Ben Lerner is the critically acclaimed author of three novels, three books of poetry, a work of criticism, and several collaborations with artists. Before he received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Believer Book Award, and many other awards, he was a policy debater in high school and a national champion in extemporaneous speaking. Debate and language are central themes in Lerner’s new novel, The Topeka School. The poet Claudia Rankine remarks, “The Topeka School deftly explores how language not only reflects but is at the very center of our country’s most insidious crises.” The novel examines the interrelated languages of debate, political rhetoric, and poetry, to name a few. Adam Gordon, a high school senior and the novel’s protagonist, struggles with his masculinity as he tries to balance his creative intellectual side with the tough-guy culture of Topeka, Kansas in the 1990s. He navigates the pressures of competing in high school debate and being the son of psychologists who work at an esteemed psychological institute called The Foundation. The novel spans multiple time periods and channels the perspectives of different characters, including Adam’s parents. Lerner delivers poetic prose in an emotionally charged and tender novel that calls upon history to illuminate our contemporary crises.
Zac Ginsburg [ZG]: It is well known that The Topeka School draws from your own life. Similar to Adam Gordon, you grew up in Topeka, Kansas, your parents are psychologists, and you competed in high school debate. Adam Gordon is also the name of the protagonist in your first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, which is based on your experiences in Spain. What is it about writing autobiographical fiction that appeals to you?
Ben Lerner: [BL]: I’ve always been interested in how literature can display the contradictory and composite nature of a voice. My first book of poetry was, among other things, an effort to create an echo chamber in which all the different languages that I speak or that speak through me could collide and recombine. At some point, a certain kind of fiction felt like a good laboratory for examining the social construction of the voice. Adam Gordon in Leaving the Atocha Station is always plagiarizing and quoting and stealing language from his interlocutors and friends as he tries to figure out if something like authentic expression is possible for him. It might be an obvious thing to say, but writing autobiographically, if you’re writing seriously, is never writing just about one’s self — it’s writing about how the self opens onto the social, is formed by it, about how every time we say “I” all kinds of histories are coursing through us. Certainly, I think of the new book as a genealogy of the voice that’s writing it. Part of what I wanted to do in The Topeka School is to think about the voice as intergenerational and collective — how have Adam’s parents entered his voice, or his grandparents, or the language of popular music, or his debate coaches, or politicians, and so on. How are certain voices transmitted and how are certain voices edited out?
ZG: In The Topeka School, Adam struggles with the many facets of his identity. He feeds his creative intellectual side through poetry and debate but also tries to fit into a culture of tough-guy posturing and fighting. Each side of him seems to have its own, albeit interrelated, language, such as poetry, debate rhetoric, and freestyle rapping at parties. In what ways is Adam’s masculinity, and masculinity in general, linked to language?
BL: Adam is torn between two regimes of talk. On the one hand, there is The Foundation — an institution that runs on therapy and other kinds of formalized speech. On the other hand, there is a masculinist culture around him in which talk — except for talking shit — is considered a sign of weakness. The book is in part about Adam’s attempt to exist in both worlds and, as you say, the weaponized speech of debate and (the often absurd and offensive appropriation of) freestyle are ways he attempts to straddle the culture of his household and the culture beyond it. But these masculinist theaters of speech in the book involve no listening, no real communication. The book itself wants to model a different relationship to language. It is in part the story of Adam unlearning ways of talking he picked up in the schools of his youth.
ZG: Patterns are central to the book, both structurally and thematically. The psychologists are identifying patterns in their patients and in their own lives, the debaters are tapping into speech patterns and trying to break the patterns of their opponents, and generations of men are perpetuating patterns of violence. Is calling attention to patterns one of the projects of this book? Does the book suggest that awareness can lead to change, specifically toward a new type of masculine identity?
BL: Maybe because I was a poet first I’ve always thought more about pattern than plot, but here the pattern is the plot, as you say — the way patterns recur across generations in a family or beyond. I certainly think that the patterning of artworks can help attune us to other kinds of patterning in our lives and that the illumination of a pattern is essential to breaking or modifying it. Otherwise, there is only repetition, right?
ZG: One of Adam’s debate tactics is to “spread” his opponents, essentially bombarding them with an overwhelming number of topics through accelerated, almost nonsensical speech. The book analogizes “spread” to the ways in which Americans are increasingly overstimulated: “Even before the twenty-four-hour news cycle, Twitter storms, algorithmic trading, spreadsheets, the DDoS attack, Americans were getting ‘spread’ in their daily lives.” The book points to multiple potential sources of the American spread, such as a cultural obsession with winning and a “blind commitment to economic growth.” Are these the driving forces of the spread?
BL: I don’t know how to offer a pithy genealogy of the advent of information and how it’s used to obfuscate and pacify but I wanted the spread in the book both to be a metaphor for our contemporary political disaster and something else—a glimpse of poetic possibility. These kids who are speaking at unbelievable speeds, reducing what is ostensibly the language of reason to a kind of glossolaliac ritual, are both making a theater of the bankruptcy of mainstream political language and making contact, albeit fleetingly, with the abstract possibilities of language as such. When Adam Gordon participates in the spread he has brief experiences of flow — this sense that language is coursing through him, this feeling that he’s making contact with the mundane social miracle of language. (The older Adam who is writing the book, who is doing the work of aesthetic patterning, takes seriously and honors those moments of his Topeka schooling; it’s not only unlearning and repudiation.) So there is something dystopian about the spread but also something utopian — a sense that language is a force that can be renewed. Linguistic extremes remind us of the plasticity of language, that it can be remade.
Ben Lerner is a professor of English at Brooklyn College.
Zac Ginsburg is an MA candidate in the Creative Writing program at The New School. You can follow him @zacginsburg.
This interview was first published on February 26, 2020 at the Creative Writing at The New School blog, thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School.