Bildungsroman narratives can often seem overdone, retracing the struggles of adolescent identity for the umpteenth time before the protagonist solves their problems, gets the girl and drives off into the sunset of adulthood and the rest of their life.
Refreshingly, Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School provides a break from this stultifying mould, offering such an ambitious challenge to the novel that narrative complacency can never settle in. As perspectives differ, time becomes fluid and thoughts become malleable, Lerner refuses to allow his reader to relax along a steady stream, but rather tests the mind to swim its way from one island of poetic phrasing to the next.
The novel alternates between the narrative of its protagonist, Adam Gordon, a popular, smart student with a precocious talent for public speaking, and the views of his parents, Jane and Jonathan, as he navigates his way through the challenges of high school. The shifting perspectives build a model of the family, animated by each member’s anxieties and histories that give a sense of depth and understanding, but also of the gaps between them, which the reader is left to decipher for themselves. Amid these three accounts are interventions from the novel’s fourth narrator, Darren Eberheart, the school’s loner whose retelling of his entrance into Adam’s group of friends is laced with mystery and intrigue over its outcomes.
Alongside the varying perceptions of the plot, Jane and Jonathan’s careers as psychoanalysts at the Topeka Foundation ensures the novel’s heavy interest in the topic as they continually seek to understand and re-understand themselves and those around them. These techniques seep into Adam’s outlook in a subtle examination of parental influence to create a conscientious teenager sensitive to those around him and the relationships he holds.
Yet, the theme of psychoanalysis allows no thought to be left unexamined and as Jane forges a literary career in a world of men diagnosing her with penis envy and Jonathan seeks to stop a developing trend of infidelity, there is a searching for patterns and explanations that, on the one hand, neatly knits the narratives together, but on the other can leave the brain short-circuiting as incidences are dwelt upon and overworked.
If this overworking causes the text to sag in parts as its density of ideas overwhelms it, then Lerner’s lyrical writing lightens its load, inserting versified phrases at will, tied so seamlessly into his prose that they pull the eye onwards while it is still conceiving the image’s complexity. This gracefully eloquent style is part of the novel’s wider fascination with the power of words: words used in rap battles to impress girls, words used in speeches to win trophies, words absorbed through time that contain your inner secrets and words which tie a 1990s family to the issues of the modern day.
This fascination with language drives through the text and give it a resonance in the present, with Lerner’s experimental mastering of the written word exploring how its meaning can change in every context. For this is essentially a novel of development. Yet, it delimits development to an experience of our teenage years, showing Adam’s parents struggling to locate their morals just as much as their son, discovering new parts of themselves, their family and their friends which shift their perceptions of the world.
While the novel fluctuates from being too vague to too dense, it floats intermittently onto an exclusive cloud in between, where Lerner’s ambition shines through, experimenting with the novel form to delicately construct a world of interconnectivity between people, genders, generations and decades that makes his late millennium setting permeate into present issues of who we are and what we value. He shows that the past is not a forgotten place, but one that shapes the present and perhaps the future as humanity develops along its own infinite bildungsroman narrative.
Image: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Macmillan)