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.

4 thoughts on “Book Notes: Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School”

  1. I havne’t read it; I’ve read short prose of his in The New Yorker and his books of poetry, which are very good. I’m friends with several of this friends and have met his parents, who live in town here. By the way La Madre de Frankenstein is as bad ss you say.

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  2. Lack of plot is my number one peeve with all forms of fiction writing.
    I know you don’t like speculative fiction, but those genres are adamant about plot. I wish some of the talented literary writers were forced to write sci-fi/fantasy/horror or mystery/suspense, so they’d actually be forced to learn how to properly plot. Also, I wish more contemporary novelists wrote (and tried to publish!) proper short stories first. It’s such a waste to have a gift for immersive, evocative writing and not be able to sustain a narrative or even bother to gain an understanding of the conflict/resolution arc.

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    1. That’s exactly what I was thinking. He should have published this book as a collection of short stories and not tried to force the big netted into a plot.

      If you can’t do a plot, work with the strengths you’ve got. Which wasn’t supposed to rhyme but it did. 🙂

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