Tracing Male Anger in ‘The Topeka School’

The subject of toxic masculinity has risen to the forefront in recent years, but the gendered expectations requiring men to be strong while hiding their emotions have long been at play in American society. Ben Lerner (Brooklyn College) traces one such line from past to present in his critically acclaimed new novel The Topeka School.

The novel follows Lerner’s fictionalized alter-ego Adam Gordon — first as a high school senior in 1997 Kansas, and later as a father of two little girls in present-day Brooklyn. The timelines often blur, however, and Adam regularly interrupts the past in order to reflect on the milieu informing his and the country’s development. Lerner also includes sections from the perspective of Jane and Jonathan Gordon, fictionalized versions of his mother and father, as well as an ostracized classmate, Darren Eberheart, who experiences and exhibits toxic masculinity in parallel with Adam.

All of these voices, brought together, tell the story of male anger, male aggression, and the pernicious effects that result from both. A seething rage erupts in Adam at times, causing Jane to worry about the type of man he’s becoming, but the larger swath of men in Topeka also exhibit toxic behavior. The Gordons witness — and at times experience firsthand — the rise of the Phelps family and their hate-filled protests against homosexuality, liberated women, and the like. Adding to the atmosphere, Jane begins receiving threatening phone calls from spurned husbands after her therapeutic book about marriage becomes a success. 

Lerner’s previous two novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, both displayed a sharp interest in playing with the idea of invention. Credited as one of the major contemporary authors writing in autofiction, Lerner leaned on the genre once more in The Topeka School, mining the self as a story and blurring the line between fiction and autobiography. As a result, he’s moved beyond broad generalizations about male anger. “I wanted to avoid the bad version of the critique of white male universality,” he told The New York Times Magazine. “Which is, ‘We’ve learned our lesson, universality is impossible, so there’s no point in even testing which parts of consciousness are shareable.’ And that was something I felt now more than ever that I needed to do.’”

The story reveals how the ripples of genealogy, of family, of culture continue to lap against the present and shape our identity. As Jane says of the lies family members tell, and the integral, interior stories they create in people: “No, I think it’s a beautiful story. About family and art and memory and meaning, how it’s made and unmade.”

The Topeka School has garnered glowing reviews from The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, among others. The book made The New York Times’ list of 2019’s 10 most notable books, and it’s one of three CUNY-affiliated novels on the Times’ 100 top books of the year. The other two are The Shadow King, by Queens College’s Maaza Mengiste, and The Need, by Helen Phillips of Brooklyn College.

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The Topeka School
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019

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Ben Lerner (Distinguished Professor, English) | Profile 1

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Brooklyn College