Book Notes: Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School

Lerner is a talented writer. But he’s clearly not a writer of novels. He creates these beautiful, engrossing vignettes that tell the simplest of stories in a way that grabs your attention and holds it fast. It’s a rare gift.

But Lerner isn’t content with his gift. He wants to be a novelist. Since he’s utterly incapable of creating a plot, he tries to find a thread that will hold the vignettes together. The only thread he seems to be able to find is inane, idiotic wokeness.

You can easily spot the moments in the book where the author had no idea what to write next and filled the hole with wokespeak. These are jarring moments when, in the midst of a beautifully written paragraph, he suddenly switches into a clumsy rant about “racialized able-bodied victims of multiple oppressions.”

Endings are the most impossible part for writers like Lerner. He has no idea how to conclude his non-plot and as a result the last 20 pages are an incoherent jumble of wokester talking points that gradually dry up and the novel stops.

But the important thing is that he’s crazy talented. It’s been a while since I last enjoyed anything by a US author like I enjoyed this book. If Lerner just relaxed and stopped trying to “send a message,” he’d be really great. He’s young (for a novelist, anyway). Maybe he’ll get over himself and will let his talent guide him instead of trying to massage his uncommon literary gift into a primitive agenda of self-hating, self-deprecating, endlessly apologizing “white cishet men” who are trying to belong to a political movement that exists to despise them.