All about the heart and mind

A school in Topeka, Kansas. Picture: Shutterstock
A school in Topeka, Kansas. Picture: Shutterstock
  • The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner. Granta, $39.99.

Imagine a world without language. At least, imagine a world where language exists but is no longer capable of performing its communicative function. At this point, it's hardly a tough ask. I mean, look around. Ours is a world in which language is under threat from all quarters, including one you'd least expect. For four years the media has laboured to find euphemistic alternatives to "corrupt", "misogynistic" and "racist" to describe America's Lunatic in Chief. Even as protests against police brutality swept the US this year, we heard an awful lot about "racial tensions", "race-based appeal" and "racially charged" rhetoric, but very little about the president's demonstrated racism. As for his bold-faced lies, it was only when the fate of the republic seemed to be on the line in the first week of November that the media finally decided, en masse and in prime time, to call out his base dishonesty. Better late than never, I suppose.

Language is one of Ben Lerner's favourite subjects and it looms large in The Topeka School, the third and final instalment of his autofiction trilogy. Written from the vantage point of 2019 - which is to say, from the eye of our linguistical storm - Lerner traces our present tumult, and the crisis of masculinity, to 1990s Topeka, Kansas. It's the end of history according to Francis Fukuyama and his many acolytes, and the idea that liberal democracy will save the day is radiating out across the Kansan plains. Adam Gordon, a debating ace and aspiring poet, is navigating his senior year of high school against a backdrop of gangsta rap, a presidential election and Westboro-style homophobia. Lerner's Pulitzer-nominated novel covers a lot of thematic ground, but the general premise is that the fabric of our society is unravelling thanks, in part, to the dereliction of our discourse.

The Topeka School, which reads like a 282-page persuasive text more than a conventional novel, plays out in three main narratives. We hear from Adam as well as his parents, Jane and Jonathan, two psychiatrists from New York who move to Topeka to work at the Foundation, a psychiatric institution and liberal safehouse in an otherwise reactionary part of America. Jane's specific area of expertise is unclear, but she's something of a minor celebrity having published a bestseller on relationships. Adam's dad, meanwhile, seems quite happy working with his "lost boys", a group of sullen and violent misfits.

Part victim, part perp, Darren is the one who's most adrift. He's the kind of unfortunate that other kids include because they feel they should, not because they want to. Adam and his friends, Foundation kids pretty much, alternate between mocking Darren and embracing him, and it's hard to tell which is worse. At a sweaty house party, the teenage bros invite Darren to join them in a freestyle rap. You can just imagine the atmosphere, thick with condescension, as they "all shouted their encouragement and amazement and bobbed their heads to the nonexistent beat as though Darren were disclosing new territories of thought and feeling, new worlds, as though he were their Caedmon". Darren's italicised chapters operate as wordy forecasts of what's to come, and it isn't pretty. Adam, on the other hand, seems to be on the right track-at least initially.

Towards the end of the book, Adam, who's all grown up by this point, finds himself at the Hippo Playground-corner of Riverside Drive and West 91st on Manhattan's Upper West Side-with his wife and two daughters. He's pissed off because one of the other dads is refusing to rein in his bratty son, who sits at the top of the slide and refuses to let any girl pass. After another dad tries and fails to reason with the bad dad, and Adam's appeals to the brat on the slide amount to nothing, he marches over, "my father's voice in my head: Don't do it, get your girls and go to the swings, leave the slide to the boy (boys will be boys), that's what you should be modelling for your girls, there is nothing to be gained by confrontation". Sound advice that goes completely unheeded.

"We were a couple of privileged crackers with divergent parenting strategies; we were two sovereignless men in a Hobbesian state of nature on the verge of primal confrontation [...] Only when I heard it clatter on the asphalt was I fully aware I'd knocked the phone out of his hands".

It's a disturbing scene, the dads' violence contrasting starkly with mental images of kids climbing over cast bronze hippos. It's also a difficult one to relate to. Granted, there probably aren't too many dads beating each other to pulps in playgrounds across the US, but then again America does have a violence problem.

At first, Adam doesn't appear to boast impressive thug credentials. Articulate, highly intelligent and hailing from a "good family", Adam is at ease in the bookish, intellectual world his parents inhabit. As it happens, he's also pretty comfortable in the violent, monosyllabic realm of the average Topekan teenage boy. On a family trip to New York, Adam and a friend find themselves holed up in a hotel room on the Upper East Side one afternoon with Adam's dad. A minor disagreement escalates to shouting, punching, bleeding, and then a trip to the local hospital. Despite their aptitude for self-expression, these Foundation kids opt for violence, not language, to sort out their differences.

But why are these kids so angry?

Klaus, an urbane Berliner and Holocaust survivor who works at the Foundation, has something to say about this. On a walk through the "punishing August humidity" one evening, Klaus tries to impress upon Jonathon what was wrong with his "lost boys".

"Klaus, surely the only man in Topeka outfitted in white linen, could not take these kids...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 [...] And then, on the other hand, Klaus took them very seriously indeed; they are told constantly [...] that they are individuals, rugged even, but in fact they are emptied out, isolate, mass men without a mass, although they're not men, obviously, but boys, perpetual boys, Peter Pans, man-children, since America is adolescence without end."

One can well imagine how this kind of emptiness, combined with a perceived failure to match up to masculine ideals, could manifest itself in anger, even rage. But rage against what, exactly? Male violence tends to have very specific targets. It's directed at women. It's directed at children. And it's directed at people who look different to us. Is this where culture comes in?

Clearly, boys become men by copying the men in their lives, but also by responding to the social and cultural context in which they're raised. And the context in Topeka, Kansas in the late 1990s, culturally speaking, was one in which violence against certain others had been entirely normalised. It was also one in which boys were more comfortable expressing rage than any other emotion, and language had been weaponised, by Adam and the debate set certainly, but by the culture more broadly.

Fixing this mess will take considerable effort on a host of different fronts. But banishing euphemism, rehabilitating our discourse, and restoring language to its rightful place in society seem like good places to start.