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Pickle Me This

January 22, 2020

The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner

My week of catch-up reviews of popular American novels everybody else read ages ago—I NEVER promised to be a blogger with her finger on the pulse—continues with Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, a novel I had zero interest in until I heard him on the since dearly departed podcast, The Cut on Tuesday—with his mother, no less. His mother who is Harriet Lerner, author of the iconic 1980s self-help book, The Dance of Anger, and we learn that she is fictionalized in her son’s new book, with her own point of view, even. And that The Topeka School is connected to Ben Lerner’s two previous novels about Adam Gordon, who is a literary representation of Lerner himself, and this new novel takes him back to his roots, to 1997, as 18-year-old Adam makes his way through his final year of high school, aspires to the highest echelons of school debate championship, having grown up in the state that gave the world Bob Dole who’d gone up against the beleaguered Bill Clinton in 1996 and lost. This is not a straightforward narrative, moving back and forth in time and between perspectives—Adam’s, his father’s, his mother’s, and a troubled classmate whom Adam had grown up with but who socially and intellectually falls behind, a ticking time bomb. The novel a study of male rage and anger, drawing connections between debate and rap stylings, and also to the national discourse, whose divisiveness begins heating up at this point until it boils over into the mess we have today.

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