“The Topeka School” by Ben Lerner

Born in 1979, Ben Lerner, who may not be well known by the Romanian public, is an American prose writer, poet, essayist, and literary critic, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Award. In 2011 he won the Preis der Stadt Münster für Internationale Poesie Prize, being the first American poet to win this award. He published four volumes of poetry, one volume of essays, and three novels, the third of which we now refer to.

The book, the editors wrote, “tells the story of a family, with its power and struggles within it: Jane’s reconciliation with the memory of an abusive father, Jonathan’s compulsive fornication, the challenge of raising a son amidst a toxic culture of masculinity. Ben Lerner’s novel is also a traumatic prehistory of the present: it It seeks the gradual decline of public discourse, the birth of trolls and tyrants of the new right, and the ongoing identity crisis of the white race.

The events take place in 1997, the last year of high school for Adam, the son of two psychologists. The Gordon family seems to be without problems. Jonathan and Jane, their parents, are psychologists at a prestigious clinic in Topeka, Kansas. Jane is a feminist activist who has struggled with misogyny throughout her career. Jonathan is the guy who always gets boys to talk, especially “lost boys,” as he calls them, teens who have everything they want, but suddenly become resentful, violent, and give up. Ibn Adam is a high school student who specializes in school debate competitions. Everyone tells what he’s been through: childhood trauma (Jane), concomitant reluctance (Jonathan) and difficulty learning to be a man (Adam).

“Ben Lerner has redefined the condition of the American writer today, showing how a family can come to terms with its past. For him, the personal and political plan are brilliantly intertwined. The School at Topeka is a gritty and angry novel, and last but not least, a work dedicated to love” – Ocean Fong.

Ben Lerner’s style – another thing that all commentators have noted, is impressive.

Here’s an example of the beginning of the novel: “Darren imagined smashing the mirror with his metal chair. He knew on TV that there could be people watching him in the dark behind it. He seemed to feel the pressure of their gazes on their faces. With slow motion, the rain of glass, he revealed their presence. Darren paused. Temporarily, uncontrollable, he watched the shrapnel fall again.The black mustache man kept asking him if he didn’t want to drink anything, Darren finally replied, “Hot water.”

The man went to get a drink, and the other man, who was not wearing a mustache, asked Darren if he could afford it. Feel free to extend your legs.

Darren stood still. The mustached man returned with a steamy cardboard cup and a handful of red straws, along with several bags: Nescafe, Lipton, Sweeten Low. He said, Pick a fish, but Darren knew it was a joke; You were not to poison him.

There was a poster on the wall: Know Your Rights, and then a small print that Darren couldn’t understand. Otherwise, there was nothing else you could stare at as the mustachioed man continued talking. The lights in the room were like the ones in the school. Painfully bright on the rare occasions when he screamed. (“From Earth to Darren,” Mrs. Greiner’s voice. Then his familiar colleagues laughed.)

He looked down and saw the initials, stars, and numbers scratched on the wood veneer. He ran his fingers over them, holding his wrists together, as if they were still bound. When one of the men asked him to look at him, Darren did. He looked first at his (blue) eyes, then his lips. Which made Darren repeat the story. So he described to them again how he threw a snooker ball at a party, but the other man interrupted him, although he did so precisely. Darren, we want you to take it right from the start.

Even though it was burning, he took two sips of hot water. The people gathered behind the mirror in his mind: Mom, Dad, Dr. Jonathan, Mandy. What Darren couldn’t understand was that he would never get rid of it – just because he always did. Long before the new student assaulted him with these insulting words—before he took it out of his pocket in the corner of the snooker table, he felt its weight, the coldness and softness of the resin, before tossing it into the crowded darkness—the snooker ball was floating in the air and slowly spinning. Like the moon, he’s been there all his life.”

Ben Lerner – Topeka School. English translation and notes by Andrei Covaciu. Pandora M Publishing House, Anansi Contemporary Collection. 399 p.

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