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The Topeka School

3.54  ·  Rating details ·  13,835 ratings  ·  2,056 reviews
Adam Gordon is a senior at Topeka High School, class of 1997. 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 the Foundation, a well-known psychiatric clinic that has attracted staff and patients from around the world. Adam is also one of the seniors who brings the loner Darren Eberheart ...more
Hardcover, 282 pages
Published October 1st 2019 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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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
Meike
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

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
...more
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
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
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
Maureen
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
...more
Blaine
May 04, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: from-library, 2020
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 difficult genre in which to select books to read is that not many people read it at all, and everyone’s line between
...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
Ken
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
...more
Jonathan
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
...more
Blair
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
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.
...more
Brad
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
...more
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
Alex
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
...more
Lee
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.
Jaclyn Crupi
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
Synopsis

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
...more
Vesna
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
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
Fatma
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
...more
Kasa Cotugno
When so many plot points converge with the reality of the author's life, it is hard to differentiate where fiction and confession converge and separate. Like protagonist Adam, Ben Lerner grows up in Topeka Kansas with his parents who are both psychologists (his mother a published author with a fine reputation in women's issues), graduates in 1997, currently lives in Brooklyn, and is a professor of literature as well as a poet. But there is a cracking good story here, told from the viewpoints of ...more
Janet
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
...more
Rebecca McNutt
Jan 03, 2020 rated it liked it
The Topeka School is a hard book to classify or define. In a way, it mirrors the 1990's families and characters of books and films such as Cruel Intentions, The Perks of Being A Wallflower and American Beauty, but it also brings a quirky element and some themes of philosophy into the mix of family dysfunction and drama. The book can be rather pretentious at times, with many long-winded inner thoughts, observations and ideas when it feels like there should have been more exchange between characte ...more
Andrew
I've said it before and I'll say it again. Ben Lerner is the finest prose stylist currently working in America, with relatively few rivals. The man's sense of language is impeccable. And in Leaving the Atocha Station and (especially) 10:04, he deployed that to remarkable ends.

His skills are, if anything, honed even finer in The Topeka School. His problem is that he's trying to take on far, far too much at once in a relatively compact space. It feels like he's trying to write this grand and yet e
...more
Samuel
Nov 07, 2019 rated it it was ok
It's a credit to Lerner that even when he writes a novel that isn't good (structurally oblique, narratively deficient, yet didactic to a fault) he still manages to produce some incredible miniatures--scenes that captivate, sentences that spin out of control and still glide to taut conclusion, phrases that delight despite weary repetition. He's a wonderful writer. Is he a great novelist?
BookMonkey
Apr 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
Rating: 4🍌

In LEAVING THE ATOCHA STATION and 10:04, Ben Lerner carved out his own space in contemporary American literature: unapologetically solipsistic, relentlessly cerebral, charmingly self-deprecating, and yes, at times, self-indulgent. Besides the prodigious intelligence driving Lerner's previous books, both ATOCHA and 10:04 are perhaps most notable for the self-critiques built into the hyper-aware, self-referential narrative consciousness -- it's difficult to find a flaw in the narrative o
...more
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What's Next?: Book Review: The Topeka School 1 4 Jun 13, 2020 10:43AM  
Andover Public Li...: Topeka School 1 6 Mar 23, 2020 11:18AM  
Play Book Tag: The Topeka School/Lerner - 3 stars 9 26 Mar 08, 2020 09:08AM  

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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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