Topeka, Kans., the city in which Ben Lerner was raised, appears at some point in all his books—his three acclaimed collections of poetry and his novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:14. But in his new novel, The Topeka School (Oct.), this fall’s lead fiction title from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, it takes center stage. It also features the return of Adam Gordon, the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station.
Lerner describes it as “one family’s story but also a sweeping story of one section of America in the late 20th century. A depiction of a family with lots of struggles and lots of strengths.” Adam is a senior at Topeka High School, class of 1997. A champion debater (like Lerner) and aspiring poet, he’s also one of the cool kids. Both of his parents (like Lerner’s) are therapists, working at a world-renowned psychiatric clinic. “Adam is a teenager coming-of-age between two cultures. The son of two lefty, Jewish psychologists from the East Coast who value talk and expression above all else, he’s desperate to pass as a ‘real man’ among adolescents who value physical toughness, and think of most [other] forms of expression as emasculating,” says Lerner.
A large part of what Lerner calls “the experiment of this book,” in which he deftly shifts perspectives, was writing in the voice of his parents. “In a way, this is a book about me imagining my childhood from my parents’ perspective,” Lerner says. “The first-person sections are in the voices of my parents and that involves imagining the voices that shaped my own.” It’s also a story that shows the different kinds of speech that can move through one character at any one moment in history. “The speech of therapists, friends, rappers, debate coaches, politicians, commercials, all move through Adam, and he’s trying to figure out what might constitute his own voice. In a way, this book is a history of the voice that’s writing it.”
While much of The Topeka School is based on Lerner’s family and his own teenage experiences, he is not concerned that readers will think the novel is more autobiography than fiction. “I don’t worry about readers making autobiographical connections. Most of the characters are composites or unreal, and many of the events are pure fabrication—but fabrications that I hope are in the service of other forms of truth.”
Today, 2–3 p.m. Ben Lerner will sign ARCs of The Topeka School at the Macmillan booth (1544, 1545).