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Nathan Goldman on Ben Lerner

Writing in The Baffler, Nathan Goldman admires the ambition but questions the achievements of Ben Lerner’s forthcoming novel, The Topeka School, which returns to the narrator of his début, Leaving the Atocha Station, from a fresh perspective:

Even as The Topeka School trades the single first-person narrators of Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 for the polyphony of the Gordon family, the “I” of Adam occasionally interrupts, speaking from the present, to emphasize the temporal distance and impose interpretation — until he eventually takes over in the novel’s final chapter. The instability wrought by this modulation in perspective bears out an idea introduced in 10:04: in the last lines of that novel, the narrator says of his and a friend’s stroll through Brooklyn that he “will begin to remember our walk in the third person.” The Topeka School occasionally redeploys this language; twice it is said that a character remembers a significant event in both “the first and third person,” and Lerner’s narrative approach in the early Adam chapters allow him to pull off this trick. The structure of The Topeka School is further complicated by its strange interplay of perspectives: while its coherence relies on the two additional narrators — Adam’s parents — the novel emphasizes their testimony’s mediation through Adam (and Lerner). “I bet you won’t put this in your novel,” Jane says at one point before recounting an embarrassing childhood anecdote about Adam (and, presumably, Lerner) that, of course, he did include.

The Topeka School’s emphasis of its own artifice — a hallmark of autofiction — is here in the service of a particular political, linguistic move. … Ultimately, the novel is itself offered as a sort of “public speaking,” with the autofictional subject — displaced, though only partially and always self-questioningly, into other voices and consciousnesses — standing in for the historical community. In a way that resonates with Adam’s claim about forcing himself to participate in the people’s mic despite his reflexive embarrassment, The Topeka School also brings us closer than its predecessors to Lerner himself.