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The Topeka School

3.50  ·  Rating details ·  22,940 ratings  ·  3,041 reviews
Adam Gordon is a senior at Topeka High School, class of '97. His parents are psychologists, his mom a famous author in the field. A renowned debater and orator, an aspiring poet, and - although it requires a lot of posturing and weight lifting - one of the cool kids, he's also one of the seniors who brings the loner Darren Eberheart into the social scene, with disastrous e ...more
Hardcover, 282 pages
Published October 1st 2019 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Georgia Taylor I'm quitting while 135 pages in, I don't like the writing/storytelling. I couldn't explain really what it was about to a co-worker, and took that as a…moreI'm quitting while 135 pages in, I don't like the writing/storytelling. I couldn't explain really what it was about to a co-worker, and took that as a sign. And I'm a librarian! (less)
This question contains spoilers... (view spoiler)
Susan Regarding “The Topeka School”

Psychoanalysis? Didn’t that theory and practice go out of style (acceptance) years ago? Why write a novel about it now as…more
Regarding “The Topeka School”

Psychoanalysis? Didn’t that theory and practice go out of style (acceptance) years ago? Why write a novel about it now as if it is still relevant?

I did not enjoy this book. I thought the main characters were supercilious, the novel entirely too wordy, with a ‘bad’ mystery character in the middle of it whose ‘badness’ never becomes clear or has a consequence. In the end, Darren disappears, as does whatever bad thing he does. White male privilege? This book reeks of it. White educated men worrying about what is happening to their power, to their voices. The main character is a son of two psychoanalysts and is also a national debate champion.

In my opinion, there seemed to be no point to this book. The characters were unlikeable, the story non-existent, and an unsatisfying ending. There are hints of our current political situation, since
““It seems sort of ridiculous until you remember the specter haunting this book, an extemporaneous wonder whose incoherent babbling serves to dissemble, deceive, distract.”. The book would have been more enjoyable if the author has commented on how an entire medical facility with a tradition of psychoanalysis (Freud’s theories having been disproven years ago) managed to exist in Topeka, Kansas at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.


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Adam Dalva
Jul 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating departure for Lerner, but also a homecoming, as this novel's increasingly fractured language embraces poetics in a way LEAVING THE ATOCHA STATION and 10:04 skirted. There is a sedate pace here that reminds me of Saul Bellow or John Cheever, with the massive ambition of re-capturing America of the 90's as a way to explain America now. Adam, the protagonist of L.T.A.S., returns, predominantly in high school, with his parents' monologues and Faulkner-lite vignettes from the perspectiv ...more
May 20, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2019-read, usa
This book is like a skeleton clock: There are a lot of different elements, some of them only added or painted for show, coming together to form one mechanical piece – and while the first look suggests a complicated interplay of intricate parts, it’s ultimately just wheels and springs doing their thing, and the oscillation of the balance wheel remains minimal. Ben Lerner bombards his readers with topics and jumping timelines, but ultimately, the density of the writing does not cover up the fact t ...more
Angela M (On a little break)

Sometimes a book just doesn’t work for me and this is one of them. There was such an introspective feel right from the beginning and I usually enjoy that in a novel, but at 40% I’m giving up. I put it down several times and each time I wasn’t all that interested in finding out more about these dysfunctional and complex characters. Just not for me. I’m not rating it since I didn’t finish and I recommend you read the reviews of those who did. Too many books and so little time as they say, so I’m m
Alyssia Cooke
Whilst there are some good moments in this, they are vastly outweighed by the sheer confusing tangle of webs and people and ideas all strung together with high brow language that makes the book a real drudge to try to plough through. The constant flipping of characters and between the past and the present is confusing, particularly when the language makes it so difficult to easily grasp what is going on. There were multiple moments where I found myself going back pages to try to figure out who, ...more
Oct 21, 2019 rated it did not like it
What did I just read? I have no freaking idea. Stream of consciousness and changing points of view are great but this book made me feel like the ball in a Pong game. Meaninglessly bouncing back and forth.

Told from the different perspectives of three family members who are not only one-dimensional but incredibly unlikeable. There is no connection between the three so I frankly didn't care. The book description states that the son (Adam) will bring a young man into the group who will do something
Ron Charles
Oct 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Ben Lerner’s new book, “The Topeka School,” is an extraordinarily brilliant novel that’s also accessible to anyone yearning for illumination in our disputatious era. If you’ve been nervously hopping along the shore of Lerner’s work, now’s the time to dive in. As in his previous novels, this story is semi-autobiographical and the structure is complex, but “The Topeka School” is no Escher sketch of literary theory. Its complexity is beautifully subsumed in a compelling plot about two psychotherapi ...more
May 04, 2020 rated it it was ok
If he had the language, he wouldn’t express himself with symptoms.

Nothing is a cliché when you’re living it.
Sometimes Literary Fiction just works. It’s brilliantly written, full of richly drawn characters, social commentary and observations. And sometimes it doesn’t work at all. The writing may be great, but the meaning is too oblique and inaccessible, the character’s actions and motivations too hard to understand, and the story seems to go nowhere.

And what makes Literary Fiction such a difficu
Chelsea Humphrey
This is one of those books where the story is fabulous, but the execution and writing style aren't my cup of tea. I appreciate what the author is doing here, but the text is packed solid to the point that there is very little dialogue, and this paired with continuous thoughts that felt like mental run-on sentences, was a struggle. Again, I may not be high brow enough or as much of a literary fiction connoisseur as the reader who this novel is intended for, so I would definitely recommend with ca ...more
Michael Finocchiaro
I had high hopes for Ben Lerner's The Topeka School, but although I did appreciate the writing, I felt it was not as good as some other recent fiction that is discussed in relation to the 2020 Pulitzer such as Disappearing Earth. The story revolves around a family of psychotherapists in Topeka, Kansas and is supposed to be a sort of deconstructionist view of the New Right. I was not really able to connect with the protagonists, Dr John (father), famous writer Jane (mother), Adam (son) and Darren ...more
Nov 28, 2019 rated it liked it
It's always a good feeling when you settle in for the beginning of a new book that has landed on everybody's "Top Tippity-Top" lists for damn good books. It's less a good feeling when you reach the century mark page-wise and find yourself still squinting through the binoculars to figure out who the guy on first is.

And it's not a good feeling at all when you feel that you've paid your dues on the exposition as a reader and, spoiled as you are, expect some kind of reward. As in, the "Now-I-Get-It
©hrissie ❁ [1st week on campus-somewhat run-down]
A complex, ambitious novel. Brilliant execution.

4.5 stars


Woah, what's happening. Another chance encounter with - and reminiscent of - the Proust-Sebald-Marías strand of writing.

Disintegrated frames of perception, discursive thinking, failures of language...Collapsed coordinates of human comprehension. ❤️❤️❤️

'I was having my own experience of depersonalisation, no drugs involved--an overwhelming sense of frames of reference giving way, of the past and present collapsing in on one another.'
lucky little cat
I thoroughly enjoyed 10:04, Lerner's last novel just before Topeka School. I recommend reading that one instead.

Topeka School is hard to love. The multiple narrators are supposed to sound profoundly thoughtful, but the men all come across as self-absorbed twirps. And the sole woman sounds like a slightly nicer self-absorbed man.

And if you read this, you will learn much more than you ever wanted to know about a) high school debate meets and b) privileged white male neuroses and rage.
May 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing

The Topeka school by Ben Lerner is a modern day masterpiece, it’s an engaging important read. This book was not easy, and a lot of people will hate it ( fair warning) however, Lerner blends language in an artistic and intellectual way that challenged me as a reader and a thinker. This novel paints a portrait of the end of the twentieth century as seen from our disastrous present. It’s a timeless tale of everything that is wrong with this country today told in the past and how we seem to have got
Occasionally I read a book at a funny time in my life – when there's a lot going on and I don't have as much mental RAM available as usual – and I don't feel equipped to review it properly. That's definitely the case with The Topeka School, a wonderfully dense and intelligent novel exploring the youth of Adam Gordon and a group of characters surrounding him. (Adam is also the protagonist of Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station and, in turn, also a stand-in for the author.) I'm not sure that I ...more
Jul 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Being from Topeka, just slightly older than Ben Lerner, and going to Topeka West instead of Topeka High, this book feels like history and mythology blended together. I only know Ben and his family by reputation and shared acquaintances. How much of this narrative is his thinly veiled family? How much is fabricated? I don't know and it doesn't much matter. This book, for me, weirdly distills the same world I inhabited in the 1990s, yet saw from a completely different perspective. I knew no one at ...more
Peter Boyle
Apr 26, 2020 rated it liked it
It's Kansas in the 90s, and on the surface, Adam Gordon looks to have it pretty good. He's popular at school and has a hot girlfriend. He gets on well with his parents, who both work at the Foundation, an experimental psychiatric clinic. He's also highly intelligent and is set to compete in a national debating championship. But underneath, some cracks are beginning to show. He suffers from severe migraines, the result of a childhood accident. His folks have started to argue a lot more. And there ...more
Anita Pomerantz
Feb 29, 2020 rated it liked it
In an interview with the Guardian, the author writes, “The thing I’m proud of about this book, is just that I didn’t know what I was doing, and it was hard and upsetting. That I didn’t write a book where I knew what I was doing.”

Yeah, I didn't know what you were doing either, Ben. But I kinda had fun watching you do it.

So let's start with the fun part. Lerner's command and use of the English language is something to behold. His vocabulary alone is astounding. When he applied this command to a sc
Jan 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I was worried for a while there that nobody would or could take over from DeLillo. I think Ben Lerner and Rachel Kushner have it covered.

This is a book about many things - how we deal with time, how we compartmentalise grief, the nature and efficacy of language, gender, toxic masculinity, indoctrination v instinct. Primarily it's about a resistance to homogeneity, and the poisonous state of the USA.

If I read a better contemporary book this year I'll be amazed and very grateful.
Brendan Monroe
Ever since watching "The Wizard of Oz" as a child, I've wanted to be a storm chaser. Not just a storm chaser, per se, but a tornado chaser, like those guys (and Helen Hunt) in "Twister," another movie that made storm chasing look oh so cool. I faced a few setbacks along the way, like living in a state that gets only the very occasional — and never very powerful — tornado, and regardless of how hard I pushed my parents to relocate the family to Kansas or somewhere else inside "Tornado Alley," I w ...more
Dec 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Understanding the current political and cultural polarization is at the heart of much fiction today, although doing so in a sophisticated and subtle way is not often easy. In the world filled with self parodies like Trump how does one answer of how we got here without a heavy hand?

In many ways, Ben Lerner has managed to do that in his acclaimed third novel, THE TOPEKA SCHOOL. Taking place mostly in the mid 1990s, in the middle of the Clinton years but also in the heart of red America Kansas, sur
Nov 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Ben Lerner is one of the best (thought-provoking, form reinventing, intellectually insightful) writers of my generation and this might just be his best book yet. I’m so happy I am alive at the same time as Lerner so he can help me make sense of this moment. If you have any inclination towards psychological inquiry make this your next read.
Jonathan Pool
Dec 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: american-lit

Adam Gordon is piecing together his life, and the formative moments and events that have formed the person he now is. His parents, Jonathan and Jane, are both psychiatrists, and have built up a Clinic- The Foundation. Jane is a successful academic author in the field.
Adam is a debating champion at Russell High school in Topeka, Texas. Debating techniques, described at some length include Extemporising: “the freestyle of nerds” (135); and ‘The Spread’ -a rapid verbal outpouring at high sp
Aug 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
It's amazing how Lerner manages to write this novel through three different voices, his own as the character Adam Gordon, his father Jonathan, and his mother Jane. Their chapters alternate and Lerner's virtuosity is evident as not once a reader feels that they were all written by one author. The verbal style and personalities of Adam, Jonathan and Jane are sharply distinct, and it felt as if each wrote their own chapters. I personally adored Jane's first-person monologues and hope Lerner will on ...more
God knows how much I tortured myself for a week only to get to page 199 of 280, when I promised myself I was never going to read Don DeLillo’s pretentious nonsense ever again.

Bye forever. I’m off now to look for a book written by someone who didn’t come from a different planet.
Sallie Dunn
Aug 08, 2020 rated it it was ok
⭐️⭐️ This was a hard book for me to like. It was dense, probably highly intellectual, and simply had little to no plot. It meandered into different directions with seemingly little connection. It’s the story of a family of high brow psychotherapists and their son who are associated with a famous mental health institute in Topeka, Kansas. I think the family was more on the dysfunctional side. There were also vignettes (done in italics) of another young man who was a classmate of the son and also ...more
Michael Livingston
Sep 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
First of all, Lerner is a phenomenally good writer just on a sentence by sentence level - all three of his books have wowed me with the style of the prose. The Topeka School felt a bit less showy style-wise, but more ambitious structurally and thematically, jumping between perspectives and time periods and dealing with big questions about politics, masculinity, guilt and family. There's also more momentum to this book - pushed forward by the central incident that is gradually revealed between ch ...more
Nov 17, 2019 rated it it was ok
This is my second Ben Lerner, my first having been the prize-winning 10:04, and I think my last. I recognize that Lerner is an intellectual but for me, he borders on the pedantic. I counted three times where he used the word “prosody”. I’m sorry, that’s not a word that is known by the vast majority of the reading public.

In The Topeka School, Lerner’s protagonist is a teenager named Adam whose parents are psychologists at The Foundation. He obviously lives a white, privileged male existence and
Nov 18, 2019 rated it liked it
i feel like i understood maybe 60% of this book at most, and that's a generous estimate

You know those books you read that feel like they were written so you can analyze them in an essay for English class? Yeah, The Topeka School is one of those books. Whether that's a good or bad thing is up to you.

I tend to vacillate between hating and being engaged by books like The Topeka School. On the one hand, I like to be intellectually challenged. I like a novel that evades my attempts to pin it down, th
Jul 10, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction, giveaways
Set in Topeka, Kansas this story follows the lives of the Gordon family. Jonathan and Jane Gordon are psychologists on staff at the world-renowned The Foundation, a psychiatric clinic that attracts a varied and talented staff as well as patients. The Gordons include son Adam who is a popular senior at Topeka High School, class of 1997, a national debater and orator, and a good son. Jonathan is well-known for his work with "lost boys" while Jane, in addition to her work at The Foundation, is a fe ...more
Oct 28, 2021 marked it as to-read
Shelves: 21-ce, fiction, us
It’s holding me, but it’s very dense. Not a breezy read. Multiple points of view and fragmented chronology. If it weren’t for the jacket copy, I’d have no idea what was going on.
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Ben Lerner is an American poet, novelist, and critic. He was awarded the Hayden Carruth prize for his cycle of fifty-two sonnets, The Lichtenberg Figures. In 2004, Library Journal named it one of the year's twelve best books of poetry. The Lichtenberg Figures appeared in a German translation in 2010, for which it received the "Preis der Stadt Münster für internationale Poesie" in 2011, making Lern ...more

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