April 10, 2020KR Reviews

“Feeling Heard” in Topeka: On Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School

New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019. 304 pages. $27.00.

In the 1930s, a Harvard psychology undergrad, Cecilia Roberts, observed her son creating stories from the magazine photos he perused while recovering from an illness. Thinking that such image-based-projections might work well in clinical research, she suggested the idea to her professor. The thematic apperception test, or TAT, born of her suggestion, is like a Rorscharch with photos rather than inkblots and detailed narrative rather than quick association. And its origin story is also a thing of divergent narratives. The professor who developed the tool alongside Roberts, Henry A. Murray (now its sole credited author) alternatively claimed that his inspiration came from the doubloon chapter in Moby-Dick, in which each character interprets a coin’s imagery in a different way. One of these origin stories is appropriative—a man claims the thought of an underling; the other erases the practical and domestic, prizing linguistic patrimony above all else. They sit side by side on the Wikipedia page, and both are the terrain of Ben Lerner’s newest novel.

In The Topeka School, a majority of adult characters are psychologists, but even those who are not possess an analyst’s outsized belief in the power of language. Throughout the book, Lerner uses the thematic apperception test as one of his many refrains: “what are these people in the picture thinking? Feeling? Start by telling me what led up to this scene?” When these questions first appear, we are looking at a photo of the protagonist, Adam, in The Topeka-Capital Journal, documenting a high school debate championship he wins “by speaking a nearly private language at great speed.” So in one sense the questions are a plot device—his parents, Jane and Jonathan, psychologists at a research foundation, narrate their meeting and how their sensitive, arrogant son Adam was born and raised to use language so deftly as a means to an end—in debating his way towards college admission, in freestyling his way to popularity in his peer group. But the TAT is also a thematic tool, one where the questions refer not specifically to Adam and his family, but to us, in our post-truth moment—what are the events leading up to this picture?

If a TAT is meant to help a patient express unique psychological experience, for the characters in this novel, idiosyncrasies are not stable. Characters are constantly remembering each other’s memories, confusing their first person experiences for third and vice versa, and conflating the past and the present—everything becomes “a network of crisscrossing relationships.” “To feel heard,” as Lerner points out through constant recontextualization of the phrase, is completely subjective and usually more about the speaker than the listener. When Jonathan, personable and easy-going, is proud of himself for striking up political conversations with his new Kansan neighbors, his brother accuses him of “making the fascists feel heard.”

The book is full of exercises in language losing meaning, some more intentional than others. Jonathan studies speech shadowing, asking patients to repeat a text sped up until they unwittingly drivel their words. Drivel, pathologized from early on, is also a natural consequence of Adam’s signature debate technique, “the spread,” in which he lays out multiple arguments too fast for opponents to follow or rebut. Jane writes a book and to promote it, appears on Oprah; Winfrey is the queen of making people “feel heard.” But we don’t have more than a vague sense of the book’s contents. We understand it only from the dismissal of colleagues who consider her work “psychological chick lit” and the anonymous men—proto-trolls—who telephone to tell her she’s a cunt.

Even though the story is replete with such value clashes—acid trips and marital infidelity and recovered trauma and white suburban teenagers in freestyle battles—The Topeka School comes to its climax tamely with a linguistic concession. At a debate tournament in the Mall of America, the mother watches as her son sloughs off his usual habit and decides to rise above “the spread.” To his opponent, Adam insists that the values debate stay uncompromised, drawing an analogy between unfettered capitalism and attention spreading. The moment is not just important because of the maturity Jane sees in Adam’s rejection of the spread, but because Lerner’s work is ultimately concerned with the future—how we imagine and construct it, how we use it to make sense of the present and the past. Jane feels she has transmitted the right values; Adam’s moral stand is her legacy. And because America is busy becoming what it is today, he loses the round.

In the final section of the book, the narrator puts aside the third person character of his teenage years and speaks in the first person. He stops gesturing at the future and he becomes it, an urban parent using his language to anxiously protect his toddler-aged daughters. With the relish of the spread, he and his wife use “polysyllabic ten-cent words” to shield the kids from the emotionally difficult, like the discussion of a senile grandmother. “Onerous,” which one of the little girls incorporates into her vocabulary right away, morphs poetically into “own rust.” Adam tries to defend them from bullies too, approaching another parent at the playground with “discursive surprise” and his “Foundation” vocabulary. And in the end, the girls somehow still learn a lesson about sharing, about gestures over words;we see it as they hand sidewalk chalk to an aggressive police officer “as though he was waiting for a turn.”

The novel may end on a hopeful note—the human microphone, a collective rather than confrontational speech act—but it is by no means a resolved note. Just as Adam is still deploying verbal tactics in a conflict, Darren—black sheep of Adam’s Topeka peer group, working-class kid among “Foundation” kids—still weaponizes objects. He has moved from the eightball his adolescent self lobbed at a girl’s jaw to the gun and MAGA hat he wears to protest Adam’s homecoming poetry reading. Darren is a reminder that words are not omnipotent. One cannot “feel heard” just through speech in the same way that Darren cannot feel included just by proximity. The only way he can engage is anger, and for that Lerner can find no aesthetic principle, no “secret order backmasked” in his rage.

One of Lerner’s favorite scenes to construct in his fiction is a protagonist standing before a work of art in a museum, verbosely unpacking it—in Leaving the Atocha Station there was van der Weyden’s The Descent from the Cross; in 10:04, there was Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc. In this novel, there is Duccio’s Madonna and Child, but it is not Adam, Lerner’s fictional proxy, who stars in the ekphrastic scene—it is his father. In his reflections before the picture, Jonathan seems more enthralled by history than by the image. He mentions the infant not at all, proclaims the mother knows she is “addressed to a future” in which she loses her place as an icon and is revered for mere technique, and waxes poetic about the burn marks in the frame which are “fingerprints of the past.” But when I wonder what sort of TAT moment Lerner would give Jane with the painting or how he might hope for the current day reader to react, my guess is that the order of concern would be reversed. Maybe all of Jonathan’s projections would take a backseat to this question:where is the infant’s orb and will it be used, as the child grows, as a talking stick or a bludgeon?