Sometimes I think people who write autofiction are narcissists. But I know for sure, because I am one, that people who read autofiction are narcissists. I once thought that I read about other minds as a release from my own until I came to the scene in Ben Lerner’s last novel, 10:04, in which the writer’s alter ego, Ben, is in a fertility clinic in Brooklyn to produce a cup of sperm for his friend, Alex, to use to get pregnant. I’ve never been to a fertility clinic; I’ve never ejaculated, let alone on command; I’ve never asked a friend to help me get pregnant. And yet. The only thing Ben has been told is that it’s important, in order to avoid contaminating the sample, that his hands are clean, and he has already washed them after touching the remote control. His trousers are around his ankles and Asian Anal Adventures has already started when he realises that his jeans
were even more potentially contaminating: I’d been on the subway for an hour; I couldn’t remember the last time I’d laundered the things. I shuffled back to the sink with my pants and underwear around my ankles and began to worry about how long I was taking, if there was a time limit, if the nurse was going to knock on the door at some point and ask me how it was going or tell me it was the next patient’s turn. I did the shuffle back to the screen and hurriedly donned the headphones, but then it occurred to me: contact with the headphones was no different than contact with the remote control. I thought about putting an end to this increasingly Beckettian drama and just trying to go on, but then I imagined getting the call that the sample wasn’t usable, and so again shuffled – now wearing the headphones, now hearing the shrieks and groans of the adventurers –back to the sink to wash my hands once more. Above the sink there was mercifully no mirror.
I wasn’t expecting, when I came across this scene about halfway through the novel, to feel so much sympathy, to feel that I knew this experience (it reminded me of trying to insert a menstrual cup that won’t take), and to feel that I knew the worry, the humiliation, the predicament of a character who is seen by the world (even he admits it) as a man-child. And I was delighted with it, this point of deep difference and deep similarity: his humiliation reminded me of my humiliation, which then confirmed his. The so-called narcissism of Lerner’s autofiction had broken through the gender divide, and I, too, was a man-child in a Brooklyn fertility clinic.
Lerner’s new novel, The Topeka School, takes up this problem – one of its narrators, Adam Gordon, calls it ‘the problem of other minds’. We know Adam already, as the Topekan-born poet protagonist of Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, which describes him on sabbatical in Madrid, getting laid, getting fucked up, wondering whether he’d ever have as profound an experience of art, or provide one in his writing, as a man he watched crying at the Prado. Leaving the Atocha Station was a book in the same mode as 10:04, relying on candour and humour and high writing and low living; but it wasn’t always easy being in Adam’s company. (Between that novel and The Topeka School, Lerner the writer – born in Topeka, school debating champion, graduate of Brown, Fulbright fellow in Madrid, now poet and novelist, resident in Brooklyn and married with two girls – has received a Guggenheim fellowship and a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant; when early copies of The Topeka School arrived in London and New York, I heard stories of people cancelling dinner dates in order to read them.)
When we meet Adam again in the new book, it is 1996, and he is 17 and talking: ‘For a long time he had been speaking.’ But his isn’t the first voice we actually hear in the novel, and it won’t be the last either: instead of hearing Adam himself tell us about his education, his background, his progress, as we heard him tell us about his year in Madrid, we read a third-person narrative of his childhood. We also hear from his mother, Jane Gordon, a famous feminist psychologist; from his father, Jonathan Gordon, an analyst who specialises in lost boys; and from Darren Eberheart, one of those lost boys himself. They all speak in the first person. In fact, it’s only at the very end of the novel that Adam narrates his story in his own voice, that we hear that familiar – or will he have changed? – man-child I. The Topeka School (think New York School, or don’t) is more than a confession, an excuse, a romp, a holiday; it uses what has come from Lerner’s earlier experiments in autofiction – the unexpected contact that can arise out of it, the questioning of art and sex and political engagement – to think about who gets to speak and what language will even allow us to say.
There are many instances in the book of people – mostly men, alas and unsurprisingly – holding forth. As it opens, young Adam has rowed out with his girlfriend, Amber, to the middle of a lake at night. ‘For a long time he had been speaking,’ we read, and then the next paragraph begins: ‘When he turned to see what effect his speech had had, she was gone, jeans and sweater in a little pile with the pipe and lighter.’ How has he not noticed? He panics, rows back to try and find her, walks into a house that looks like hers and is not hers, and finally finds her by his car, where he explodes – ‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’ – and then he listens as she tells him a story. Her stepfather liked to talk – he ‘answered his own fucking questions. The answer was always China, basically’ – and she got bored of being his audience. And so one day, she slid down in her chair, then crawled along the floor, out of the dining room and into the kitchen, where she fixed herself a drink before he even noticed she was gone. ‘It would take Adam twenty years,’ the narrator says, ‘to grasp the analogy between her slipping from the chair and from the boat.’
One way autofictionalists have responded to the accusation of narcissism – I sometimes think of Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy, where the narrator is an almost sadomasochistic listener, as a response to the criticism of her divorce memoir, Aftermath – is by letting others speak.Amber slips away from Adam’s relentless speech instead of interrupting, challenging or even just sitting there and thinking of something else; she’s a dancer, and she imagines herself ‘as a liquid flowing down the chair’. Here, underneath Amber’s disappearance, is an idea that will keep turning up in The Topeka School: a tugging sense of the uselessness of language, and of the eloquence of action. Dance defeats words. (I think of the many times I’ve sat at the ballet, moved by something I can’t explain, that isn’t explainable in words; or of the crinkle of the eyes that shows the woman in the burqa at the bus stop has returned my smile; or the head of my 14-month-old nephew swivelling to find me when I come into a room talking, expressing far more than the hello he can’t yet say.) There are many things in The Topeka School that are more eloquent than words: a look, a smell of sandalwood and rain, a pool ball thrown hard in a girl’s face, an unfaithful husband’s hand finding his wife’s, cunnilingus, the burnt frame edge of a Renaissance Madonna and Child, chalk hearts on government pavements, a small boy sitting on the top of the slide and thumping his booted feet against the metal, silence. It is so common for language to be outwitted in the novel, and yet for the undoing to occur in beautiful sentences.
Why is language so useless? What has happened to it, or to our faith in it? Do the men who talk have any sense of what can and cannot be done with their words? ‘Win me a medal tomorrow,’ Amber says as Adam drives away, because the following morning he is going to Russell, Kansas – hometown of Bob Dole, 1996 presidential candidate – to compete in a high-school debating competition. Actually, he is the favourite to win. He is the favourite to win despite not specialising in the modish way of speaking characteristic of competitive debate, a rhetorical strategy known as ‘the spread’: an attempt to win by speaking fast and without articles and conjunctions in order to mention so many different arguments in favour of your side of the question that your opponent cannot possibly address them all, because in competitive debating an argument unaddressed is understood as a point conceded. It sounds like ‘a nearly private language’ spoken ‘at great speed’, and it makes ‘old-timer coaches’ long for the days ‘when debate was debate’. But the debaters themselves know the spread from their everyday lives: it is there at the end of pharmaceutical commercials, on radio phone-in competitions, ‘even before the 24-hour news cycle, Twitter storms, algorithmic trading, spreadsheets, the DDoS attack, Americans were getting “spread” in their daily lives.’ Inside the spread, Adam feels that he’s ‘more in the realm of poetry than of prose’. (He wins his medal.) Words are being used to win, not to communicate, and winning happens through volume and relentlessness. The power the speaker feels bears little relation to the effect on the listener; Lerner includes very few passages of spread in the novel, and when you read an example – ‘Stevenson proves affirmative plan no solvency regardless because resistance from from internal agencies blocks imple-implementation’ – you see why. It is a form of everyday rhetorical violence that could spill over into real violence.
Language is under similar pressure in the next section, narrated by Adam’s father: Jonathan Gordon describes the research he carried out for his psychoanalytic dissertation: participants were asked to listen to a random passage from a car magazine and then repeat what they heard. He discovered that if he sped the tape up, people would begin talking drivel, believing they made sense: ‘Under conditions of language overload,’ he concludes, ‘the speech mechanisms collapse.’ Communication seems magical: Jonathan thinks of Ziegler, a character in one of Hermann Hesse’s stories, who takes a pill and can hear the animals in the zoo speak. Or it seems beside the point: Jonathan remembers Jacob, one of his early patients at the Topeka psychiatric foundation, who wouldn’t speak to him at all at first, but would help him try out his new Betamax by filming the deer in the park. Their therapeutic relationship is eventually built not by talking but through the sort of trust that comes from working on something together. Perhaps this is one of the ways autofiction works too: the writer stands behind the text, a real person who has really grown up in Kansas, and that allows the reader to follow him into a fertility clinic in Brooklyn, and the middle of a lake in Topeka.
Say language is debased beyond usefulness and no magic pills are available: what is there to do? When Adam’s mother tells him about her uncovering of her memory of her father’s abuse of her as a child, we get closer to what a new language might do, and look like. Jane Gordon undertakes, almost despite herself, an informal analysis, or consulting relationship, with Sima, a friend who also works at the foundation. The knowledge returns after a visit Jane makes to her parents with the young Adam, and Sima listens while Jane speaks:
And then at some point my speech just wasn’t sustainable as speech at all; I dissolved into sobs, sobbing overtook me. I didn’t see it coming, it was as involuntary and shocking as a muscle spasm. At first I was kind of laughing at the sobbing, sun and rain, laughing involuntarily at the force and unexpectedness of it, and then I gave in to it entirely. There was this incredible sense of relief when I let go: this language has ended in pure sound. This language has reached its limit, and a new one will be built, Sima and I will build it.
Something of Jane’s clarity and resourcefulness comes through in her prose – that gentle, abstract, simple ‘sun and rain’, her repetitions of ‘this language’, her ease with her feelings, even when they surprise her – and language already seems more pliable in her hands. (She has already come up with a novel and effective way of confusing the men who ring the Gordon home to whisper obscenities to the famous feminist psychoanalyst; she pretends she can’t hear and asks them to speak up.) Again it is the body’s eloquence, its spasms, its tears, that are language’s greatest rival. The real Ben Lerner’s mother, Harriet Lerner, is the million-selling author of The Dance of Anger, an explicitly feminist book of popular psychology first published in 1985, whose aim was to help women listen to their anger and act on what it was telling them; that book too parts clouds, urging women to step back from overmanaging their relationships, to reconnect with their families, to speak up warmly and firmly for their desires. Her work is already an example of how language can be used for good.
At this point in the book, with all three narrators having made the point in their own way, Lerner’s prose starts mounting its own argument for a new language. Just as the idea of the spread is introduced by Adam, then echoed in his father’s dissertation coursework, where it becomes linked to the breakdown of language, which is then taken up by Jane in her thoughts about her sobbing and speaking with Sima, the narrators start borrowing ideas and details and phrases from one another. They share the story of Hesse’s magic pill, refer back to it, embellish it, remake it as a movie, remake it in life. They repeat phrases: ‘America is adolescence without end,’ they all say. There is a sense of a communal, familial pool of reference, one the reader is also in on. (We, too, have been Topeka-schooled.) Jane, Jonathan and Adam carry memories for one another: Jane remembers further details of the time the couple took acid and went to the Met together (‘I remember the next several hours of the Episode in both the third and first person,’ Jonathan says); the time Adam had a bad concussion is remembered vividly by Jane and Jonathan but barely by the person it happened to. It is not that Adam is an unreliable narrator (though of course he is, as we all are) but that narration by one person of their own life may well be impossible. Lerner doesn’t just tear down the curtain between the writer and reader, as in his previous books, but allows the reader to flicker between the first and third person, to see a boy’s sentimental education as dynamic, resolving one inherited trauma, repeating another, and making new ones of his own to visit on his daughters.
Lerner recently told the New York Times that ‘there’s this really intimate relation between my understanding of why my parents do the work they do and my understanding of what it means to write a novel. Not because writing fiction is supposed to be palliative, but because aesthetic form is about making conscious patterns, and having kids meant that this was a moment when aesthetic questions of patterning acquired a new urgency for me.’ At the end of The Topeka School, Adam takes his two daughters to the playground, where a slightly older boy is occupying the slide and refusing to make way for others. I say ‘others’, the slide-occupier says ‘girls’: ‘No stupid ugly girls allowed.’ The boy doesn’t move when asked, even when scolded, but does point out his own father. Adam goes over – ‘I tried to channel my own father’s voice, a voice that somehow disarmed other men’ – but the boy’s father says: ‘Let the kids figure it out. My boy’s playing on a slide; he’s not harassing anyone. He’s seven years old, OK?’ It’s not OK. ‘The child is father to the man,’ Adam says, ‘what the kids will “figure out” is repetition.’ It is a puzzle to me why Jane’s voice doesn’t come into Adam’s mind here – and it reminds me of the opportunity that lies in repetition rather than the danger Adam is imagining. I will use Lerner’s analogy: when I try to write, I’m navigating the voices in my head (what my editor may say, how the writers I love put this thought better, what my ex or my best friend or my father might think) as much as I’m trying to avoid the sentences that come too easily to mind (clichés) and the ones that strain at originality (unintelligible). There are things I’ve inherited that I can’t discern as such, and new things that I don’t see because they are just my thoughts. But each time I write a sentence, I have a shot at finding that space between what has gone before and what I can do. The nice thing about Ben Lerner is that he identifies the space, shows us how it works, what can be said there, how it can be said, and then he humbly sends in a man-child to make it all look less like the aesthetic and philosophical feat it actually is. When Adam Gordon fails to persuade the dad in the playground to speak to his girl-hating son, the dad takes his phone out and starts texting. Words fail Adam again, and he knocks the phone right out of the other dad’s hands.