The Sunday Magazine

Ben Lerner's new novel goes back to the '90s to understand Trump's America

Ben Lerner's new novel, The Topeka School, is perhaps his most dazzling yet — an exploration of masculinity and whiteness in Trump's America, how to raise children well, and the devolution of public debate and civic discourse into a vicious martial art. Lerner joins Michael Enright for a wide-ranging conversation about the peculiar cultural and social temper of the times and how we got here.
The Topeka School is a novel by Ben Lerner. (McClelland & Stewart)

When Ben Lerner attended high school in Topeka, Kan., in the '90s, he was a seasoned debater. However, he quickly learned that his skills in discourse and rhetoric were futile.

"[We] weren't really debating health care or whatever," he says. "This nominal exchange of ideas devolved into this glossolalic ritual. Spit would be flying, people would pass out, people would be speaking much more quickly than auctioneers."

This fast-paced manner of arguing is a debating technique known as "the spread." Competitors are encouraged to speak as fast as they can so that opponents will inevitably concede arguments that were missed during a speedy exchange. 

For Lerner, this foray into the world of debating became a sport rather than an exercise in verbal reasoning. 

Lerner is the writer behind Leaving the Atocha Station, 10:04 and The Topeka School. (Matt Lerner)

"I got really interested in this … as a kind of metaphor for the bankruptcy of political rhetoric," he says. "[Debate has] been ... reduced to this kind of athletic performance of unreason."

This is how Lerner sees politics now. Appropriately, his latest book, The Topeka School, is described as a "prehistory of the present." It's a book that explores masculinity and whiteness in Trump's America, right-wing trolls and how to raise children well. 

But rather than taking place in the aftermath of the 2016 election, it begins at a high school in Topeka.

Set in 1997, the family at the centre of the novel closely resembles Lerner's own family. The main character, Adam, is a high school debate star. His mother is a famous feminist psychologist and his father is also a psychologist who works with troubled boys.

The writer behind such acclaimed books as Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, which were also littered with autobiographical elements, Lerner is also a poet, Fulbright scholar, Guggenheim and MacArthur fellow and distinguished professor of English at Brooklyn College. 

Here are some highlights from his conversation with The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright. 

Whether Topeka is 'ground zero' for today's America

"[Topeka] has produced incredible writers, there's all kinds of cultural richness. This is also a place where you can buy a house and not have to be a rich person, unlike Brooklyn, where I live now. But it's also a place where you can identify this kind of crisis of identity amongst middle-class white boys.

"By the time I left Topeka in the '90s, it was like fourth in per capita homicide, and it seemed to a certain degree to foreshadow those other American towns like Littleton, Colorado — that's the location of Columbine — where there were these ... crimes not of passion, but of nihilistic dispassion. There very much seemed to be something the matter not just with Kansas politically, but with kind of middle-class white boys in America generally."

Autobiography and esthetic 

"A lot of it is biographical for sure, but with huge things admitted or altered or rendered composite. [The Topeka School's] autobiographical all the way through, in the sense that it's a kind of self-examination of the genealogy of my voice. Like how is your voice influenced by your mother versus your debate coach versus what you hear on the radio versus the grandfather, whatever. There's lots of fiction involved, because the truth is in the esthetic form, the thing the book is. But it does risk a lot psychologically and draw a lot on my own experience."

Ben Lerner's last novel 10:04 was critically acclaimed. (Ariana Mangual/McClelland & Stewart)

Toxic masculinity 

"This thing that we're calling 'toxic masculinity' isn't a new thing. I mean, the story of the American empire is the story of violent identity crisis at the heart of white masculinity. When James Baldwin talks about the 'lie of whiteness,' he's saying, why is it that these people had to create this bad fiction called whiteness that depended upon both the appropriation from and brutalization of others? [It's] because they were so afraid of a kind of identity vacuum in their own heart.

There is a kind of identity vacuum. There isn't a vocabulary of making meaning, so violence fills the void. Misogyny and xenophobia fill the void.- Ben Lerner, author

"This is a reductive version of [Francis Fukuyama's] argument, but it was basically this idea that [in the '90s] it's going to be the advent of technocratic liberals and ideology is over or whatever. What I wanted to get at was the way that the claim to have arrived at the end of history was ineffectively masking the continuation of the history of a kind of white masculinity that could only define itself in opposition to some other enemy. What happens to ... many of the characters in the book is that there is a kind of identity vacuum. There isn't a vocabulary of making meaning, so violence fills the void. Misogyny and xenophobia fill the void.

"One thing that I think you see happening is that in the absence of a discourse on the left about love, collective possibility that can make meaning for people in their lives, like forms of affiliation across boundaries of class and race ... You have this reactionary white supremacist discourse that gives people an easy enemy and gives people a permission to kind of delight in the libidinous discharge of violence against others. There has to be a counter discourse and there has to be a mode of meaning and possibility that doesn't depend just on the demotion of some other."

Parenting in the age of Trump

"I think there's this sense of when you grow up, the thing you learn is that there are no grown ups. And I think that I was reckoning with that. Like when you're the parent … what you realize is that you don't really know what you're doing and also you realize your parents didn't know what they were doing.

When you're the parent … what you realize is that you don't really know what you're doing and also you realize your parents didn't know what they were doing.- Ben Lerner

"You know that Larkin poem — I can't quote it on the radio — but it has a lot of truth. There's no getting it right. Everybody's damaged, everybody transmits damage. I think [my parents] tried to be really open and loving about the way that making family is an attempt to honour some patterns, and disavow some patterns. I definitely think parenting has to start with an acknowledgement that you're going to mess it up, and that you're going to mess up your kids, but that you also can be a kind of loving fellow traveller through the damaged life.

"My wife is Puerto Rican and my girls are Spanish-speaking. We have an interracial, intercultural family. My wife's work is largely about working with undocumented families in Brooklyn and studying how citizenship status affects educational opportunities. So all of that is certainly taking place against this backdrop of Hispanic-phobia and attacks on immigrants ... I don't know if there's been a moment where a kind of regressive, racist misogyny has so explicitly been in control. I'm in that moment, like a lot of parents, trying to figure out to what degree do you want your kids to confront as soon as possible the hard truth of climate change and of the radicalization of the right and white supremacy or how much do you want to try to protect them from that reality."

Ben Lerner's comments have been edited for length and clarity. Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

Listen to more interviews with Ben Lerner

English professor, novelist and poet Ben Lerner says even great poets are doomed to fail, because they yearn for the divine which cannot possibly be grasped. His book is called "The Hatred of Poetry." 14:42
Ben Lerner found fame with his debut novel Leaving the Atocha Station. His follow-up, 10:04, is now out. Lerner's latest work is narrated by a fictional author who both is and is not the real writer. 23:25


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