel, Adam and Jane together file away the voice of her sexually abusive father, saved on tape. “How do you rid yourself of a voice, keep it from becoming part of yours?” Adam finds an answer by taking his vocation from his mother’s writing. He could “summon her voice” in a “ritual refusal of repetition across the generations,” and “his mother would answer in his head, overwhelm the Men, however briefly.”

Yet the novel’s alternating chapters, voiced by Adam, Jonathan, and Jane, are wrapped within a tissue of bits of consciousness from a near stranger. Darren was a boy at Adam’s preschool, then grade school and high school, until he dropped out. He remains the point of exclusion, the failure in the book’s collective integration. He is “whiter” than the Gordons and their friends, without ethnicity. He is poorer; his mother works long hours as a hospital nurse, his father is dead. And he is not smart—“learning disabled,” the schools might say. In their final summer before they leave for colleges and the coasts, Adam and the other high school seniors seem to take up Darren, bring him to their lake party, then abandon him a day’s long walk from home, which he stumbles through in a fugue of exurban misery. The kids pretend remorse, take him to more parties, then taunt him again, plying him with drugs and the promise of machismo, “Darren, this hottie has a crush on you, Darren, make your move. . . . You gonna let her say that, Darren? I’d tell that bitch to watch her fucking mouth,” until he finally snaps and breaks a woman’s jaw.

The adult Adam sees Darren once more at book’s end, now as a Trump supporter, MAGA hat on, “heavier than the last time [he] saw him, bearded, almost certainly armed,” among the protesters at Adam’s reading at a university in Kansas. The Darren plot seems a way to lend a convention of suspense, familiar from other contemporary novels, to a book that is better than most contemporary novels. Perhaps its virtue is as a reminder of the persistence of exclusion in a progressive civilization—our own—which redeems some new subjects only to despise and scapegoat others. The dream of true nonviolence and total integration represented by Jonathan, a “milieu therapy” in which the division of doers and done-to would at last dissolve, is not much further along.

Mark Greif is the author of Against Everything(Pantheon, 2016).