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In the Psychologist’s Chair

By Denise Rose Hansen.

Ben Lerner, The Topeka School (Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Granta,2019)

Sally Rooney noted in a recent conversation with Lerner, which launched The Topeka School at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, that the texture of his new novel departs from that of his previous two. This difference in form and feeling is, in Rooney’s view, due to The Topeka School being told in the third person. But even though Lerner in this book is splicing together the perspectives of several characters belonging to a ‘90s psychologists’ community in Topeka, Kansas, he is not moving away from his usual autobiographical thread. Rather, like his friend and colleague Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, Lerner’s polyphonic new novel is perhaps more persuasively auto in its firm hold of the complexity of strands that makes out a family, a body politic, and the maladies that threaten to ‘dissect’ them.

We already know Adam from Leaving the Atocha Station, and, arguably, he was the unnamed narrator of 10:04 — at least the two shared the same anxieties and proclivity for suspiciously asking questions like ‘is this really art?’, in the Prado and the Institute for Totaled Art respectively, both catechising the cultural and economic logics that separate ‘artwork’ from ‘object’. Like most sequels, The Topeka School rewinds to the story before the story, examining Adam’s (Lerner’s) coming of age in Kansas. When I asked him last year what he thought Lerner’s next novel would be about, a friend of mine at Bloomsbury joked: probably his psychologist parents. He was right. Based on the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, a real-life school, clinic, and sanatorium, both of Adam’s parents are psychotherapists working at ‘the Foundation’, a place that like the rest of society, it seems, is having a hard time setting and respecting boundaries. In his book New Uses for Failure, Adam Colman has heralded Lerner as a writer of essayistic fiction, and in the lengthy passages of The Topeka School that in turn celebrate, satirise and scorn what goes on at the Foundation, it is easy to see why. Dr. Gordon might be a trailblazing academic, but (or perhaps more so, and) he is also a toxic patriarch who manipulates psychotherapists below him in the hierarchy, mostly women, by forcing them to undergo analysis with him personally and using their disclosures against them in the workplace.

Like Lerner’s other novels, The Topeka School is interested in glitches. 10:04 attended to the collapse of capital in the face of two hurricanes threatening to wipe out New York. In the face of this potential future, the present was voided, altering the aura of its objects, from coffee canisters to artworks. When an ‘art commodity … had been exorcised (and survived the exorcism)’ of the market, it would become ‘a utopian readymade — an object for or from a future where there was some other regime of value than the tyranny of price’. In The Topeka School, which is told across several time periods and generations, Lerner turns to the failures of communication in general and public speech in particular. Making literary use of his own track record as a debate champion, he inspects the miscarriages of public speech that have, as is hinted, led to the age of Trump. As Dr. Gordon has it, speech collapses under conditions of information overload, leading some men to turn to violence. I had been anticipating this — not the violence, but Lerner’s distinctive sense of futurity, as devised in the lineage of the likes of W.G. Sebald and Henri Bergson. While handled more abstractly here than in previous works — 10:04 draws its key ideas of futurity, and derives its title, directly from Christian Marclay’s installation The Clock, which was recently on view at Tate Modern — the novel drives at how the present (ours) has been by shaped by the recent past.

Looking back in a rear-view mirror, then, the novel pivots on the #MeToo movement and recent sexual harassment scandals, the simultaneous brevity and overload germane to digital communication, and what has become the Trump impeachment inquiry. In its early pages, we see how ‘the spread’ technique, as Adam calls it, can win a debate. This is when a debater speaks so quickly and includes so many different arguments that the opponent is left unable to remember, let alone respond to, all the points raised, posing an offline precedent to the superabundance of the Internet. Further, Jane — Adam’s feminist mother — is met with chauvinist harassment when she publishes a critique of the family unit, reminding us, although we were unlikely to forget, that women with public opinions have always been exposed to trolling, only in the 90s the trolls would call your house and whisper profanities at you or your children instead of commenting in the box below. Indeed Jane’s narrative, even if it reads as through the eyes of a man too fascinated by the idea of female intimacy, her voice sounding too much like Adam’s, is probably the most compelling part of the novel.

The portrayal of white middle-class men wrestling with their identity adds the novel to the stockpile of new fiction dealing with toxic masculinity (e.g. Astroturf, Bodies of Men, The Water Cure). While it might go some way to explain the psychology behind current crises in our culture, it also convinces that probably only middle-class white men can feel sorry for middle-class white men. The scan of family dynamics calls to mind more mainstream novelists like Franzen and Safran-Foer, but Lerner writes the Great American family differently by granting more attention to the implications its members’ mentalities might have for the society they partake in; a kind of social realism for the elitist top layers of America that, at bottom, determine much of our culture.

Lerner’s protagonists are wry and annoyingly shrewd, perhaps best demonstrated through what I call the Lernerite oxymoron: “I was successful at the Foundation because I lacked ambition”; “I was a non-threatening representative of a threatening counterculture that both drew on and attacked the cannons of psychiatry”; “More scandalous than the scandals were the norms”; “if they suffered from anything it was precisely this lack of suffering”. The profusion of such contradictions is part of why the texture of The Topeka School is, after all, pretty similar to that of his previous novels. Which is a good thing. In straddling the gap between generations, between then and now, between classes, between private and public, commonplace conflicts of great consequence are unveiled, and although set in the seemingly narrow suburbia of Topeka, the novel’s locality is not restrictive of its far reach.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
D.R. Hansen has written for Avidly, L.A. Review of Books, International Journal of the Book, CRUMB Magazine, Copenhagen Post, Curator, among others. She is a researcher in English experimental literature and the visual arts at UCL

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 24th, 2019.