Lawrence is blessed to have some great local author action, even when our local authors have flown off to live that Brooklyn literary life. Ben Lerner is one such author, and it is our luck that he will be here in Lawrence, speaking at LPL on October 5th at 7:00 pm. And it seems that while you can take the boy out of Topeka, you can't quite take Topeka out of the boy.
Lerner, much-lauded former Kansan, has some things to say about that city, both a literal and metaphorical jump to the right of Lawrence. About toxic masculinity. About high school debate and language. About hate and Westboro Baptist. About privilege and race. About his gentle Dad and his famous Mom and therapy and trauma and so very much more. His upcoming novel, The Topeka School, is autofiction - a fictionalized autobiography, which is an idle curiosity when you don't know the author but can make you ravenously curious when you've met the people being written about. (Okay, fine, I’m DYING to know which things did and didn’t happen. OMG, BEN WHICH THINGS REALLY HAPPENED?) Filled with street names and business names and neighborhoods, I could follow the characters around Topeka and on visits to Stull and Lawrence. Even more, I could see the insides of the buildings beyond the author's descriptions, having been in many of them myself. This is the unique boon of being a local reader.
One might think it's easier to tell a story from real life - I mean, wouldn't that book write itself? (Um, no.) Don't make the mistake of thinking that a novel based on a particular reality isn't delving the depths of all of our souls and asking us to contemplate the greater realities, the transcendent truths. This book engaged me on multiple levels, and I will tell you now, you really must give yourself quiet and space and breathing room to take it in. Slow down. Resist the urge to see if someone has pinged you on social media. It’s a novel that asks a lot of you but will reward you greatly for your efforts.
The Topeka School is, above all else, a poet’s novel. There’s not an allusion wasted, and the scenes layer and overlap and call back on each other, creating an immersive reading experience. We see through multiple lenses - the main character Adam and his parents Jane and Jonathan (and intermittently Darren, a classmate of Adam’s upon whom much hinges) speak to us about the past, the present, and occasionally the future. We watch as Lerner presents to us an America, which is "... adolescence without end" by weaving all the threads of character and time and location together to create a fully-realized tapestry.
Lerner’s novel takes place primarily around his childhood and high school experiences, but occasionally you are with him in the uber-present, break-the-fourth-wall experience of currently (currently?) writing the book you have in your hands. If that wasn't enough, this novel references his earlier novels. Leaving the Atocha Station features (maybe?) the same character of Adam Gordon and 10:04, features a Brooklyn writer examining writing.
The Topeka School is already making it on to several must-read lists this fall, and I highly recommend you take that advice, plus come to see Ben on October 5th and have the pleasure of listening to someone in love with language wax poetic about 90's Kansas and it's echos in 2019 America.
If you've become intrigued with Ben Lerner, find him here:
If you'd like to read more autofiction, here are a few places to start: