Book Review

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

a painfully light read; an utterly pointless book

Once, a few years ago, I felt an intense déjà vu as I read a novella. I was certain I had never read the book – The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo (Lev? Why is it sometimes Lev? Or is Lev someone else? I don’t know and I won’t look it up) Tolstoy (in translation obvs, if I could read Russian I’d be a spy or, more likely, working for an oligarch) – before, yet I found myself anticipating not just the narrative, but the language, the paragraph length, the sentence length, everything.

On that occasion, I later realised that I had, indeed, read The Kreutzer Sonata before, as part of a collection of [Lev/Leo] Tolstoy’s “shorter’ works, The Death of Ivan Ilyich And Other Stories .

The novella had been imbibed by my consciousness on a deep level, and tho I had no memory of its name or even of the experience, my mind held it, and made the synaptic connection.

Until I realised the rereading was real, I presumed that what was happening was a near-spiritual experience; that I had consumed so much literature that I had transcended it: I no longer needed to read a story to know it, I no longer needed to read a narrative, a text, to merge with it, to be as one

Of course, I was wrong.

But I was only wrong by a few years and was only wrong by the book, by the context, when this would finally become true.

///

I first read Ben Lerner when I was “studying” for my MA, a time that is – alarmingly (lol?) as not much has changed (except the amount of drugs I take (infinitely less, unless you count alcohol, caffeine and all the heavy psychiatric medication) and the amount of books I’ve had published (infinitely more, even if – like me – you don’t count the book of flat earth poems and full frontal nudes as “a book I’ve had published”, which I don’t)) almost a decade ago.

I read Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station and absolutely fucking loved it. I’m 90% certain I read it before Triumph of the Now began, but if I’m wrong there will be a hyperlink to said blog post added at a later date (I’m writing this on my phone as I walk to work with Cubby attached by elastic to my waist) between this paragraph and the next.

the link is live here now

cubby and i pose by a concrete wall under a portentous sky

While I was a floppy-haired, happy-go-party postgraduate student slash YouTube rapper slash hip Shoreditch cocktail bartender, I spent a few (likely overhung) afternoons ensconced in one of the booths at the National Poetry Library in Southbank Centre (which – I am disgusted to have to admit – does not [appear to] have a copy of Bad Boy Poet: sort it out!!!) and read thru all of Lerner’s poetry books, which is a medium he appears to have abandoned once he became a blockbuster novelist.

In the well-regarded Hip-Scott song “Pass the Dostoevsky on the Left Hand Side” (a song semi-mockingly claiming a preference for books over intoxication), I even referenced the hash-guzzling protagonist of Lerner’s novel with the rhyming couplet:

If you say “Greene”, I think “Graham”,
My life’s not like Leaving the Atocha Station

It’s one of the last lines in the song and to remember the first line of the couplet I had to rap the whole song under my breath as I strolled along Dundas West, moments after running into one of the ~15 people I know in this city I’ve been “living” (hiding) in for two and a half years.

A couple of years later I lost my copy of Lerner’s second novel, 10:04, at a raucous St Patrick’s Day book club that would have long term effects on my life (e.g. 🇨🇦), and I read Lerner’s non-fiction The Hatred of Poetry the first day I could (it was published by one of my favourite publishers, Fitzcarraldo Editions), so it’s fair to say that Lerner has been with me during my arduous and ultimately pointless journey into this sort of adulthood, an adulthood of which the major trad markers of adulthood remain absent (I have no assets or children or formal marriages whoops lol yet 🤷 haha and I’m also not having any fun instead lol).

So, maybe I am the problem.

Maybe I have read too much Lerner.

Maybe I have grown beyond the point where Lerner’s life seemed relatable to mine or, at least, seemed less beige than it used to.

I felt like I’d read The Topeka School before. And, this time, I definitely haven’t.

The Topeka School is well written, sure.

The characters are all fully realised and the prose has a liquid, yet direct, quality to it, but so do so many other fucking novels.

It’s another novel about rich, successful, “liberal” Americans having affairs and having good jobs and dealing with some kind of pedestrian – often secondhand – trauma.

The Topeka School didn’t make me feel or understand or imagine anything I hadn’t been made to feel or understand [by fiction] before.

I consciously chose to read The Topeka School for some “light relief” after Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s heavily emotive and serious nonfiction book on indigenous lives, capitalism and colonialism. That book was weighty, important, articulate, powerful, and far from “light”.

Maybe this sounds condescending to Lerner and to the thousands of novel[ist]s like this, but The Topeka School is light.

It is light on discussion of the lived experience for the vast majority of the world’s people and it is light on the consideration of causes and of effects;

There are references to Trump and Black Lives Matter and ICE, but they feel shoehorned in, they feel like “name check”-type issues for the “liberal” reader, sound-clips, asides, markers of a shared identity between reader and writer, both of whom remain unaffected by the reality of the bureaucracised, politicised evil of things: the self-described “white ally” is presumed default reader, which let’s be honest in this case is true. I’m sure most of Lerner’s readers are, like myself, white, urbanite university graduates who maybe aren’t rich but I’m sure few are destitute. We see and acknowledge the problems that exist, but that’s about as far as we’re willing to go. We are not good people. No one reading The Topeka School is a good person, even someone able to read it and realise that being able to read and understand and enjoy The Topeka School is a signifier of destitute ethics.

There do not need to be more novels like this.

Thank god DFW is dead, thank god I went for this rather than the new Franzen, the latest book from the extremely loud and incredibly close guy… maybe the one I read almost everything by was the wrong one, but at this stage I don’t need more, I’ve had enough.

I’m going to go straight back to reading something serious about real people’s lives.

Christ, I’m not making things easy for myself.

In summary:

The Topeka School is a pointless, derivative, middle-of-the-road novel and the acclaim it received is evidence of a creatively-moribund social tier.

///

Here’s a short film I made last week showcasing some beautiful street art:

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