Late in The Topeka School, Ben Lerner’s brilliant new novel, a character asks, “How do you rid yourself of a voice, keep it from becoming part of yours?” Voice is one of the central themes of this ingenious work that also serves as a commentary on the current political climate.
One of the book’s three narrators is Adam Gordon, the protagonist of Lerner’s debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. When Adam was 8, he suffered a concussion that left him with migraines so severe that his speech became slurred. Now, in the late 1990s, Adam is a Kansas high school senior and a fierce debater who has taken part in national tournaments. Adam’s story makes clear that communication as well as voice—how people communicate or don’t, from debaters to therapists to anti-gay Reverend Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church—are as integral to the story as Adam and his parents, Jonathan and Jane Gordon, psychologists at an institute called the Foundation.
Jane is the author of a bestselling book that some women have told her saved their marriage. Because of its success, Jane has received abusive phone calls from men, especially after her “Oprah” appearance, as well as harassment from Phelps and his crowd. Jonathan, meanwhile, struggles with his wife’s success and with his own fidelity. He left his first wife after he met Jane, and now with Jane’s career on the rise, he begins to have feelings for Sima, another Foundation psychologist, who is also Jane’s best friend.
In the midst of these stories is that of Darren Eberheart, Adam’s classmate, who has committed a violent act that will have ramifications for the people around him.
The importance of speech in the novel lets Lerner comment on the state of politics, from glancing references to some people’s inability to decode irrational arguments to more direct critiques, as when he writes of a legendary debater at Adam’s school whose right-wing Kansas governorship would become “an important model for the Trump administration.”
“How do you keep other voices from becoming yours?” is a key question of our time, or, for that matter, any era. The Topeka School provides no clear answers, but it memorably demonstrates how hard it can be to recognize insidious utterances for what they are.