Stephen David Miller

Startup cofounder, AI researcher, podcaster, person, etc.

The Topeka School

It’s been quite a while since I’ve written a book review. Years, in fact. The last review I posted is from December 2017 (which is coincidentally when I first discovered the author I’ll be raving about today).

Pride probably had a lot to do with it: in 2017, I was clocking 3-6 novels a month, easy. Or “easy” (in quotes). Like just about everything in my life, from film-viewing to writing to running, reading began as a pleasure and quickly tipped into performance; bars I needed to clear, a desire to “stick the landing.” (I recall frantically downloading a book on my Kindle while boarding an international flight; if I finished one en route and didn’t have a second to begin, those 12 hours would have been “wasted.”) Finally, in January 2018, I hit a snag—a project at work that started taking more of my free time, a book (I Married A Communist) with a middle-section I wasn’t thrilled to power through. Rather than slow down, I felt it easier to give up. I would keep on reading, but only in secret.

(But as long as we’re ripping off the Band-Aid: Highlights from the past couple years include the classics Ulysses and Beloved; short story collections Her Body and Other Parties and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love; contemporaries marvels All The Light We Cannot See, Less, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, The Goldfinch; non-fiction works Feel Free, We Were Eight Years In Power, How To Be An Antiracist.)

There’s also something to be said about finite quantities. Time, of course, but also more abstract concerns. The more I attended film festivals, the less I could write weekly movie reviews; the more I ran, the less I could go on leisurely walks. Even if there is time—and, some 140 days into shelter-in-place, there is always time—I’ve found there is a limit to how much I can feasibly accomplish. Lengthy writing projects, exhausting weeks of work, multiple HBO shows binged in succession…sometimes there’s nothing left in me at the end of the day but to turn on Top Chef: All Stars and cease to exist.

I’d apologize for the navel-gazing preamble, but unfortunately, my review will be more of the same. I want to explain why I’m breaking my silence for The Topeka School, and it has as much to do with the act of writing as it does reading. Or rather, about the thrilling feedback loop that arises from the two.

Context: 10:04

Ben Lerner is a poet first, novelist second, and I mean that as a serious complement. Three Christmases ago, when I devoured 10:04 in a single afternoon, it wasn’t the story that I was devouring—I couldn’t recount to you the plot if I tried. It was the language, the power it carried. The subject of the novel is a poet clearly modeled after Lerner (though I knew nothing about him at the time). He was writing a novel about the act of writing a novel: think Adaptation, that old trick of self-reference. It would have struck me as cheap, if not for the ecstatic energy that coursed through it.

My favorite two sections of the novel were about how language and stories evolve over time. The first was a section about the Challenger disaster. The poet recalls watching it live (he didn’t), then watching Ronald Reagan give a speech about it (which quotes a poem by John Gillespie Magee which itself was plagiarized), then making hacky gallows-humor jokes about the explosion in class. He summarizes it in a speech:

So at the beginning of my story of origins is a false memory of a moving image. I didn’t see it live. What I saw was a televised speech that wasn’t written by anyone, but that, through its rhythmic structure, was briefly available to everyone; the next day I went to school and another powerfully unoriginal linguistic practice enveloped me, an unsanctioned ritual of call-and-response that was, however insensitively, a form of grieving. If I had to trace my origins as a poet to a specific moment, I’d locate it there, in those modes of recycling. I make no claims for ‘High Flight’ as a poem—in fact, I think it’s a terrible poem—and Ronald Reagan I consider a mass murderer. I don’t see anything formally interesting about the Challenger jokes, I can’t find anything to celebrate there; they weren’t funny even at the time. But I wonder if we can think of them as bad forms of collectivity that can serve as figures of its real possibility: prosody and grammar as the stuff out of which we build a social world, a way of organizing meaning and time that belongs to nobody in particular but courses through us all.

The second involves a lengthy walk home in a blackout, from lower Manhattan to Flatbush, by way of the Brooklyn Bridge. As they walk, it bleeds into a Walt Whitman poem:

A steady current of people attired in the usual costumes was entering the walkway onto the bridge and there was a strange energy crackling among us; part parade, part flight, part protest. Each woman I imagined as pregnant, then I imagined all of us were dead, flowing over London Bridge. What I mean is that our faceless presences were flickering, every one disintegrated, yet part of the scheme. I’m quoting now, like John Gillespie Magee. When we were over the water, under the cables, we stopped and looked back. Uptown the city was brighter than ever, although as you looked north you saw the darkened projects against the light. They looked two-dimensional, like cardboard cutouts in a stagecraft foreground. Lower Manhattan was black behind us, its densities intuitive. The fireworks celebrating the completion of the bridge exploded above us in 1883, spidering out across the page. The moon is high in the sky and you can see its light on the water. I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America:

I’m indulging in lengthy quotes with the knowledge that they won’t make sense to you—can’t make sense without the novel that allows for them. But try to read them anyway, to get a sense of their flow; how this second scene so casually calls back to the first. Ronald Reagan’s speech to the schoolchildren of America, the 19th century creeping into present-day explosions, “a way of organizing meaning and time that belongs to nobody in particular but courses through us all.” Or just his command of language: “its densities intuitive”, saying so much with so little; the rhythm of “our faceless presences were flickering, every one disintegrated, yet part of the scheme.” It’s a novel with the texture of a poem.

The Topeka School

One could fairly criticize 10:04 for being too much style, too little substance. And while his new novel, The Topeka School is very similar in tone, I think Lerner has finally found a subject that matches the urgency of his voice. Put another way: I don’t think you need to be a lit nerd to enjoy this particular book. I think you should read it today.

Adam Gordon is a high school senior living in Topeka, Kansas. Same self-referential character as his last two novels, though I don’t think that’s important (I would tell anyone interested in the “trilogy” to start here, at the end). What is very important, this time, is the relation between Gordon and Lerner. Like Michael Chabon’s Moonglow or Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius, The Topeka School wears its autobiography on its sleeve: it wants you to be aware of both its confessional aspect and its intentional obscuring. It wants you to luxuriate in that tension.

Here are a few things Adam and Ben have in common. They are poets living in Brooklyn who grew up in Topeka. They were national champions in forensics and debate. They were born to a pair of esteemed psychoanalysts, who moved to Kansas to join an experimental new clinic. Their fathers were avid fans of cinema who eventually made their own short films—their first would be an adaptation of a Herman Hesse short story. Their mothers became New York Times Bestsell-ing authors who would appear on Oprah, be decried as “feminazis”, and exist as liberal icons in a city plagued by the Westboro Baptist Church. They (the mothers) both witnessed a learned sort of violence that coursed through certain white Men; they (the sons) feared becoming them, and subsequently fled. Here’s Adam’s father describing a patient:

I wasn’t interested in extracting latent content, making manifest some deeper truth motivating Jacob’s speech; my goal was to make the kid feel heard. I didn’t mind the cliché; in fact, I admired the phrase, its rightness of fit, a mixture of the somatic and semantic; maybe it explained the desire for heavy metal that registered as touch as much as sound. How much easier it would be if when you played them slowly in reverse the lyrics really did, as some hysterical parents feared, reveal satanic messages; if there were a backmasked secret order, however dark, instead of rage at emptiness.

“A white guy writes a book in 2019 about the roots of white male rage.” I can hear—can easily fashion, myself—a thousand good reasons this should not be prioritized today. But what I find so brilliant about Lerner’s novel, is that he knows better than to approach these themes directly. This is no Hillbilly Elegy, no woe-is-me memoir that tries to sanctify its subjects under the guise of “understanding” them. Instead he zigzags through memories and generational myths to unpack something deeper at the heart of male violence. He proves his point by way of analogy.

Much of this revolves around the power language. One recurring example is that of competitive debate. Adam is a fiercely successful orator, and Lerner—expounding on themes he once wrote about in Harpers—sees a strong symmetry between that razor-sharp skill set and our social ills today.

The most common criticism of the spread was that it detached policy debate from the real world, that nobody used language the way that these debaters did, save perhaps for auctioneers. But even the adolescents knew this wasn’t true, that corporate persons deployed a version of the spread all the time: for they heard the spoken warnings at the end of the increasingly common television commercials for prescription drugs, when risk information was disclosed at a speed designed to make it difficult to comprehend; they heard the list of rules and caveats read rapid-fire at the end of promotions on the radio; they were at least vaguely familiar with the “fine print” one received from financial institutions and health-insurance companies; the last thing one was supposed to do with those thousands of words was comprehend them.

Evanson was gifted at committing the plausibly deniable outrage, then taking tactical umbrage, claiming the high ground. Adam was rarely if ever swayed by a position, certainly his mind changed little about key questions of value, but he was with every passing hour absorbing an interpersonal style it would take him decades fully to unlearn, the verbal equivalent of forearms and elbows.

Lerner’s descriptions of competitive debate heavily recall the tennis scenes in Infinite Jest—its “glossolalic ritual” tipping past meaning into instinct as it crosses “a mysterious threshold.” In fact, Adam bears quite a few similarities to Hal Incandenza (particularly in moments of dissociation). But unlike Wallace to his readers or Adam to his opponents, Lerner never even tries to overwhelm us. This is a very short novel with a rhythm that carries you—it could easily be read on a single flight. In fact, I’d argue it’s Lerner’s restraint that makes the novel so electrifying: A paragraph will pick up speed like a freight train, but just when it’s about to fall off the tracks, there is a conscious hard stop, a tug back to the present, a need to keep the narrative moving forward. My Kindle highlights are littered with examples, none of which quite capture what I mean:

The feeling of a fiction collapsing inside you. A fiction you’d forgotten was there. Frame, crossbeams, slats, braces, joints. Revealing the softer sapwood, which is marked by candle burns. Half an hour later we were at the Greek diner on Ninety-Eighth with the gaudy dime-store box between us; I was weeping openly if quietly, Jonathan holding both of my hands under the table, one of the first times we’d really touched.

There was, there is, no rush; the interns have to set up the cameras, the actors need to adjust their period dress, angle their hats just so, fasten their pagers, apply their secrets of wash and finish. This is 1909; this is 1983; this is early spring of 1997 seen from 2019, from my daughters’ floor, dim glow of the laptop, “Clair de lune” playing in a separate window, as Bone Thugs-N-Harmony plays in the basement. From outside, because tonight is recycling, I hear the sound of people picking through glass; from inside the novel, laughter and slurred speech, the mechanisms near collapse.

I could spend hours comparing this book to others like it. His channeling of his own parents mimicking Chabon; his way of wielding an imaginary camera like Zadie Smith (“Zoom out:”); his description of mental illness (and its generational toll) like Adam Haslett; his blurring of poetry and prose, syntax and description, similar to Ocean Vuong (whom he once mentored at Brooklyn College). The massive debt he, and any poetic novelist for that matter, owes to Toni Morrison. But if I’m being honest, the real reason I am so passionate about this book is my own ego. Early into this book, I made a discovery: More than anyone I’ve read, Ben Lerner is the contemporary author who best approximates my own style and interests. He writes the way I wish I could write.

Navel-gazing warning: I am about to quote my own writing.

Lern-ing To Write

When shelter-in-place began, I embarked on an experiment: I would write and “publish” a mini, autobiographical story every single morning. I kept at it till I hit 100. And while I certainly don’t have a “body of work” in any professional sense, that experience made me keenly aware of my tics—the sentences that threaten to spiral into mayhem, the experiential lines I throw to pull them back to earth. The semicolons and em dashes—illogical; incessant. You’re liable to get tired of anybody’s “voice” after a hundred consecutive days, especially if you’re serving as author and editor and reader. I grew extremely tired of my own.

But it also made me more aware of my interests. There were certain themes I kept coming back to, morning after morning. The way memory blurs into fiction; the way we seem to choreograph our experiences for a perceived audience. I think I first stumbled onto the idea that the project could be about more than “plot” in Song 18:

I watch him from a distance, now, this boy straining every muscle to connect. The beat his heart skips after a scripted hug from Dorothy; the flutter of excitement when someone types the letter “L”; the naive optimism he carries as he pedals all across town, racing towards this FroYo trip or that mall get-together, things he has no desire to join but is somehow terrified to miss. The way he does every little thing for an imagined audience: alone at his mom’s piano repeating the same arpeggios in D, crooning about his not-yet luck to some faceless, future You.

And this is why I can identify the exact moment I fell in love with Lerner’s novel. It happened right in the opening chapter, at the end of this sentence:

But he was back in his body when they kissed goodbye and her damp hair was in his face and her tongue was in his mouth, running over his teeth, tobacco and mint, Crest toothpaste.

“Tobacco and mint, Crest toothpaste.” I fell in love because I recognized it. I immediately recalled a line from my own project, Song 70:

Sitting in my front yard for what seemed to be hours, tears running down my shoulder as the sprinklers took their cue, aware of my parents watching through the window and her own in the station wagon just around the block; salt, snot, and berry body lotion, mud and fresh cut grass

It may seem absurdly narcissistic to find so much connection in a single sentence. But once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it. To his use of the word “glossolalic” as referenced above, I had my own in Song 95:

Sometimes I’d break it for a depressing song or two; sometimes for a monologue, spat out with glossolalic fervor.

What started as a tiny, if delightful surprise, soon became something deeper. Here’s his description of a character’s panic attack on an airplane, and his reliance on his wife to snap him out of it:

I was traveling furiously toward him in the dark. I was in the plane, finally cleared to land, flash of distant lightning. The metal doors shut, the landing gear unfolded, and we made our descent, first person and third, together through the clouds. Jane had talked us down.

Here’s my description of a panic attack from Song 73:

A day or two without one and they fade into an asterisk, but when they hit they subsume every aspect of my life—past and present, first and second person, all guardrails get toppled over in the fray. When I’m in the middle of one, I’m in the middle of them all: on the plane from San Diego just after family Christmas; driving to a rugby competition with my roommates in the back… I talk myself through it till the lie becomes more sturdy. I call Joanna, who softly reiterates it to me. You reiterate it to me. We reiterate, together.

Lerner is, of course, a far more accomplished author. In drawing these comparisons, I don’t mean to heighten my own voice. But it’s important, because my experience of reading became tinged with aspiration: this is how I want to write. If not exactly this, something quite a bit like it; perhaps less formal, leaving more room for vulnerability.

Reading became partially about studying, training for a marathon. I took notes on punctuation, on subtle shifts in voice. I marveled at how Lerner accomplished things I often tried and failed at, at how he confidently employed certain tricks I’d felt sheepish when I used. In “Angels In the Architecture”, I dabbled in cinematic language:

Crank up the contrast on those LEDs in the mirror, let them refract around the focal point of a half-empty glass, slap on a filter and watch the night glisten.

Cue Lerner:

I remember the next several hours of the Episode in both the first and third person, probably because I’ve depended heavily on Jane’s account. At the time it was hell, but it would come to be an endearing part of our prehistory, a comedy—Buster Keaton, black-and-white, the action at once stuttering and sped up.

I also tried playing with tense as a means of softening; to hide an event mid-sentence which I didn’t know how to approach. In my story, it was a bit of dialogue which meant more to the character than it would to any reader, which would feel anticlimactic if simply written out. I decided to dance around this by making it about the memory of anticipation: recalling how a character would feel about what was about to happen:

When the Southerner opens his mouth and the room splits wide open; when the patrons of Hot & Crazy Sugar Daddy burst into laughter as if in on the same cosmic joke; when the Quintessentially Ugly American proceeds to buy every last one of them a round of top shelf bourbon, here is what Daniel will be thinking:

In my case, the difficulty was that the moment didn’t matter, at least not by any objective measure. It mattered only to “Daniel”, i.e., to me, also sitting in a drunken stupor in the Hot & Crazy Sugar Daddy bar in Wuhan, China, 2017. In Lerner’s case, what he’s obscuring is too massive rather than too trifling. It’s a story involving a cue ball, at a party both he and “Adam” were at in Topeka, Kansas, 1997—and it haunts the entire novel. I won’t ruin it, but I’ll show how he launches into its eventual description:

Darren thinks of it, will always think of it, as already there, the cue ball, a heavy polished sphere composed of skating rink, a moon or dead star infinitely dense suspended in the basement firmament, a rotating disco ball that throws no light, only absorbs it. Darren feels that he has turned and hurled it back toward the table before he’s picked it up from the corner pocket, felt its weight, the cool and smoothness of the resin.

I could go on and on, though I’m aware the “similarities” are probably interesting to no one but myself. What I want to capture isn’t really the particulars of Lerner’s style or its overlap with my own, but the pure giddiness it instilled in me—instills in me now, as I frantically type this not-quite review an hour after finishing the novel.

It’s a truth that’s been repeated to the point of cliché: “A good writer must also be an avid reader.” I knew this in the abstract, but I’d never felt it with so much conviction. In my 100 days of writing, I hadn’t read a single work of fiction; I had been exercising daily but had forgotten to eat a single meal. If I see myself reflected in Lerner’s prose now, if I devoured this novel like no other in years, I think it’s less because he is uniquely attuned to my tastes, and more because I was starving. It feels so good to be fed.

Back To The Novel

If I had to reduce The Topeka School to a thesis, it would be this: Language is not enough; language is all we have.

Language is not enough: it breaks under the weight of actual meaning. Jane, Adam’s mother, cannot utter the trauma she’s suffered out loud:

Then something happened in that space her silence made: my speech started breaking down, fragmenting under the emotional pressure, became a litany of non sequiturs, like how some of the poets you admire sound to me, or I guess what Palin or Trump sound like, delivering nonsense as if it made sense, were argument or information, although I was speaking much faster than politicians speak; my speech was accelerating as if I were chasing after meaning as it receded; it was like I was having a stroke.

Adam, too, regresses under pressure:

He kept saying “instrumental reason,” which seemed apt to me because I thought the music of his language was overwhelming its meaning. At one point it was like he was speaking nonsense rhyme. All his vocabularies were colliding and recombining, his Topekan tough guy stuff, fast debate, language he’d lifted from depressing Germans, his experimental poets, the familiar terminology of heartbreak. And something approaching baby talk, regression.

Even peripheral characters are defined by that impossibility (and I’m not even touching the Herman Hesse story at the center):

Klaus was always joking; Klaus was never joking—what underwrote the irony was a sense of the absurdity of having survived, or the absurd suggestion that anyone survives, even if they go on breathing, or the absurdity that language could be much more than noise after the coop, after the camps.

But this doesn’t end in Hal’s permanent smile, in the perpetual grin of someone who’s had Too Much Fun. Language is not only a poor medium for meaning; it also has a terrifying way of steering meaning, molding truth into something insidious, violent, extremely modern day:

Weird to look through the window of the classroom door with the detachment of an anthropologist or ghost or psychologist making hospital rounds and see these two men, if that’s what they are, arguing in an otherwise empty room in a largely empty school eight years after history ended, snow flurries visible around the streetlights beyond the window. One, dark jeans sagging, is sipping a mysterious liquid; the other, khakis riding high, is explaining the slippery slope of so-called commonsense gun legislation a few years before Columbine. One of them will go on, when history resumes, to be a key architect of the most right-wing governorship Kansas has ever known, overseeing radical cuts to social services and education, ending all funding for the arts, privatizing Medicaid, implementing one of the most disastrous tax cuts in America’s history, an important model for the Trump administration. And one will attempt this genealogy of his speech, its theaters and extremes.

I’ve recently found myself grappling with the same limits of language, albeit with different generational touchstones at play. To Lerner, a child of the Clinton years, it is about an overwhelming influx of gibberish and noise; politics as a means of obfuscating truth. He sees the Iraq War, the rise of Tea Party, folksiness sanding down the edges of an impotent rage. Coming of age in the Bush administration, I see the farther-right rebuttal to all that gibberish: Ben Shapiro training an army of man-children to mistake the cadence of rationality for genuine reason; “well, it’s not that simple” as Pavlovian reflex against even the simplest, most overt moral wrong. Lerner’s nefarious orator no longer has a reason to “spread” the audience; listeners now obscure on the speaker’s behalf. We’ve inhabited the irony to the point of it destroying us; we nullify language the moment we receive it.

Yet language is all we have. And sometimes, in those rare, transcendent moments, language, or a form of it, rises to the challenge.

At first I was kind of laughing at the sobbing, sun and rain, laughing involuntarily at the force and unexpectedness of it, and then I gave in to it entirely. There was this incredible sense of relief when I let go: this language has ended in pure sound. This language has reached its limit, and a new one will be built, Sima and I will build it.

Lerner builds it in The Topeka School. He describes something vital, a complicated mix of grief and resentment and identification and alienation that feels nearly impossible to get at directly. I hope I can someday rise to the challenge.