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Natasha Boyd on Ben Lerner

At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Natasha Boyd praises Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School for its mastery of language and its mastery of the flow of time:

The language in 10:04 is sometimes hyperinflated to the point of exasperation, as when Ben notes that he is crying by announcing “a mild lacrimal event.” Lerner clearly enjoys playing with potentiality by folding sentences back in on themselves, taking unexpected swerves in content, or stretching them out into anxious, humorous spirals. The Topeka School is less of a linguistic trapeze act, but the narration can be equally dizzying. It jumps back and forth in time, sometimes overlapping and sometimes jarring with other characters’ accounts. Darren’s narration is an italicized, addled, impressionistic close third person. Jane and Jonathan take turns seeming to speak directly to an off-stage adult Adam, who is presumably amassing information for this book, and reflecting to themselves, talking about Adam referentially. Sometimes they meander further back in time, reflecting on their own childhoods under the dominion of Adam’s respective grandparents. During Adam’s adolescence in Kansas, his chapters are a close third person, but as an adult in New York City, near the end of the book, Adam speaks from the first person.

Initially, the overall effect is destabilizing. This dislocation commands attention, as you try to anchor yourself in time, place, and the speaker’s voice; a measure of sensate alertness is required of the reader, despite the chapter headings bearing the speaker’s name. This mimics the movement of The Topeka School, which slowly reveals itself as an attempt to piece together two traumatic events from adolescence. One is an explosion of life-altering violence involving Darren, and the other is the revelation of a father’s betrayal. The adult Adam gives the impression of trying to take an almost scientific approach by gathering testimonials from different perspectives, not necessarily to get to the bottom of what happened, but to show how many ways it did.

Memory, potentiality, the subjective versus the collective, and the dissolution of society — all central concerns in Lerner’s previous work — are freshly complicated in The Topeka School by the effort to move backward through time as opposed to projecting oneself forward. Though we tend to imagine that the future will unfold in a coherent way from our present actions, attempts to go backward reinforce what circuitous routes are taken to arrive at any present condition. Lerner constantly reminds us of this, inducing vertigo on a sentence-by-sentence basis, as when Adam’s grandmother explains to him how she met his grandfather: “[That was] in Brooklyn,” she said in Topeka. “‘After I left high school to work as a typist to help bring in money for the family when my father fell ill, I would get home late to Avenue J; I always took the bus. And your grandfather would always be waiting there for me, asking if he could walk me home. This was in 1932,’ she said in 1997.” This temporal hopscotch both creates and confounds linearity.