BOOK REVIEW: THE TOPEKA SCHOOL by BEN LERNER

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i feel like i understood maybe 60% of this book at most, and that’s a generous estimate

You know those books you read that feel like they were written so you can analyze them in an essay for English class? Yeah, The Topeka School is one of those books. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to you.

I tend to vacillate between hating and being engaged by books like The Topeka School. On the one hand, I like to be intellectually challenged. I like a novel that evades my attempts to pin it down, that makes me work to understand it. On the other hand, I don’t like pretentious novels, novels that are purposely difficult for no other reason than to be difficult. As if difficulty means quality. In the case of this particular novel, I fall somewhere in between.

The Topeka School is like a delicate piece of French pastry: it’s multi-layered, but the moment you try to get a hold of any of those layers to try to understand them, they crumble in your hands. It’s interesting enough to draw you to its story, but impenetrable enough to reject any of your attempts to get beyond its surface, to emotionally connect to it on any level.

I read this 280-page novel in 3 days and it absolutely exhausted me. When the book you’re reading feels like it’s just labyrinths within more labyrinths, the reading experience becomes taxing, and not in a rewarding way.

Reading The Topeka School felt a lot like reading Don DeLillo’s White Noise, actually. It reminded me of that feeling you get when you’re reading a book that is very explicitly Trying to Do Something. Which is kind of a ridiculous thing to say—all books are obviously trying to do something—but in this case it feels like the point of the book is to get that Thing done—comment on American masculinity, rhetoric and its relation to politics, etc.—rather than to actually tell a story.

To each their own I guess. I didn’t hate this book, and I’m sure I would’ve gotten a lot more out of it had I read it for an English class, but I didn’t so all I really feel about it right now is: it was fine.

three


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